This story was originally published by Grist. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.
The recognition and delimitation of indigenous land leads to reduced deforestation and increased reforestation. That’s according to a new study that examined more than 100 indigenous lands in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and found that legal recognition of these lands can have real and measurable impacts on centuries of deforestation.
“Our study contributes to new evidence suggesting that rights-based policies for indigenous land can improve environmental outcomes,” said Marcelo Rauber, co-author of the paper and researcher at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “Known in Brazil as Demarcação, legal recognition of tribal peoples’ land rights grants tribal peoples territorial autonomy, aiding efforts to address long-standing human rights violations, land grabbing, biodiversity loss and climate change.”
The Atlantic Rainforest stretches along the Atlantic coast of Brazil to Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina and once covered over 1 million square kilometers. Due to centuries of deforestation, the Atlantic Rainforest has been reduced to less than a tenth of its original size – a fragmented forest collection spanning nearly 200 indigenous lands, most of which are not legally recognized, and urban areas. including Rio de Janeiro.
The SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation, an organization that works to restore the forest, says the remnants of the Atlantic are home to more than 20,000 species – 6,000 of which live nowhere else in the world – and contain nearly 25 percent of all threatened species in Brazil . It is also an important source of water for nearby towns and communities, but has been deforested to a much greater extent than the Amazon.
Researchers found that formalized land tenure rights and territorial recognition were necessary for improved forest outcomes; however, most indigenous land in Brazil lacks this legal status. Since 2012, only one area in the Atlantic Forest survey sample has been granted demarcation status, and although many communities have begun to do so, official recognition has been slow. According to the study, this has a real impact on forest health.
For years, researchers and activists have been alarmed by former President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies, which led to a sharp deterioration in environmental and indigenous rights. Bolsonaro, who vowed not to demarcate any indigenous land, removed environmental protections and encouraged the development of agribusiness, leading to both killings of indigenous land defenders and high rates of deforestation. In 2020, for example, deforestation in the Atlantic Forest increased by 30 percent. “Segregation is important because it’s not just a social issue, it’s also a spiritual, traditional and cultural issue,” said Jurandir Karai Djekupe, a Guarani Mbya leader from northern São Paulo. “It’s something that encompasses everything.”
For generations, indigenous communities in the Atlantic Forest have sought territorial rights to combat extractive industries and land grabs. Now, under Brazil’s new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, indigenous communities say they may finally have access to the legal tools needed to protect their land, their rights and the environment. Since taking office, Lula’s government has begun reversing many of Bolsonaro’s policies.
Rayna Benzeev, the study’s lead author, says the government must now ensure that the government agency responsible for tribal lands, FUNAI, has the resources and political support to demarcate and protect tribal lands across the country. “The new government has an opportunity to reverse this trend by upholding the Brazilian constitution and granting indigenous peoples territorial autonomy and self-determination rights,” Benzeev said.
But Jerá Poty Miriam, a Guarani Mbya leader from Tenondé Porã territory, says that while indigenous communities hope the new government will keep its promises, they feel obliged to hold Lula accountable.
“Protecting our territory means protecting our own life because we depend on it,” said Jerá Poty Mirim. “The demarcation guarantees the continuity of those cultures that respect and protect nature.”