Indigenous people are essential to 1.5C

Faris Munandar, Pexels

Key points

  • Indigenous people and traditional local communities manage more than one third of the world’s intact forests and 80% of all terrestrial biodiversity lives on their lands. 
  • Their territories have lower deforestation rates than other forest areas and their forestry management practices lead to better conservation.
  • Better forestry management and less deforestation means more carbon is stored and less is emitted.
  • Securing IP and TLC rights is a cheaper and more effective way to sequester carbon than offsets. 

Indigenous people (IP) and traditional local communities (TLC) have for centuries been custodians of the world’s forests, helping to protect biodiversity and fight climate change. The forests they manage are essential in regulating climate and helping to remove CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. Increasing evidence has shown that IP and TLC knowledge and practices are essential to conserving forests and biodiversity. IP and TLC, therefore, play a key role in limiting warming to 1.5oC.  

However, their role is often overlooked, especially in policymaking and climate-change negotiations. Not only this, but IP and TLC are usually portrayed by the media as victims of climate impacts. Thus, the false narrative goes, they need to adapt to climate impacts, when in fact they have a key role to play in  mitigating them. 
As the window for limiting warming to 1.5oC closes, IP and TLC rights and knowledge need to be recognised as essential in fighting the climate crisis.

How forests help regulate temperature and mitigate climate change

By exchanging gases, energy and water, such as absorbing sunlight or evaporating water, forests play a key role in regulating climate (e.g promoting rainfall, and controlling local and regional temperatures). Forests also help to take carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere, helping to keep average global temperatures lower than they would otherwise be (see this briefing for more information). Therefore, forests are vital for climate mitigation, currently removing and storing 30% of all CO2 emissions.

Deforestation is threatening the vital role that forests play

But forests are under increasing threat from deforestation. Since 1990, it is estimated that 178 million hectares of forest have been lost – an area roughly the size of Libya. Less forest means less carbon is removed from the atmosphere and stored. Not only this, but deforestation is actually increasing emissions from forests, especially in tropical regions. This is because forests can release carbon stored naturally when trees die or when the wood is burned or left to rot after being cut down. Between 2019-20, tropical forest loss emitted 2.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2, equivalent to the annual emissions from 570 million cars. The problem is such that some forests risk becoming a carbon source rather than a carbon sink. Moreover, deforestation is changing the way that forests regulate climate, such as reducing evapotranspiration, which is already having major effects on local temperatures and both local and regional rainfall patterns. For example, it is estimated that deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon is up to 2°C warmer than adjacent or intact forests. 
Therefore, keeping forests standing is essential to ensure they keep regulating climate and mitigating global climate change. In fact, all scenarios for limiting warming to 2°C this century rely upon reductions in deforestation and forest degradation. Timing is key here, as “rapid and far-reaching” emission reductions are required to limit the impact of climate change to 1.5°C, according to the IPCC. Forest and other nature-based solutions are readily available and can play a vital role in avoiding irreversible environmental tipping points.

IP and TLC are guardians of the forests that are vital to limiting warming

IP and TLC manage more than one third of the world’s intact forests and 80% of all terrestrial biodiversity lives on their lands. Their territories have lower deforestation rates (especially in Latin America) than other forest areas and their forestry management practices, such as selective harvesting, reforesting and controlling wildfires, lead to better conservation. In Brazil, their forests are considered the best-preserved areas (only 1.6% of deforestation occurred in their territories between 1985-2020). In fact, forests managed by indigenous people are as effective as government-protected areas – some even more so – at avoiding deforestation.

Better forestry management and less deforestation means more carbon is stored and less is emitted. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), “the forests in IP and TLC territories contain almost 30% of the carbon stored in Latin America’s forests and 14% of the carbon in the tropical forests worldwide.” In fact, IP-managed forests in Latin America “store more carbon than all the forests in Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of Congo, the two countries with the most tropical forest area after Brazil.” Many indigenous territories also produce less carbon when compared to non-indigenous protected areas and other non-indigenous territories. For instance, in Latin America between 2003 and 2016, IP and TLC forests lost less than “0.3% of their stored carbon, while areas that were neither indigenous territories nor protected areas lost 3.6%”. 

Therefore, IP and TLC forests have a significant role in stabilising the climate. In fact, the IPCC recently acknowledged as much, stating in its AR6 report that IP and TLC  can “accelerate wide-scale behaviour changes consistent with adapting to and limiting global warming to 1.5°C.” Indeed securing IP and TLC rights to their lands could avoid breaching climate tipping points. As we have seen, if their forests continue to be cut down, huge amounts of CO2 would be released into the atmosphere, which could reduce rainfall and increase local temperatures and increase droughts and forest fires. In the Amazon Basin, loss of a major part of the IP and TLC forests – 45% of the intact forests in the region are in their territories – could lead to the region becoming a net source of emissions within the next 20 to 30 years.

Securing IP and TLC rights is a cheaper and more effective way to sequester carbon than offsets. According to FAO, the per-hectare cost of formally recognising and ensuring indigenous territorial rights is low – an area the size of Mexico would probably cost less than USD10 dollars per tonne of CO2 -eq to reduce carbon emissions. 

The value of carbon stored and the many  ecosystem services from IP and TLC lands far outweigh the costs to governments of securing land rights. For example, WRI estimated that the costs were just 1% of the total economic benefit from indigenous lands over a 20-year period, which it calculated at USD 523 billion – 1,165 billion for Brazil and USD 123 billion – 277 billion for Colombia.
Sequestering carbon by securing rights is also cheaper than other mitigation options. For example, the costs of carbon capture and storage for coal-fired power plants is five to 29 times higher than securing rights. According to the IPCC, curbing deforestation and forest degradation and permanently protecting large mature forests is also a faster, better and cheaper way to stabilise the global climate than relying on planting trees. The easiest and most effective way to do it is to give IP and TLC rights to their lands.

COP26 is a key opportunity for securing IP and TLC rights

The next UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in November 2021 offers a major opportunity for countries to review their NDC commitments and increase their ambitions. If they are serious about limiting warming to 1.5oC, they need to recognise that IP and TLP are essential to reach this goal. To this end, IP and TLC must have a seat at the table. In particular, countries should:

By giving IP greater rights to their lands, we can ensure that forests are able to help limit temperature rise to 1.5oC.

Download Article as PDF

Share this article

Other recent publications:

Relying on soil-based carbon capture to offset livestock emissions is risky

Sequestering carbon in soil has benefits but may not offset livestock emissions.

Read More >

Photo of sunrise over a misty forest

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement at COP28: What is at stake?

Developing stringent rules for the global carbon market under A6.4 could set a precedent for high standards and restore faith…

Read More >