Indigenous peoples as the most effective protectors of rainforests

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RAN believes that indigenous peoples are the best stewards of rainforests.

Supporting this belief, a new study by researchers at U of Illinois and U of Michigan has added to the growing body of evidence that indigenous peoples are better protectors of their forests than governments or industry. In a review of 80 forests in 10 tropical countries, the study showed that when indigenous and local communities own their forests, they effectively conserve their forest resources over the long term.

The Huaorani of the Ecuadorian Amazon control and protect a huge swath of Amazonia

Reflecting the growing momentum behind viewing rainforests as carbon sinks that can either exacerbate or reduce climate change, the researchers measured the carbon emissions from forests under community and government control. The New Scientist recently ran an interview with the authors of this research, who said “our findings show that we can increase carbon sequestration simply by transferring ownership of forests from governments to communities.” This is a bold assertion, but one that is supported by their research.

However, the idea that indigenous peoples are the best protectors of rainforests is considered controversial by some, who usually argue that forests should be protected by governments, following the National Parks model of conservation pioneered by the USA.

In this model, forests are enclosed in conservation areas and put off-limits, supposedly to be protected from loggers and commercial agribusiness by government agencies. This rational has been used to move control of forests away from indigenous peoples and into the hands of the government in many tropical nations. In an article cited by hundreds, researchers highlighted the  problems with this approach in Indonesian Borneo, where conservation areas lost over half of their forest cover in the period from 1985 to 2001.  These supposedly protected areas have become increasingly fragmented, degraded, and isolated, greatly decreasing ecosystem functions.

Another compelling piece of evidence supporting indigenous peoples’ ability to protect forests comes from Brazilian Amazonia. In a study published in Conservation Biology, researchers showed that many indigenous lands prevent deforestation completely even though there are high  rates of forest destruction directly outside their borders. In a compelling statement for the value of the protections indigenous peoples give to forests, the researchers claim that indigenous lands are the most important barrier to deforestation in the Amazon.

As usual, the research is racing to catch up with what indigenous peoples around the world have known for hundreds of years: indigenous people’s are the most effective protectors of tropical forests.

David Gilbert is a Research Fellow at RAN. He has worked in the tropical forests of the Amazon and Indonesia, with a special focus on forest conservation and indigenous rights.

He can be reached at

5 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Its been a long bitter walk through the centuries to come back to the truth, “indigenous people’s are the most effective protectors of tropical forests”. Long live the ancient green places of the world and those who have always lived there in harmony.

  2. Thanks David! This blogpost confirms that the best REDD (Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Degradation) plan is to respect Indigenous land rights. As mentioned in one of the reports, “Indigenous lands occupy 20% of the Brazilian Amazon and are currently the most important barrier to Amazon deforestation.” If anyone is going to be paid to protect forests, it should be Indigenous people, not national governments or carbon traders.

  3. Zarah says:

    This is a great post that provides strong concrete evidence for something many of us know must be true based on gut feelings and personal experience. In areas where community ownership has successful restricted deforestation, how are commercial interests kept at bay? It would be interesting to learn more about how this local ownership must be legalized and guarded in order to truly be respected.

  4. Pamela Gilchrist says:

    Does RAN have the interest &/or capability to, as Tim Flannery urges in his newest book, “Now or Never”, help to “establish a maketplace linking people…to tropical subsistence farmers who are willing to sell us [shares in] preserving their forests.” Flannery goes on to suggest progmatic ways of doing this (page 70ff of Now or Never)?

  5. You raise a lot of questions in my head; you wrote a good post, but this post is also thought provoking, and I will have to ponder it some more; I will be back soon. It’s not quite a “do it yourself” solution, but it’s probably the most practical way to hone whatever talent you do have while not having to quit your day job.

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  1. Indigenous are the best stewards of rainforests | Mobilization for Climate Justice
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