Indigenous lands emit less carbon than unprotected regions, reveals study

29 de January de 2020 | News

Jan 29, 2020 | News

A new study using innovative technology to measure carbon emissions caused by forest degradation and disturbance–rather than deforestation alone–suggests that Indigenous territories (ITs) and protected natural areas (PNAs) in the Amazon are emitting formerly undetected amounts of carbon, yet their net emissions remain low, allowing them to outperform other land categories across the nine-nation region.

In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed the impact of forest conversion as well as degradation and disturbance on four land categories in the Amazon (ITs, PNAs, Other Land, and the overlap between ITs and PNAs), finding that forest growth helped indigenous territories show the lowest net loss of carbon, with 90 percent of net emissions coming from outside protected lands.

Combined, indigenous lands and protected areas cover 52 percent of the Amazon and store 58 percent of the carbon. The new PNAS study suggests they are increasingly at risk from illegal activities and growing weaknesses in the rule of law, endangering their role in protecting vulnerable landscapes. Their findings led the authors to call for strengthening the rights of indigenous peoples whose lands cover 30 percent of the Amazon and hold 34 percent of its carbon.

“Our work shows that forests under the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities continue to have better carbon outcomes than lands lacking protection, meaning that their role is critical and must be strengthened if Amazon basin countries are to succeed in maintaining this globally important resource, while also achieving their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement,” said Wayne Walker, scientist and lead author, Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Mass.

Scientists, policy experts, and indigenous leaders from Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), Rede Amazônica de Informação Socioambiental (RAISG), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) participated in the study. 

Almost 90 percent of Amazon indigenous territories have some form of legal recognition, but the authors of the study note that government concessions for mining and petroleum extraction overlap nearly one quarter of all recognized territorial lands, substantially increasing their vulnerability to adverse impacts.

“Our research reveals what indigenous peoples across the Amazon are reporting to their leaders,” said Tuntiak Katan, an author and vice- coordinator of the Congress of Indigenous Organizationsof the Amazon Basin (COICA). “Governments are weakening environmental protections, violating existing indigenous land rights, and encouraging impunity in the rule of law. The situation is putting at risk the existence of our peoples and our territories, which contain the world’s most carbon-dense forests.”

Márcia Macedo, one of the authors and associate researcher at IPAM, explains that ITs and PNAs are important for the protection of forest carbon, but, at the same time, they are vulnerable to pressure and threats from outside. “To maintain the ecological and climatic functions of these forests, we need to invest in the management of these areas and guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional populations”, she warns.

The authors looked at losses and gains in carbon over the period 2003-2016, using an update to data originally published by Baccini et al. (2017; Science). Additionally, they disaggregated losses into those attributable to forest conversion (e.g., deforestation) and those due to anthropogenic degradation and natural disturbance.  

The new study suggests that, during the 2003–2016 time frame, the Amazon region was a net source of carbon to the atmosphere, releasing about 1,290 million tons of carbon (MtC), when both losses and gains are considered. The trajectories of carbon loss from 2003 to 2016 show increases between 2012 and 2016 for all countries and land categories, especially outside ITs and PNAs.

Of the four Amazon land categories, ITs had the lowest net loss of carbon (-0.1%). Net loss was -0.6% in PNAs and -3.6% on Other Land. The authors suggest that the continued growth of forests on indigenous territories have allowed these lands to compensate for emissions from degradation and disturbance. Still, 47% of the total loss of carbon for the region as a whole was attributed to degradation and disturbance, “a concerning finding, given the importance that tropical forests have in providing globally important ecosystem services, in addition to their role in capturing and storing carbon,” said Carmen Josse, coauthor of the PNAS report and scientific director of Fundación EcoCiencia, in Ecuador.

Lands outside ITs and PNAs (i.e., “Other Land”) accounted for about 70 percent of total carbon losses and nearly 90 percent of the net change—on less than half the total land area. In contrast, ITs and PNAs—on more than half the land area—accounted for just 10 percent of the net change, with 86 percent of losses on those lands offset by gains through forest growth. Thus, there was a nine-fold difference in net carbon loss outside ITs and PNAs (−1,160 MtC) compared with inside (−130 MtC). 

“Our study shows that protected indigenous territories have reduced deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon rainforest over the last two decades, and continue to be an effective buffer against the recent spike in deforestation,” said Steve Schwartzman, Senior Director of Tropical Forest Policy at Environmental Defense Fund, and one of the study’s authors. “To save the Amazon, indigenous territories must remain protected.”

The results of the study add weight to previous research, including the conclusions of a high-profile report on land and climate change, released last August, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which cited findings showing that strong land rights play a role in the lower rates of deforestation and forest degradation found on Indigenous territories, while the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) proposed strengthening land rights for Indigenous and other local communities as part of an effective approach for addressing biodiversity loss.

“Our findings suggest that ITs and PNAs were (independently and collectively) more effective than Other Land in maintaining their overall stock of carbon intact,” said Josse. “In most countries, ITs and PNAs were either at or near net zero emissions, ranging from a small net source in Brazil to a small net sink in Peru. But with deforestation outside ITs and PNAs growing rapidly, our findings on the impact of degradation and disturbance suggest that significant, sustained support for indigenous people is now an urgent priority.”

The PNAS study reports that ITs and PNAs continue to resist the expansion of deforestation taking place beyond their borders. But in assessing the impact of degradation and disturbance on Indigenous territories and protected areas, the authors draw new attention to the plight of indigenous peoples, whose leaders report growing impunity on the part of illegal gold miners, ranchers and loggers, seemingly encouraged by the statements of political leaders and legislative efforts to open territorial lands to new mining concessions.

Environmental Defense Fund

Environmental Defense Fund (, a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. Connect with us on EDF Voices, Twitter and Facebook.

Foundation EcoCiencia

EcoCiencia is an Ecuadorian scientific entity, private and non-profit that was founded with the aim of generating quality information for making the best decisions in favor of the conservation of biodiversity and the welfare of the population. This challenge has demanded the inclusion of broader, comprehensive and complex approaches.


The Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM) [Amazon
Environmental Research Institute] is a scientific, non-governmental, non-
partisan and non-profit organization that has worked for the sustainable
development of the Amazon since 1995. Our purpose is to consolidate the
Amazonian tropical development model by 2035, by producing knowledge,
implementing local initiatives and directing public policies, in a way that
influences economic development, social equality, and environmental
preservation. Our mission is to promote science, education, and innovation for an
environmentally sound, economically prosperous, and socially just Amazon.


The Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio- Environmental Information (RAISG) is a network of civil society organizations from Amazonian countries. RAISG seeks to build a comprehensive vision of the Amazon which links the collective rights of indigenous peoples with the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services, to advance in terms of sustainable use practices of the forest and its resources. This integral vision of the Amazon overcomes fragmentary approaches and promotes regional, national and transnational initiatives by producing and compiling information on relevant topics and from different sources, always using common standards and technical protocols.

The Woods Hole Research Center

The Woods Hole Research Center studies climate change impacts around the world, and works with partners—from national governments to corporations—to identify and implement opportunities to reduce levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. WHRC was founded in 1985 by renowned ecologist George Woodwell to take the insights of science beyond the walls of academia to where they can effect real change. For the last four years, WHRC was named the top climate change think tank in the world by the International Center for Climate Governance. WHRC scientists have contributed to every IPCC Assessment Report, and helped to launch the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2007, WHRC Senior Scientist Dr. Richard Houghton was part of the IPCC team awarded the Nobel Prize. WHRC researchers continue to work around the world to understand the rapidly changing climate and how we can address it. The Center is currently led by Dr. Philip Duffy, and has about 60 employees, including 46 scientists.

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