As climate talks get underway in Lima, Peru, a comprehensive study by several environmental groups published Tuesday finds that protecting indigenous lands in the Amazon is "critical to the stability of the global climate as well as to the cultural identity of forest-dwelling peoples and the health of the ecosystems they inhabit."
Because the biologically diverse region produces one-quarter of the world's oxygen and is vital in slowing and preventing climate change, the threat to the land in turn risks causing "detrimental and potentially irreversible impact on the atmosphere and the planet," according to the study, Forest Carbon in Amazonia: The Unrecognized Contributions of Indigenous Territories and Protected Natural Areas, published in the science journal Carbon Management.
The study finds 55 percent of carbon stored in the Amazon is in protected indigenous areas—and that nearly one-fifth of those tropical forests are at risk of exploitation by mining, logging, and agricultural projects.
Protecting those lands is "critical to the stability of the global climate as well as to the cultural identity of forest-dwelling peoples and the health of the ecosystems they inhabit," according to the report.
"We see, for example, that the territories of Amazonian indigenous peoples store almost a third of the region’s above ground carbon on just under a third of the land area," said Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) scientist Wayne Walker. "That is more forest carbon than is contained in some of the most carbon-rich tropical countries including Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo."
The Amazon is imperiled not just by commercial agriculture and energy companies, but also by illegal loggers and miners, whose destructive activities are bolstered by a weak-willed government, the study says. The projects threaten 2,344 indigenous territories and 610 protected areas across nine countries.
"[I]nternational recognition and investment in indigenous and protected areas are essential to ensuring their continued contribution to global climate stability," said co-author Richard Chase Smith, of Peru’s Instituto Bien Comun. Smith also noted that continued devastation of those lands could lead to increased conflict between the government and indigenous people living in the protected areas.
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In October, a large group of Peruvian community members took control of an airport in the Andoas region of the Amazon to protest Argentine energy company Pluspetrol, which they said was polluting the land and exploiting resources to build their oil drilling operations.
Among their demands were legal titling of the lands, a clean-up of water and territory to end the ongoing health threats from pollution, compensation for the lands on which the oil blocks—large swaths of land awarded to energy companies—are set up, and a fair share of 40 years of oil revenues.
The occupation was "the latest in a series of recent indigenous protests provoked by the intransigence of Pluspetrol and the Peruvian government," Amazon Watch advocacy director Andrew Miller told Common Dreams at the time. "Otherwise humble indigenous communities are exasperated by the evident lack of political will to effectively address long-standing local grievances."
On Tuesday, the authors of the report warned that the planned projects could have "disastrous" consequences.
"If all the current plans for economic development in the Amazon are actually implemented, the region would become a giant savanna, with islands of forest," said co-author Beto Ricardo, of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) of Brazil. "A vast proportion of indigenous territories and protected areas are increasingly at risk, with potentially disastrous consequences," including 40 percent of the indigenous territories, 30 percent of the protected areas, and 24 percent of the area that pertains to both.
According to Steve Schwartzman, senior director of Tropical Forest Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and also a co-author of the study, the solution is to "recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to territories that have not yet been officially recognized, and resolve territorial conflicts that pit protected areas against private interests."
"We have never been under so much pressure, as this study demonstrates," said co-author Edwin Vásquez, president of indigenous rights group COICA, the Indigenous Coordinating Body of the Amazon Basin. "Yet we now have evidence that where there are strong rights, there are standing forests. And knowing that we have more than half of the region’s carbon on indigenous and protected lands, we can tell our leaders so they can strengthen the role and the rights of indigenous forest peoples."