Preventing deforestation is central to curbing carbon emissions – and a case study on the Amazon shows the most cost-effective way of doing it.
Explorer, author, award-winning documentary maker and advocate for indigenous people’s rights, Bruce Parry, has written this thought provoking peice:
I’ve spent a lot of time with indigenous peoples in remote places. So when I argue that the best way – or at least the cheapest way – to stop climate change is to grant land rights to indigenous communities, you might suspect I’m not coming from an entirely objective viewpoint. You’ve probably also heard various industry spokespeople saying the best and cheapest way to stop climate change is through windfarms, solar panels, electric cars and cavity wall insulation. But while I may be biased, and may even have “gone native” now and then, I’m not trying to sell you anything.
On a global scale, one of the main causes of climate change is land-use change, and particularly changing land from forest to agriculture. Stopping deforestation is the most economically efficient way of preventing carbon emissions because, in simple terms, all it amounts to is not flooding forests for dams or cutting down and burning them for agriculture.
The efficiency of not cutting down trees as a climate change mitigation strategy is fairly well-established. The UN is pushing the international community to cooperate on an agreed plan to stop deforestation and its associated emissions, which add up to about the same level as road transport and haulage emissions.
But this is where a beautifully simple idea becomes complicated. How exactly do you stop deforestation? How do you compensate industries reliant on the agriculture that entails deforestation? And how do you compensate them in a way that doesn’t create perverse incentives and unforeseen consequences?
What is the value of a forest and the land it stands on? There’s the value of the timber it can produce, and after that, the crops that could be grown. Or the value of an Amazonian valley flooded for a hydroelectric dam.
Then there’s the forest’s value if we don’t chop it down. Its value as a carbon sink, its value as a biodiversity reservoir, its value as a weather maker and regulator, its value as a source of oxygen and air purifier. All the things that are invisible to accountants but vital to humans.
And forests also have a value that even environmental scientists can miss, but is very, very real to forest peoples. As the environmentalist David Suzuki says: “The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity – then we will treat each other with greater respect.”
This is why indigenous peoples are the forests’ greatest conservationists. They can cut through the Gordian knot of the UN’s interminable processes. They see and understand the value that enlightened, developed cultures are blind to, and which modern science is only beginning to rediscover.
Translating that value into the hard currency we value is difficult. The World Resources Institute has taken a step in that direction, with a study of the environmental and economic costs and benefits of governments granting indigenous land rights in Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia. It reports that giving indigenous people land rights leads to the preservation of forests as carbon sinks. And, as a means of storing carbon, it is between five and 42 times more cost-efficient than fitting carbon capture and storage systems to fossil-fuel power stations.
If we are unwilling to spend money on protecting rainforests, their spectacular biodiversity, indigenous cultures, their ecosystems and their ineffable beauty and meaning, then we’ll have to spend a lot more sucking from the atmosphere what was once a rainforest, and burying it in the ground.
There is a test case going on right now in Brazil, home of the world’s biggest rainforest. The country’s official body for looking at indigenous people’s land rights, FUNAI, is due to decide this month on whether to grant them to the Munduruku people. They live in the Tapajos basin, an area in the heart of the Amazon being eyed up for the construction of more than 40 hugely destructive mega-dams.
The Munduruku can protect their bit of the Amazon for us, as they have done for centuries, preserving its amazingly varied flora and fauna and saving us the money we’d have to spend on taking carbon out of the atmosphere if industry is allowed turn it into carbon emissions.
The Munduruku have been campaigning for their rights for decades. The Brazilian constitution says they should be given them. A cold, hard, financial cost/benefit analysis says they should be given them. And if the Munduruku don’t get their land rights, there’s an industrial-scale queue of people waiting to trash their beautiful home. While many of us have yet to fully understand this, the truth is, their home is also our home.
UN report highlights the challenges Indigenous People in Brazil face to protect their land
For Indigenous activists defending their traditional lands, Brazil is one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Image: Xavante indigenous people from Maraiãwatsede with traditional body paint for war. Due to conflicts over land ownership, this traditional painting is now a daily ritual in the lives of Indians.
Last year alone, 50 environmental activists – including Indigenous activists – were murdered in Brazil for standing up to illegal logging, mining and agribusiness.
The injustice isn’t limited to violence. Indigenous Peoples in Brazil also face years of red tape and bureaucracy to get their lands officially recognised and protected, giving industry plenty of time to move in and damage their territory.
Many Indigenous communities – like the Guarani-Kaiowa – have been fighting for their land for hundreds of years, and still haven’t received the recognition and support they need from the Brazilian government.
Watch to learn more about the Guarani-Kaiowa’s fight for their rights:
A growing global spotlight
While the situation on the ground is bleak for many Indigenous communities in Brazil, the denial of their rights is getting more attention globally.
This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) joined the conversation after the Brazilian Indigenous movement's request for involvement. The UNHRC released a new report that details the numerous ways the rights of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil are being violated: from the excruciatingly slow process for officially recognising Indigenous territory, to the development of large infrastructure projects – like the Belo Monte and São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dams– without full Indigenous consent.
The report outlines how important a quick land recognition process is for keeping Indigenous territories from being damaged: “The urgency for land demarcation is exacerbated by deforestation, destruction of rivers and depletion of soil quality due to intensive monocropping and mining activities, all of which render land and water inadequate for sustaining indigenous peoples’ lives.”
However, the Brazilian government's answer didn't recognize the criticisms, and their speech doesn’t match with the reality. For example, they said that the Munduruku Indigenous People were consulted about the construction of the mega dam that would flood part of their land and cause a huge impact in their way of life. “It is a lie. We were never consulted, the government made a quick meeting once, but it was far away from a consultation that should be made by law”, said Arnaldo Kaba, general cacique (chief) for Munduruku people.
This response raises a question whether the Brazilian government will listen and follow the guidelines of the UNHRC at all.
But all of us can stand with the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil wherever we are in the world, and amplify their struggle. Right now, the Munduruku people of the Brazilian Amazon are still working to receive official recognition of their territory after over decades of effort. Add your name to stand with the Munduruku People.
Danicley de Aguiar is an Amazon forest campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil.