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Tenetehara Indigenous men prepare to go out on their boat in the Gurupi River, in the Alto Rio Guama Indigenous Territory, near the city of Paragominas, state of Para, northern region of Brazil, Sept. 7, 2020.
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NewsDefend the Planet

UN Urges Support for Latin America's Indigenous Peoples, the 'Best Guardians' of Forests

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Indigenous people are the world’s foremost caretakers of the planet’s natural resources. The United Nations calls on countries to support and protect Indigenous peoples. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Land protected by Indigenous peoples in Latin America experienced roughly half as much deforestation as land protected by other groups in recent years, according to a new report by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC).

Nearly half of the forest in the Amazon basin and 35% of all forest in Latin America is protected by Indigenous peoples. These territories store more carbon dioxide and host more biodiversity than similar areas in Latin America, which helps to support global water and food security and the stability of the climate, the authors of the report wrote. 

“Indigenous and tribal peoples and the forests in their territories play vital roles in global and regional climate action and in fighting poverty, hunger, and malnutrition,” Julio Berdegué, FAO’s regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, said in a statement. “Their territories contain about one-third of all the carbon stored in the forests of Latin America and the Caribbean and 14% of the carbon stored in tropical forests worldwide.”

The UN reviewed more than 300 studies over the past two decades looking at forested areas in Latin America. They found that the land degradation in Indigenous areas is largely due to encroachment by industrial actors, forced displacement, illegal land clearing by outsiders, and other forms of violence.

The report warns that Indigenous people’s ability to protect forests and wildlife in general is increasingly under attack. Between 2016 and 2018, deforestation in Indigenous territories rose by 150%. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made these problems worse as governments scale back land protection efforts. In Brazil, for instance, the pandemic ushered in a surge of illegal fires.  

The UN’s report urges governments in the region to support Indigenous communities by recognizing their right to protect land and even paying them for the vital work they do. After all, the forests that they protect are important for the future stability of the planet. 

Opening this up to international donors could generate hundreds of millions in revenue annually, according to the Guardian.  

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The authors note that it would be cost-effective to pay to store carbon in these areas to mitigate global emissions. Many carbon-offsetting schemes have arisen in the region in recent years that have provided crucial funding to Indigenous communities.

However, they continue to struggle to maintain their cultural heritage because of centuries of violence and imposed poverty. The report calls on governments to help fund cultural revitalization efforts so that Indigenous communities can promote conservation tactics rooted in historical knowledge. 

“The evidence of their vital role in forest protection is crystal clear,” Myrna Cunningham, president of FILAC, said in a statement. “This makes evident why their voice and vision should be taken into account in all global initiatives and frameworks relating to climate change, biodiversity and forestry, among many other topics.”

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