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The Silent Cry of the Forest: How Deforestation Impacts Indigenous Communities

The Silent Cry of the Forest: How Deforestation Impacts Indigenous Communities

As the world grapples with the urgent need to address climate change and protect biodiversity, deforestation casts a gloomy shadow over our planet’s fate. Indigenous communities, the stewards of diverse biodiversity and cultures, endure the brunt of rampant deforestation in the midst of this crisis. Their ancestral lands, which are essential for sustenance and spiritual practises, are under threat from the destructive forces of logging, mining, and farming. As we work to maintain our forests and battle deforestation, we must recognise the significant repercussions for these people and defend their rights while exploring long-term solutions for a peaceful future.

Forests will undoubtedly be a significant part of the solution as the world works to mitigate climate change, protect species, and support more than eight billion people. But deforestation – the widespread cutting down of forests for the sake of commodities like fuel and building materials – continues unabated.

The global forest area decreased by 178 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, which is an area about the size of Libya. Tropical forests are home to a large number of animal and plant species and store more than half of the world’s terrestrial carbon. The forests of the indigenous and tribal peoples’ territories store about 34,000 million metric tonnes of carbon. They are also home to people who rely on them for their livelihoods, spiritual and cultural practises, and well-being.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11 aims to conserve “at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of coastal and marine areas” through the creation of protected areas. Protected areas have largely reduced deforestation. However, their establishment has resulted in the expulsion of communities that have lived in forests for generations, denying them access to resources and sacred sites. Human rights violations, including violent threats and even killings by state troops and other groups, have frequently aided these injustices.

It is estimated that around 370 million indigenous people live in 70 nations around the world. Indigenous peoples are the world’s guardians of biodiversity and varied cultures. Despite accounting for only about 5% of the global population, they effectively manage an estimated 20–25% of the Earth’s land surface. This land is adjacent to places that contain 80% of the world’s biodiversity and 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact regions.

When compared to the global average for deforestation in unprotected tropical forests, rates on Indigenous lands were between 17-26% lower.

Deforestation in the Karipuna Indigenous Territory, one of the most pressured Indigenous lands in Brazil. Image: Alexandre Cruz Noronha

Deforestation in the Karipuna Indigenous Territory, one of the most pressured Indigenous lands in Brazil. Image: Alexandre Cruz Noronha.

Deforestation has a negative impact on biodiversity as well as on indigenous groups located all over the world. These communities, which have profound cultural and historical linkages to their ecosystems of forests, encounter a range of devastating repercussions due to the rampant destruction of their ancestral territory. These impacts include loss of traditional land, water contamination, air pollution, and threats to cultural identity, which are discussed below.

You might also like: 10 Deforestation Facts You Should Know About

The Impacts of Deforestation on Indigenous Communities

Indigenous groups have lived on and cared for their ancestral lands for generations, depending on the forests as a source of food and a way to make a living. Deforestation causes the loss of native land, which upsets the delicate balance. Indigenous peoples physically occupy 404 million hectares in Latin America. Of the 404 million hectares, 237 million – almost 60 – are in the Amazon Basin. But deforestation activities like farming, logging, and mining take over these lands, robbing indigenous people of their homes and traditional ways of life.

Net forest area change by region, 1990-2020 (million hectares per year). Image: FAO.

Net forest area change by region, 1990-2020 (million hectares per year). Image: FAO.

For indigenous people, forests are a very important part of their culture. They are more than just places; they are also places where spiritual activities, traditional practises, and the passing on of information take place. Deforestation affects this cultural identity, destroying the core of indigenous communities. When forests are cut down, sacred sites, rituals, and close connections with nature are destroyed in a way that can’t be fixed. This loss will hurt the traditional integrity and survival of indigenous communities for a long time. Land conflicts in Indonesia increased in 2016 to 450 over an area of 1,265,027 hectares, involving 86,745 households scattered across several provinces.

Tree trunk has taken the shape of Indian God (Ganesh), it is believed he protects the people who travel in this forest region (Koraput, Odisha) Image: Alokya Kanungo

Tree trunk has taken the shape of Indian God (Ganesh), it is believed he protects the people who travel in this forest region (Koraput, Odisha) Photo: Alokya Kanungo.

The forests are a major source of food and income for indigenous tribes. They can find a wide range of organic resources in the forest, such as fruits, nuts, medicinal plants, and hunting grounds. These resources are directly endangered by deforestation, which leads to the loss of traditional food sources and the disruption of their self-sufficient economy. The Amazon is being deforested at a rate of 22 square kilometres per day. Over 250 million people live in forest and savannah regions and rely on them for income and sustenance; many of them are among the world’s rural poor. Many indigenous groups are forced into poverty and dependency by the loss of their means of subsistence, thereby escalating social and economic inequality.

Deforestation has a significant negative impact on indigenous communities’ health in addition to its physical landscape effects. By controlling microclimates and offering medicinal plants for conventional healthcare systems, forests serve as natural barriers that keep these communities free from disease. Indigenous peoples lose access to their traditional medical practises and are made more susceptible to the spread of disease as a result of the destruction of forests. This further jeopardises their resilience and general well-being.

Forest-associated infectious diseases. Image: Wilcox and Ellis.

Forest-associated infectious diseases. Image: Wilcox and Ellis.

3 Case Studies from Around the World

1. Amazon Rainforest and Indigenous Peoples

Many indigenous groups, including the Yanomami, Kayapo, and Ashaninka, consider the Amazon forests home. Their traditional lands are under severe threat from deforestation. The Yanomami people, for instance, are subject to illegal gold mining that devastates their forests.

Illegal groups of miners destroyed around 200 hectares of forest (approximately 200 football fields) in the first quarter of 2021 alone. Children in the Yanomami region suffer disproportionately high mortality due to various diseases including malaria and malnutrition. 570 children have died from preventable causes since 2018. This awful disaster can be directly attributed to the widespread malnutrition caused by the lack of food. Water pollution and environmental degradation caused by the mines, as well as often violent interactions with the invaders, only make their situation worse.

Between 2019 and 2021, deforestation rose considerably by 195%; between 2013 and 2021, deforestation in these regions was responsible for the emission of around 96 million metric tonnes of CO2.

You might also like: Lula Orders Crackdown on Illegal Mining in Brazil’s Yanomami Territory, Declares Medical Emergency

2. Penan Tribe in Borneo, Malaysia

Deforestation for palm oil and timber plantations has negatively harmed the Penan tribe of Borneo’s rainforests in Malaysia. The woodlands are important to the Penan for their cultural practises, sustenance, and shelter. They no longer have access to their traditional resources due to deforestation, which causes food poverty and a loss of cultural identity. About 10% of Borneo has become covered in industrial-scale monoculture plantations. The concentration of logging roads found on Borneo is high compared to international standards.

3. Gond Tribes of Chhattisgarh, India

The tribes’ primary concern is that high security in mining areas will make it difficult for women to enter the forest. Many people also take fuel wood from the forest, as cooking gas is expensive, in addition to minor forest produce.

Adivasis in Khodgaon were concerned that the widespread cutting down of trees would make it harder for women to forage for food and other necessities like mushrooms, mahua (Madhuca longifolia) blossoms, tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon), and medicinal herbs.

Fruit sold by the indigenous tribes in india - Kusuma Fruit (Schleichera Oleosa). Image: Alokya Kanungo.

Fruit sold by the indigenous tribes in india – Kusuma Fruit (Schleichera Oleosa). Photo: Alokya Kanungo.

A Collective Responsibility

Deforestation threatens indigenous tribes’ lifestyles, cultural identities, and physical and mental health. Indigenous peoples are vital to biodiversity conservation and sustainable land management as we fight climate change and preserve the world’s forests. We can protect these vital ecosystems more fairly and effectively by empowering and involving indigenous populations. This requires a collective commitment on the part of governments, organisations, and individuals to uphold human rights, respect cultural heritage, and promote sustainable practises that guarantee the harmonious coexistence of humanity and nature. We can only protect the world’s forests for future generations and sustain the lives and well-being of individuals who have lived in peace with these ecosystems for centuries by working together and taking responsibility.

You might also like: Indigenous People Are Essential for Preventing Biodiversity Loss. They Mustn’t Be Sidelined.

About the Author

Alokya Kanungo

Alokya Kanungo is a content writer and nature photographer from India with an ongoing Ph.D. in "Scientific Correlation between the Impact of Climate Change on Soil Health and Sustainable Agriculture" from K.I.I.T. University and an M.Phil. in Geography. She is an expert in environmental research and policymaking. Former Research Associate and Content Writer, contributing to various environmental projects. Loves to capture the beauty of nature to inspire positive change. Committed to promoting environmental conservation through captivating photography and insightful content.

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