Deforestation is a problem in today’s society and hinders the achievement of climate security. However, all hope is not lost and there are solutions to deforestation as indigenous and local communities have been safeguarding the planet from climate catastrophe.

The world’s forests are dying. As the clocks tick, and years pass by, inaction only brings the world closer to a climate catastrophe. Despite the instrumental role played by forests in the sustenance of a liveable climate, it is somewhat ironic that the greatest threat to forests is no one else but mankind.

Although the situation is certainly bleak, all hope is not lost. Deep in the forests reside one of humanity’s saviours in the struggle against deforestation:  indigenous and local communities. Indeed, over the years, indigenous and local communities have grown into their role as gatekeepers of a greener society and play a key role in implementing solutions to deforestation. 

How Does Deforestation Affect the Environment

According to the United Nations, deforestation and its attendant consequence of desertification wreak havoc on the climate and the world’s clamour for sustainable development.  

Based on the statistics from the University of Maryland published on Global Forest Watch, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of tree cover in 2020, which are particularly significant for biodiversity and carbon storage. The ensuing carbon emissions (2.64 Gt CO2) from this loss are comparable to the annual emissions of 570 million automobiles.

Aside from its contribution to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, deforestation also removes the potential to absorb extant carbon dioxide. In relation to emission rates, the World Resources Institute revealed that if tropical deforestation had been a country, it would be ranked third in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, after China and the United States.

Who are the Indigenous and Local Communities?

Indigenous and local communities play crucial roles in providing solutions to deforestation by maintaining Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs).  Indigenous-managed lands, which account for around 28% of the world’s land surface, contain some of the most biologically intact forests and several biodiversity hotspots. The Wayúu people of Columbia represent some of the indigenous groups managing the world’s forest whose role has been crucial in the considerable mitigation of deforestation in the area.

Why is Deforestation Lower in Indigenous and Local Communities?

Why do forests do better when left in the care of indigenous and local communities? The FAO has attributed the situation to the influence exerted by traditional knowledge, cultural factors and recognised collective property rights and usufruct rights.

Regarding traditional knowledge, the FAO has revealed how indigenous and local communities utilise systems of production that are less damaging to the ecosystem of forests. In addition, indigenous people utilise forestry management strategies (such as assisted forest regeneration, selective harvesting and reforesting, and tree growth assistance inside existing forests), which have been acknowledged as cost-effective strategies to cut carbon emissions.

Certainly, the production systems identified above have significant ramifications for forest conservation when considered in the context of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay, wherein mechanised soybean and grain production systems have been identified as a major direct source of deforestation. Amongst the Tsimane people of Bolivia, research has revealed that Tsimane communities with higher traditional ecological knowledge protect their forests more effectively than those without the knowledge. Naturally, a deduction can be made concerning the suitability of indigenous groups to provide adequate care to the forests while maximising their potentials. 

On another note, the facilitation of indigenous people’s collective land property rights has also been shown to preserve indigenous and tribal peoples’ territory, thereby serving as an instrumental strategy to safeguard forests. This notion has been backed by a study of eleven Latin American nations, wherein land sparing was highly promoted by increasing the forests managed or owned by indigenous people.

How to Stop Deforestation

Although the role played by traditional knowledge/cultural factors and recognised collective properties/usufruct rights has been widely acknowledged, certain challenges hamper indigenous communities from fully harnessing these factors as gatekeepers of a greener world. These challenges revolve around rising risks of invasion by external actors, and programmes forced on indigenous groups.

However, despite the above challenges, glimmers of hope are observable. In the past months, the world has been uniting in its recognition of indigenous and rural areas as crucial actors for the mitigation of climate change. During the COP26 UN climate summit, a historic pledge (worth $19.2 billion) was made by 100 countries to end deforestation by 2030, and a substantial part of this fund is to be allocated towards supporting indigenous communities.

With a crucial pledge made at the COP26, in the face of surmounting challenges and pressure from external actors, indigenous communities must forge ahead in their role as the gatekeepers of a greener society. Essentially, the world has awoken from its deep slumber to the dire situation of the world’s forests and the position of indigenous communities as centrepieces.

As one of the possible solutions to deforestation, traditional cultures and knowledge of indigenous communities should be strongly reaffirmed in the society; an approach that has been enshrined by the United Nations for protection against man-made disasters. In order to bring this to realisation, there is a greater need for NGOs and international organisations to provide platforms for indigenous communities to share their knowledge and experiences.

In a similar direction, indigenous communities’ voices should be heard as engaged stakeholders endangered by deforestation, in addition to the priceless traditional wisdom they can give towards addressing the problem. As the ‘gatekeepers’, why should indigenous communities not get sufficient ‘seats’ at the table when debating the optimum strategies to curb deforestation? This is in line with earlier reflections concerning the array of forest management strategies utilised by indigenous communities being cost-effective in reducing carbon emissions. 

On another note, the provision of smartphones and satellite data to indigenous tribes can drastically reduce deforestation, as revealed in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. With mounting pressures by external actors on forests, additional resources could be crucial for indigenous communities to function more efficiently in protecting the forests.

According to the FAO, addressing the political pressures on forests is also one of few but vital solutions to deforestation, because of politicians’ aim to revitalise national economies by spreading agricultural and extractive activities to indigenous forests. Therefore, improved legal representation can be vital for indigenous communities to weather the political storm associated with obtaining collective property rights and ensuring that these rights are honoured by the associated governments.

Moving Forward

Although deforestation is still a problem today, considerable progress is being made. New forests are being created through deliberate efforts or natural expansion. As a result, from the 1990s to 2010-2020, the net loss of forest area dropped considerably from 7.8 million hectares annually to 4.7 million hectares

On the other hand, between 1990 and 2020, the global forest area shrank by 178 million hectares in absolute terms. Therefore, the net loss of forest area is less than the rate of deforestation. Therefore, as the clock ticks, it is important for the world to take inspiration from the progress that has been made so far in order to renew efforts to save the forests. 

 Featured image by: Axel Fassio/CIFOR/Flickr