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Increasing indigenous property rights could help save the rainforest

Researchers say that giving full property rights in the Brazilian rainforest to indigenous tribes lowers deforestation rates and increases carbon sequestration. Photo by sdblack0/Pixabay
Researchers say that giving full property rights in the Brazilian rainforest to indigenous tribes lowers deforestation rates and increases carbon sequestration. Photo by sdblack0/Pixabay

Aug. 11 (UPI) -- To protect the Amazonian rainforest, new research suggests full property rights for tribal lands be extended to Brazil's indigenous communities.

For the study, researchers at the University California, San Diego, used satellite data of vegetation coverage in the Amazon rainforest to study deforestation patterns between 1982 and 2016. Scientists compared the results of their mapping efforts with Brazilian government records of indigenous property rights.

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The analysis, detailed Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed land owned fully and collectively by local tribes featured a 66 percent reduction in deforestation rates.

"Indigenous traditional land use, based on collective ownership, has been associated with the preservation of a land's biodiversity," researcher Kathryn Baragwanath, postdoctoral candidate in the political science department at UCSD, told UPI.

One study published earlier this year showed land stewardship by indigenous communities was associated with greater levels of carbon sequestration.

Baragwanath said these positive ecological impacts are strengthened when indigenous communities have the full scope of property rights and legal tools to defend tribal lands from commercial interests.

"These legal rights ensure that the boundaries can no longer be contested, the territory is registered in the national land registry, the government is constitutionally responsible for protecting the territories and the territorial resources are considered to belong to indigenous peoples," she said.

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When conducting their analysis, Baragwanath and researchers accounted for variables besides indigenous property rites -- including proximity to roads, mining projects and rivers, elevation, population density and rainfall.

In Brazil, the process of gaining full property rights, called homologation, is complex -- at least partially because government agencies there have been slow to review applications, researchers said.

Often, as the process plays out at a snail's pace, commercial interests will start illegal mining or logging, so they can later argue that they've established "productive use of land," researchers said.

To protect the Amazon and the region's remaining forests, Baragwanath suggests Brazil's government strengthen their environmental agencies.

"Public policy should focus on granting full property rights to the indigenous peoples who have not yet received their rights," she said.

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