In Brazil, Forests Returned to Indigenous Hands See Recovery, Study Finds

Brazil's Atlantic Forest.

Brazil's Atlantic Forest. Alex Popovkin via Wikipedia

Granted formal rights to their ancestral lands in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, Indigenous people have stemmed forest loss and improved tree cover, a new study finds.

“Our paper shows that each year after tenure was formalized, there was a 0.77 percent increase in forest cover, compared to untenured lands, on average — which can add up over decades,” Rayna Benzeev, who helmed the study while a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a statement.

The Atlantic Forest, which runs along more than 1,800 miles of the Brazilian coast, has been heavily denuded. Less that 12 percent of the original forest remains, with intact areas often found in Indigenous lands.

To gauge the impact of granting Indigenous people land tenure, the study looked at satellite imagery of 129 Indigenous territories in the Atlantic Forest from 1985 to 2019. It found less deforestation and more reforestation in the 77 areas where Indigenous communities had land tenure, as compared with the 52 areas where Indigenous communities were still working toward land tenure. The findings were published in the journal PNAS Nexus.

“These communities often have a strong incentive to conserve and restore forests,” said Peter Newton, an environmental researcher at the University of Colorado and a coauthor of the study. “Institutional support and legal recognition can help them protect forests more effectively.”

In the past decade, the process of granting land tenure has stalled for hundreds of Indigenous communities. Only one community included in the study has won formal tenure rights since 2012.

“Much of the stagnation in the land tenure process has taken place in recent years and mainly for political reasons,” Benzeev said. “This is exactly what makes the legal component of tenure important: when tenure is legally granted, Indigenous peoples are able to gain territorial autonomy irrespective of political shifts over time.”


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