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Deforestation. Photo: Vera Kratochvil

International Day of Forests: Indigenous peoples protect and defend ecosystems

21 March, 2023 | Ricardo Changala


As every year, since the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed it in 2012, the International Day of Forests is commemorated on March 21, aiming to highlight the enormous importance of all types of forests, while generating awareness about it.

This year, the main messages focus on highlighting the close relationship between forests and human health, making it clear, among other aspects, that forests are natural pharmacies, since about 50,000 species of plants that grow in forests have high medicinal value.[1]

It is also recalled that forests are threatened for different reasons since we observe overt deterioration in their conservation all over the world. It is realized that between 2015 and 2020, 10 million hectares of forests were lost per year.

Within the framework of this commemoration, it is necessary to remember the fundamental role that indigenous peoples and communities have in the protection, conservation and defense of nature, its forests, its rivers, its animals.

A joint report published by FAO and FILAC states that the territories of indigenous and tribal peoples contain about almost 30% of the carbon stored in the forests of the region and 14% of the carbon in tropical forests worldwide, which is more carbon than all the forests of the Republic of Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the two countries with the largest area of tropical forest after Brazil. In addition, they are home to an enormous diversity of wild fauna and flora and play a key role in stabilizing the local and regional climate.[2]

The central conclusion of the report is that indigenous and tribal peoples have been better guardians of their forests compared to those responsible for other forests in the region. Deforestation rates in Latin America and the Caribbean are lowest in indigenous and tribal areas where governments have formally recognized collective territorial rights.

According to FAO-FILAC analyses, the deforestation rate in indigenous forests where land ownership has been secured is 2.8 times lower than outside those areas in Bolivia, 2.5 times lower in Brazil and two times lower in Colombia. The titled collective territories avoided each year, in those three countries, between 42.8 and 59.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a gas that produces the so-called greenhouse effect that causes global warming.

These saved emissions are equivalent to taking between nine and 12.6 million vehicles off the road for a year.

Meanwhile the indigenous territories of the Amazon Basin lost less than 0.3 percent of the carbon in their forests between 2003 and 2016, non-indigenous protected areas lost 0.6 percent and other areas that were not indigenous territories or protected areas lost 3.6 percent.

As a result, even though indigenous territories cover 28 percent of the Amazon Basin, they only generated 2.6 percent of the region’s gross carbon emissions.

But it should also be remembered that this defense of the territory, of nature, of the environment and of forests involves constant struggles on the part of communities and Indigenous Peoples, struggles that often put the very lives of these people at risk.

According to the organization Global Witness, in recent years, almost 70% of the crimes committed against environmentalists on the planet (about 1200) occurred in Latin America in general in the fight against deforestation and mining or industrial enterprises. Globally, in 2020 alone, this entity identified 227 murders of land defenders in the world, with a high percentage of indigenous people as victims, although Indigenous Peoples do not exceed 5% of the world’s population, one third of the murders of land defenders have involved members of these peoples as victims.

It should be noted, within the framework of this new commemoration of the international day of forests, that for their protection it is essential, on the one hand, to modify the extractivist productive system that puts profit and the exploitation of natural resources and people above all, and on the other, full respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. [3]

Without Indigenous Peoples in possession, use and protection of their lands and territories, humanity will not be able to conserve either its forests or its natural riches.

Sin Pueblos Indígenas en posesión, uso y protección de sus tierras y territorios, la humanidad no podrá conservar ni sus bosques ni sus riquezas naturales.

[1] https://www.fao.org/international-day-of-forests

[2] FAO y FILAC. 2021. Los pueblos indígenas y tribales y la gobernanza de los bosques. Una oportunidad para la acción climática en América Latina y el Caribe. Santiago. FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb2953es

[3] Global Witness, Last line of defense. The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against land and environmental defenders, September 2021,  https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/last-line-defence/