Indigenous best Amazon stewards, but only when property rights assured: Study (Mongabay)

by Sue Branford on 17 August 2020

  • New research provides statistical evidence confirming the claim by Indigenous peoples that that they are the more effective Amazon forest guardians in Brazil — but only if and when full property rights over their territories are recognized, and fully protected, by civil authorities in a process called homologation.
  • Researchers looked at 245 Indigenous territories, homologated between 1982 and 2016. They concluded that Indigenous people were only able to curb deforestation effectively within their ancestral territories after homologation had been completed, endowing full property rights.
  • However, since the study was completed, the Temer and Bolsonaro governments have backpedaled on Indigenous land rights, failing to protect homologated reserves. Also, the homologation process has come to a standstill, failing its legal responsibility to recognize collective ownership pledged by Brazil’s Constitution.
  • In another study, researchers suggest that a key to saving the Amazon involves reframing our view of it, giving up the old view of it as an untrammeled Eden assaulted by modern exploitation, and instead seeing it as a forest long influenced by humanity; now we need only restore balance to achieve sustainability.
An Indigenous woman weaving anklets on her son. A clash of cultures in the Amazon threatens Indigenous lands and the rainforest. Image by Antônio Carlos Moura, s/d.

“The xapiri [shamanic spirits] have defended the forest since it first came into being. Our ancestors have never devastated it because they kept the spirits by their side,” declares Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who belongs to the 27,000-strong Yanomami people living in the very north of Brazil.

He is expressing a commonly held Indigenous belief that they — the original peoples on the land, unlike the “white” Amazon invaders — are the ones most profoundly committed to forest protection. The Yanomami shaman reveals the reason: “We know well that without trees nothing will grow on the hardened and blazing ground.”

Now Brazil’s Indigenous people have gained scientific backing for their strongly held belief from two American academics.

In a study published this month in the PNAS journal, entitled Collective property rights reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, two political scientists, Kathryn Baragwanath, from the University of California San Diego, and Ella Bayi, at the Department of Political Science, Columbia University, provide statistical proof of the Indigenous claim that they are the more effective forest guardians.

In their study, the researchers use comprehensive statistical data to show that Indigenous populations can effectively curb deforestation — but only if and when their full property rights over their territories are recognized by civil authorities in a process called homologação in Portuguese, or homologation in English.

A Tapirapé man and child. Image courtesy of ISA.

Full property rights key to curbing deforestation

The scientists reached their conclusions by examining data on 245 Indigenous reserves homologated between 1982 and 2016. By examining the step-by-step legal establishment of Indigenous reserves, they were able to precisely date the moment of homologation for each territory, and to assess the effectiveness of Indigenous action against deforestation before and after full property rights were recognized.

Brazilian law requires the completion of a complex four-stage process before full recognition. After examining the data, Baragwanath and Bayi concluded that Indigenous people were only able to curb deforestation within their ancestral territories effectively after the last phase ­— homologation — had been completed.

Most deforestation of Indigenous territories occurs at the borders, as land-grabbers, loggers and farmers invade. But the new study shows that, once full property rights are recognized, Indigenous people were historically able to reduce deforestation at those borders from around 3% to 1% — a reduction of 66% which the authors find to be “a very strong finding.”

However, they emphasize that this plunge in deforestation rate only comes after homologation is complete. Baragwanath told Mongabay: The positive “effect on deforestation is very small before homologation and zero for non-homologated territories.” The authors concluded: “We believe the final stage [is] the one that makes the difference, since it is when actual property rights are granted, no more contestation can happen, and enforcement is undertaken by the government agencies.”

Homologation is crucially important, say the researchers, because with it the Indigenous group gains the backing of law and of the Brazilian state. They note: “Without homologation, Indigenous territories do not have the legal rights needed to protect their territories, their territorial resources are not considered their own, and the government is not constitutionally responsible for protecting them from encroachment, invasion, and external use of their resources.”

They continue: “Once homologated, a territory becomes the permanent possession of its Indigenous peoples, no third party can contest its existence, and extractive activities carried out by external actors can only occur after consulting the [Indigenous] communities and the National Congress.”

The scientists offer proof of effective state action and protections after homologation: “For example, FUNAI partnered with IBAMA and the military police of Mato Grosso in May 2019 to combat illegal deforestation on the homologated territory of Urubu Branco. In this operation, 12 people were charged with federal theft of wood and fined R $90,000 [US $23,000], and multiple trucks and tractors were seized; the wood seized was then donated to the municipality.”

A Tapirapé woman at work. Image courtesy of ISA.

Temer and Bolsonaro tip the tables

However, under the Jair Bolsonaro government, which came to power in Brazil after the authors collected their data, the situation is changing.

Before Bolsonaro, the number of homologations varied greatly from year to year, apparently in random fashion. A highpoint was reached in 1991, when over 70 territories were homologated, well over twice the number in any other year. This may have been because Brazil was about to host the 1992 Earth Summit and the Collor de Mello government was keen to boost Brazil’s environmental credentials. The surge may have also occurred as a result of momentum gained from Brazil’s adoption of its progressive 1988 constitution, with its enshrined Indigenous rights.

Despite wild oscillations in the annual number of homologations, until recently progress happened under each administration. “Every President signed over [Indigenous] property rights during their tenure, regardless of party or ideology,” the study states.

But since Michel Temer became president at the end of August 2016, the process has come to a standstill, with no new homologations. Baragwanath and Bayi suggest that, by refusing to recognize the full property rights of more Indigenous peoples, the Temer and Bolsonaro administrations “could be responsible for an extra 1.5 million hectares [5,790 square miles] of deforestation per year.” That would help explain soaring deforestation rates detected by INPE, Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research in recent years.

Clearly, for homologation to be effective, the state must assume its legal responsibilities, says Survival International’s Fiona Watson, who notes that this is certainly not happening under Bolsonaro: “Recognizing Indigenous peoples’ collective landownership rights is a fundamental legal requirement and ethical imperative, but it is not enough on its own. Land rights need to be vigorously enforced, which requires political will and action, proper funding, and stamping out corruption. Far from applying the law, President Bolsonaro and his government have taken a sledgehammer to Indigenous peoples’ hard-won constitutional rights, watered down environmental safeguards, and are brutally dismantling the agencies charged with protecting tribal peoples and the environment.”

Watson continues: “Brazil’s tribes — some only numbering a few hundred living in remote areas — are pitted against armed criminal gangs, whipped up by Bolsonaro’s hate speech. As if this wasn’t enough, COVID-19 is killing the best guardians of the forest, especially the older generations with expertise in forest management. Lethal diseases like malaria are on the rise in Indigenous communities and Amazon fires are spreading.”

In fact, Bolsonaro uses the low number of Indigenous people inhabiting reserves today — low populations often the outcome of past horrific violence and even genocide — as an excuse for depriving them of their lands. In 2015 he declared: “The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture. They are native peoples. How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?” And in 2017 he said: “Not a centimeter will be demarcated… as an Indigenous reserve.”

The Indigenous territory of Urubu Branco, cited by Baragwanath and Bayi as a stellar example of effective state action, is a case in point. Under the Bolsonaro government it has been invaded time and again. Although the authorities have belatedly taken action, the Apyãwa (Tapirapé) Indigenous group living there says that invaders are now using the chaos caused by the pandemic to carry out more incursions. https://www.youtube.com/embed/VEqoNo3O8Jg

Land rights: a path to conserving Amazonia

Even so, say the experts, it still seems likely that, if homologation was implemented properly now or in the future, with effective state support, it would lead to reduced deforestation. Indeed, Baragwanath and Bayi suggest that this may be one of the few ways of saving the Amazon forest.

“Providing full property rights and the institutional environment for enforcing these rights is an important and cost-effective way for countries to protect their forests and attain their climate goals,” says the study. “Public policy, international mobilization, and nongovernmental organizations should now focus their efforts on pressuring the Brazilian government to register Indigenous territories still awaiting their full property rights.”

But, in the current state of accelerating deforestation, unhampered by state regulation or enforcement, other approaches may be required. One way forward is suggested in a document optimistically entitled: “Reframing the Wilderness Concept can Bolster Collaborative Conservation.”

In the paper, Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares from the Helsinki Institute of Sustainable Science, and others suggest that it is time for a new concept of “wilderness.”

For decades, many conservationists argued that the Amazon’s wealth of biodiversity stems from it being a “pristine” biome, “devoid of the destructive impacts of human activity.” But increasingly studies have shown that Indigenous people greatly contributed to the exuberance of the forest by domesticating plants as much as 10,000 years ago. Thus, the forest and humanity likely evolved together.

In keeping with this productive partnership, conservationists and Indigenous peoples need to work in harmony with forest ecology, say the authors. This organic partnership is more urgently needed than ever, they say, because the entire Amazon basin is facing an onslaught, “a new wave of frontier expansion” by logging, industrial mining, and agribusiness.

Fernández-Llamazares told Mongabay: “Extractivist interests and infrastructure development across much of the Amazon are not only driving substantial degradation of wilderness areas and their unique biodiversity, but also forcing the region’s Indigenous peoples on the frontlines of ever more pervasive social-ecological conflict.…  From 2014 to 2019, at least 475 environmental and land defenders have been killed in Amazonian countries, including numerous members of Indigenous communities.”

Fernández-Llamazares believes that new patterns of collaboration are emerging.

“A good example of the alliance between Indigenous Peoples and wilderness defenders can be found in the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS, being its Spanish acronym), in the Bolivian Amazon,” he says. “TIPNIS is the ancestral homeland of four lowland Indigenous groups and one of Bolivia’s most iconic protected areas, largely considered as one of the last wildlands in the country. In 2011, conservationists and Indigenous communities joined forces to oppose the construction of a road that would cut across the heart of the area.” A victory they won at the time, though TIPNIS today remains under contention today.

Eduardo S. Brondizio, another study contributor, points out alternatives to the industrial agribusiness and mining model: numerous management systems established by small-scale farmers, for example, that are helping conserve entire ecosystems.

“The açaí fruit economy, for instance, is arguably the region’s largest [Amazon] economy today, even compared to soy and cattle, and yet it occupies a fraction of the [land] area occupied by soy and cattle, with far higher economic return and employment than deforestation-based crops, while maintaining forest cover and multiple ecological benefits.” he said.

And, he adds, it is a completely self-driven initiative. “The entire açaí fruit economy emerged from the hands and knowledge of local riverine producers who [have] responded to market demand since the 1980s by intensifying their production using local agroforestry knowledge.” It is important, he stresses, that conservationists recognize the value of these sustainable economic activities in protecting the forest.

The new alliance taking shape between conservationists and Indigenous peoples is comparable with the new forms of collaboration that have arisen among traditional people in the Brazilian Amazon. Although Indigenous populations and riverine communities of subsistence farmers and Brazil nut collectors have long regarded each other as enemies — fighting to control the same territory — they are increasingly working together to confront land-grabbers, loggers and agribusiness.

Still, there is no doubt time is running out. Brazil’s huge swaths of agricultural land are already contributing to, and suffering from, deepening drought, because the “flying rivers” that bring down rainfall from the Amazon are beginning to collapse. Scientists are warning that the forest is moving toward a precipitation tipping point, when drought, deforestation and fire will change large areas of rainforest into arid degraded savanna.

This may already be happening. The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a non-profit, research organisation, warned recently that the burning season, now just beginning in the Amazon, could devastate an even larger area than last year, when video footage of uncontrolled fires ablaze in the Amazon was viewed around the world. IPAM estimates that a huge area, covering 4,509 square kilometers (1,741 square miles), has been felled and is waiting to go up in flames this year — data some experts dispute. But as of last week, more than 260 major fires were already alight in the Amazon.

Years ago Davi Kopenawa Yanomami warned: “They [the white people] continue to maltreat the earth everywhere they go.… It never occurs to them that if they mistreat it too much it will finally turn to chaos.… The xapiri [the shamanic spirits] try hard to defend the white people the same way as they defend us.… But if Omoari, the dry season being, settles on their land for good, they will only have trickles of dirty water to drink and they will die of thirst. This could truly happen to them.”

Citations:

Kathryn Baragwanath and Ella Bayi, (10 August 2020), Collective property rights reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Julien Terraube, Michael C. Gavin, Aili Pyhälä, Sacha M.O. Siani, Mar Cabeza, and Eduardo S. Brondizio, (29 July 2020) Reframing the Wilderness Concept can Bolster Collaborative Conservation, Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Banner image: Young Tapirajé women. Image by Agência Brasil.

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