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In Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous lands stop deforestation and boost recovery

  • A new study has confirmed that the best-preserved, and recovering, parts of the Brazilian Amazon are those managed by traditional communities or inside conservation units.
  • Between 2005 and 2012, deforestation rates were 17 times lower in Indigenous territories than in unprotected areas of the Amazon; In conservation units and lands managed by Quilombolas, the descendants of runaway Afro-Brazilian slaves, deforestation rates were about six times lower than in unprotected areas.
  • The study also shows that officially recognized Indigenous and Quilombola territories saw forest regrowth at rates two and three times higher, respectively, than in unprotected areas.
  • But the process of officially recognizing Indigenous lands has stalled under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, which is instead pushing legislation that would open up Indigenous territories to mining and other exploitative activities.

Protected areas and lands managed by Indigenous and traditional communities have been bulwarks of forest preservation and restoration in the Brazilian Amazon in recent years, a new study shows.

It found that rates of native vegetation loss between 2005 and 2012 were 17 times lower in Indigenous territories than in unprotected areas of the Amazon. In conservation units and lands managed by Quilombolas, the descendants of runaway Afro-Brazilian slaves, deforestation rates were about six times lower than in unprotected areas.

Lead author Helena Alves-Pinto, from the Department of Ecology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), says that in the case of conservation units, restrictions on land use are responsible for the lower rates of deforestation.

“Activities in conservation units face a series of restrictions. In some units, for example, only educational or research activities are legal. Others allow sustainable extractive activities, but not agriculture, as it is related to deforestation,” Alves-Pinto says.

The study looked at the whole range of conservation units established in the Brazilian Amazon — from sustainable-use models such as national forests and extractive reserves, to fully protected ones, which include areas with natural sites and biological reserves.

In the case of Indigenous and Quilombola territories, Alves-Pinto says, the degree of forest protection comes from the fact that entry to outsiders is highly restricted.

“Previous studies have shown that, from the moment an Indigenous or Quilombola territory was officially demarcated, deforestation began to decrease,” Alves-Pinto says. “The main explanation is that demarcation reduced the number of people circulating within those areas, limiting entrance to Indigenous or Quilombola people.

“Our study confirms that demarcation helps to keep invaders from entering Indigenous and Quilombola lands,” she adds, “and that these peoples preserve biodiversity.”

ecosystem restoration

Beyond their ability to prevent deforestation, the presence of conservation units and Indigenous and Quilombola territories also encourages regrowth of the forest — at rates two and three times higher, respectively, than in unprotected areas, in the case of demarcated Indigenous and Quilombola lands, the study says, based on data from 2012-2017.

“There is a lot of talk about reducing deforestation, but that alone is no longer enough to reestablish the functions of the Amazon Rainforest,” Alves-Pinto says. “We must start recovering deforested areas, recovering native vegetation, recovering the ecosystem as a whole.”

She points to the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture, as practiced by traditional communities, as an example of regenerative action.

“These Indigenous people cut down a small forest area of ​​about 1 hectare [2.5 acres], burn it and then plant on it. After a while, they harvest their crops and leave the area, so it regenerates naturally,” Alves-Pinto says.

This is starkly different from industrial agricultural practices, where outsiders clear thousands of hectares of forest, sell off the valuable timber and torch the rest, then turn the land in permanent cattle pastures or monocrop plantations — giving it no chance of recovering.

A 2021 study by researchers from INPE, Brazil’s space agency, which monitors deforestation rates across the country’s biomes, found that, for the first time, the Brazilian Amazon had become a net carbon emitter — putting out 0.3 billion metric tons of CO2 per year than it absorbs.

The study pointed to high rates of deforestation and burning for compromising the Amazon’s function of capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere. According to the INPE researchers, this is most apparent in the southeastern Amazon, in the so-called Arc of Deforestation, which flipped from being a carbon sink to a carbon source during the study period.

Another study, published in March this year, warned that the Amazon is rapidly approaching its point of no return, when the destruction will push the rainforest into an irreversible transition into savanna.

The Parakanã and Trincheira/Bacajá Indigenous territories, in Pará state, stand out as oases of solid green against the mosaic of deforestation in the unprotected areas around them. Image from Google Maps.

Invasions and deforestation

The study led by Alves-Pinto analyzed only Indigenous lands that have been homologated, or officially recognized, by the federal government, without breaking down the data by territory. “We looked at the mosaic of protected and already homologated lands and compared them with their control area,” she says.

That means it’s not possible to identify, from the study, how each Indigenous territory performed in terms of forest preservation and restoration.

Data from INPE’s PRODES system, which monitors deforestation in the Amazon, shows the highest deforestation rates on Indigenous lands from 2011-2021 were in Pará state. The state has seen the most Amazon deforestation of any in Brazil since the mid-2010s. The worst-affected Indigenous territories there are Cachoeira Seca, with 304 square kilometers (117 square miles) deforested in that 10-year period; Apyterewa, with 266 km2 (103 mi2); and Ituna/Itata, with 220 km2 (85 mi2).

Deforestation rates emerged in the three Indigenous territories from 2019-2020, the first two years of the Jair Bolsonaro presidency, when illegal deforestation hit record levels across the Amazon.

A survey conducted by Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) on vegetation loss in the Xingu River Basin, published in 2021, shows that these three Indigenous lands are under pressure from illegal mining, logging, and land grabbing. In the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory, for instance, invaders have established their own village and are now filing lawsuits to reverse the territory’s homologation so that they can exploit the land.

The most heavily deforested conservation unit in the Brazilian Amazon in the past 10 years is also in Pará: the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area, near the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory. Some 2,902 km2 (1,120 mi2) were deforested there between 2011 and 2021, according to Inpe.

Both Triunfo do Xingu and the Apyterewa reserve straddle parts of the municipality of São Félix do Xingu, home to the most cattle anywhere in Brazil, according to IBGE, the national statistics agency.

Both Triunfo do Xingu and the Apyterewa reserve straddle parts of the municipality of São Félix do Xingu, home to the most cattle anywhere in Brazil, according to IBGE, the national statistics agency.

Authorities with a seizure of illegally logged timber in the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Territory in 2018. Image by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.

Legislative threats loom

There are 722 Indigenous territories in Brazil, of which 235 have not yet been homologated by the federal government. Even more have still not been demarcated, part of the process toward homologation, including 300 in the Amazon alone, according to data from the ISA. These don’t include Indigenous lands that are home to voluntarily isolated Indigenous peoples.

Demarcation of Indigenous Lands is the right of all native peoples’ in Brazil under the country’s 1988 Constitution, and should have been concluded in 1993 by Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs.

A survey published last year by MapBiomas, a collaborative initiative by various universities, tech companies and NGOs, showed that Indigenous lands are the best-preserved territories in the Amazon, despite the advance of invaders. The study analyzed both homologated and non-homologated territories, and showed that, from 1985-2020, only 1.6% of deforestation in Brazil occurred on Indigenous lands.

While the data show the importance of demarcating and homologating the territories and restricting their use to native peoples, bills introduced in Congress intend to open up Indigenous lands to large infrastructure and mining projects (Bill 191/2020) and stop the demarcation process for more than 400 non-homologated Indigenous lands (Bill 490/2007).

Bolsonaro has been outspoken in his opposition to Indigenous territories, saying his government would not demarcate another inch of native land. That’s one campaign promise he has so far kept: Since he took office at the start of 2019, no Indigenous lands have been demarcated in Brazil. This marks the first time since the end of military rule in 1985 that a Brazilian government has not demarcated any Indigenous territory in the country.

Citations:

Alves-Pinto, HN, Cordeiro, CLO, Geldmann, J., Jonas, HD, Gaiarsa, MP, Balmford, A., … Strassburg, B. (2022). The role of different governance regimes in reducing native vegetation conversion and promoting regrowth in the Brazilian Amazon. Biological Conservation, 267109473. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2022.109473

Gatti, LV, Basso, LS, Miller, JB, Gloor, M., Gatti Domingues, L., Cassol, HL, … Neves, RA (2021). Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature, 595(7867), 388-393. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03629-6

Boulton, CA, Lenton, TM, & Boers, N. (2022). Pronounced loss of Amazon rainforest resilience since the early 2000s. Nature Climate Change, 12(3), 271-278. doi:10.1038/s41558-022-01287-8

Banner image of the Pirititi Indigenous Territory in Roraima state, by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on April 25, 2022.

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