A new technology empowers indigenous people to end deforestation

Dylan Murray

On the last day of our meeting in Lima, Peru, five consultants from indigenous organizations across the Amazon were hunkered down at their computers.

Three of them represented the Madre de Dios region in eastern Peru, where illegal mining threatens their forests and rivers. Another was from the Ecuadorian Amazon, which is grappling with the implications of a recent presidential decree to open up the land for oil and gas exploration. The fifth worked with tribes in rural Colombia, where a dearth of ways to make a living has both fueled a decades-long insurgency and the isolation of indigenous peoples there.

The diverse representatives were part of a three-day workshop facilitated by Environmental Defense Fund to inform Amazonian indigenous communities about REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), a program that would provide forest-dwellers with economic incentives to keep their forests standing. Since about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the carbon released by deforestation, incentive programs such as REDD+ that can keep the carbon locked in forests will be a key part in stopping climate change.

A goal of the Lima gathering was to begin finding answers to some of the larger questions about REDD+:

  • If a program were created where communities could be paid for not deforesting, just how much would the forests in all Amazonian indigenous reserves and protected areas be worth?
  • Would the economic and social benefits from such a program compare to the rewards reaped from deforestation, mining, or other unsustainable activities that often fail to benefit indigenous communities?

During the workshop, indigenous consultants representing COICA, a pan-Amazonian indigenous coordinating body, worked with scientists from Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and RAISG, a network of remote-sensing scientists from Amazon countries, to quantify how much “forest carbon” was being stored in these territories. Determining how much carbon a given forest owner or community holds is necessary to determine compensation.

WHRC provided a trove of satellite data and RAISG brought to the table a painstakingly detailed map of all indigenous lands and protected areas in the Amazon. Their combined efforts are creating a tool that is nothing less than state of the art.

By merging the content from the two organizations, the team is building a first-of-its-kind map, ready early in 2014, that simultaneously shows the density of forest carbon throughout the Amazon and where the indigenous and protected areas are relative to it.

Such maps will help indigenous groups better understand the climate benefits of preserving their tropical forests, and plans are in the works to disseminate complete maps for specific regions and their underlying data to communities throughout the Amazon Basin. This will enable communities that want to participate in REDD+ to represent themselves more effectively to governments and REDD+ credit buyers when REDD+ markets come on-line.

Indigenous people have a proven record of environmental stewardship in the Amazon

Past studies, including one co-authored by EDF’s Director of Tropical Forest Policy Steve Schwartzman, have proven that indigenous lands suffer from much less deforestation than non-indigenous lands.

Recent political winds in Brazil and Ecuador, though, suggest that politicians are leaning towards unbridled agricultural expansion and resource extraction in the Amazon, even if this means violating or scaling back indigenous rights.

These maps can help make the case that indigenous management of tropical forests makes both environmental and economic sense. With such a tool, indigenous communities can convince their countries that they do not have to sacrifice environmental protections and the well-being of indigenous communities for economic growth.

Author’s note: If you’re interested in learning more about the evolving challenges and opportunities facing indigenous peoples in the Amazon, National Geographic just published a thoughtful account of the successes and struggles of the Kayapo tribe in Brazil. Read it here for another perspective, including comment from my colleague Steve Schwartzman

This is adapted from a post on our EDF Talks Global Climate blog.