New Analysis Reveals that Indigenous Lands Hold More than 20% of World’s Tropical Forest Carbon

New analysis of forests in indigenous territories shows recognizing, protecting rights of traditional peoples can make major contribution to slowing climate change and would support nat'l commitments to reduce climate impacts

December 1, 2015
Jennifer Andreassen, +1 (202) 288-4867,
PARIS—(30 November 2015) An analysis released today in advance of the UN climate conference (known as COP 21) maps and quantifies, for the first time, the carbon stored in indigenous territories across the world’s largest expanses of remaining tropical forest. 
The analysis reveals that the carbon contained in tropical forests in indigenous territories of the Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Indonesia is equivalent to 168.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2)—more than three times the climate changing gases emitted globally (52.7 GtCO2) in 2014. This represents 20.1% of the carbon stored aboveground in all the world’s tropical forests—a conservative estimate because it does not consider carbon stored in indigenous territories in other parts of tropical Asia and the Congo Basin, nor does it include the underground carbon in the peatlands of indigenous territories in Indonesia. 
“Indigenous Peoples worldwide have always been thought of as keepers of the forest,” said Dr. Wayne Walker, forest-monitoring expert at the Woods Hole Research Center and lead contributor to the analysis. “Now we have shown they are also keepers of a huge, rigorously quantified store of carbon and therefore global players in climate change mitigation. We know they are reliable guardians of that carbon  —  and all the important ecosystem services provided by tropical forests — as long as they have legally recognized rights to their forests.” 
Although indigenous communities practicing traditional ways of life have a much lower impact on tropical forests than Westernized cultures, their ability to prevent illegal development and protect their territories from high-impact uses is often limited by a lack of legal and financial support, including a lack of title to their lands. Over 9% percent of tropical forests in the Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica, DRC and Indonesia contain 76.4 GtCO2—the equivalent of 1.5 times the world’s total green house gas emissions in 2014—are considered highly threatened because they are in indigenous territories that lack legal recognition. 
Addressing the situation in these vulnerable territories represents an opportunity for significant climate change mitigation, according to Chris Meyer, an Amazon forest policy expert at the U.S.-based environmental non-profit Environmental Defense Fund and another contributor to the research. 
It is vitally important to establish strong tenure rights that enable Indigenous Peoples to protect their lands from outside development and other threats, said Meyer. “Our analysis provides compelling evidence that countries with indigenous territories could increase their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to climate change mitigation by implementing such tenure rights and including the contributions of Indigenous Peoples.” 
Last year, a collaboration of researchers, non-governmental groups, and democratically elected indigenous organizations released the first calculations of the amount of carbon stored in forests in the Amazon region, encompassing nearly 3000 indigenous territories and protected natural areas. Published in December 2014 in Carbon Management1, that effort, also led by Walker, estimated forest carbon by drawing on satellite data and field measurements, as well as maps of indigenous territories and protected natural areas. 
Indigenous leaders call on climate negotiators to heed findings 
The analysis released today goes much further, including, for the first time, data for Mesoamerica, DRC and Indonesia. Data on Indonesia was provided only recently by the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). 
“We joined this effort because we realize how vital it is to communicate indigenous contributions to protecting the planet on a global scale,” said Abdon Nababan, Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the organization that provided the data on indigenous land boundaries for Indonesia. 
Previous research has shown that community forest rights that are legally recognized and protected by governments often translate into healthy forests with high forest carbon storage, and reduced deforestation. But achieving secure rights requires investments to strengthen legal protections and ensure their implementation, as well as to strengthen the capacity of local people to sustainably manage and benefit from forest resources. 
Yet the obstacles are significant. A recent study of 64 countries suggests that indigenous peoples and local communities lack legal rights to almost three-quarters of their traditional lands, including forests. 
In addition to carbon storage, secure community forest rights are known to produce a suite of other economic, social and environmental benefits, including reduced conflict, improved biodiversity and water regulation, increased job creation, reinvestment in local communities, and reduced out-migration, as well as avoided deforestation. 
Protecting tropical forests on indigenous lands from clearing, burning, mining, unsustainable logging and other threats is not only important for preventing increases of atmospheric CO2, it is essential for maintaining other vital environmental services. Moreover, forest destruction can have devastating immediate environmental and health impacts, such as those caused by smoke and haze arising from forest clearing. 
Indigenous leaders and their networks are calling on world leaders and governments to help their members protect tropical forests in their territories by:

  1. titling their territories and recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights to resources on those lands;
  2. suspending the persecution of and violence against indigenous leaders who speak out in defense of their rights and territories;
  3. recognizing the contributions of Indigenous Peoples to climate change mitigation and adaptation and including those contributions in governments’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs);
  4. implementing free, prior, and informed consent for forest conservation activities in indigenous territories; and 5) giving indigenous groups direct access to climate financing. 

“In order for us to continue to conserve the tropical forests located on our traditional territories, we need to have strong rights to those forests, and an end to the criminalization that greets our efforts to protect our lands,” said Jorge Furagaro of the Coordinators of the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA). “Death should not be the price we pay for doing our part in preventing the emissions that fuel climate change.” 
In the region known as Mesoamerica, stretching from the Yucatan to the Darien forest in Panama, the challenge is not to garner rights, but to prevent their wholesale violation by legal and illegal actors, said Candido Mézua, with the Mesoamerican Alliance for Peoples and Forests (AMPB). 
“We know from a recent study carried out in Latin America, that none of the national governments are respecting their commitment to provide indigenous peoples with free, prior and informed consent for any project that affects local lands and communities,” Mézua said. “Not only are national leaders failing to adhere to the terms of the agreement known as ILO169, but they are failing to take advantage of the most effective tool they have for preventing deforestation throughout the region.” 
Universally, indigenous leaders express concern that national leaders and others will  argue that all global climate funds linked to forest conservation should be channeled through them, leaving little support for indigenous activities that help maintain a sustainable way of life. 
“Our experience is that we need some sort of direct financing mechanism in order to ensure we will benefit from funds aimed at reinforcing conservation of our forests,” said Joseph Itwongo of the Forum for Indigenous and Traditional Peoples for Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems of Central Africa (REPALEAC/DRC). “We are calling on global negotiators to invest in a solution that exists already. Invest in forest peoples if you are serious about making sure the forest remains standing.” 
The findings reported here represent a collaborative effort between the indigenous organizations that comprise six indigenous and research groups, COICA, AMPB, AMAN, and (REPALAC), and Woods Hole Research Center and the Environmental Defense Fund. The Ford Foundation financed the work. 
AMAN’S Nababan noted in particular growing awareness of the need for forest guardians on the ground, as fires continue to burn in Indonesia. 
“From this new research, it is clear that the tropical forest carbon stocks in indigenous territories are critical for reducing climate change, but it is important to note that we also provide other essential environmental services,” said AMAN’s Nababan. “We are not putting our carbon up for sale,” he added. “All we want is recognition for the job we are doing, and reinforcement of the rights to our territories, which the Constitutional Court has already recognized. We are calling for an end to an economic model in Indonesia that is entirely dependent on destroying our forests and waterways, depriving future generations of a treasure that has no price.”


Report: Tropical Forest Carbon in Indigenous Territories: A Global Analysis:

Map (English) of carbon density in indigenous territories:

Map (Spanish):

Map (French):

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