The key to preserving the world's largest rainforest
Right now, in parts of the Amazon, the stark contrast between forested and deforested areas can be seen clearly in aerial images. On the one side, the dense green landscape represents the natural state of the world’s largest and most diverse tropical rainforest. On the other, the terrain is often dry and brown, a legacy of the land-clearing regime that has intensified in recent decades.
If this deforestation trend continues, scientists believe the Amazon will reach a tipping point. Longer and hotter dry seasons would cause the loss of many more trees, prompting the ecosystem to shift from canopy rainforest to open savannah.
This process would occur over a period of decades, experts say, but would nonetheless have profound global implications given the Amazon’s influence on the world’s climate and hydrological cycles.
“It could be disastrous,” says ACU’s Dr Kathryn Baragwanath, a political scientist whose research focuses on natural resources and environmental politics in Latin America.
“Some scientists think that we are dangerously close to that tipping point, and if that were to happen, we would see a very different world to the one we live in today.”
Meanwhile, illegal logging, mining and forest fires are surging, especially in Brazil, which holds more than 60 per cent of the Amazon within its borders.
Under this backdrop, Dr Baragwanath and her co-author Ella Bayi set out to explore if the country’s system of protected areas and Indigenous territories has helped to curb deforestation.
The researchers analysed property titles and historical satellite data going back three decades, examining the effect that the legal status of rainforest land has had on vegetation cover.
Using this novel dataset, they found that the areas where Indigenous groups had full ownership rights saw a 66 per cent reduction in the rate of deforestation.
“Indigenous peoples live on the land and have a keen sense of what can happen if the rainforest ecosystem is disturbed,” says Dr Baragwanath, whose study received global media attention.
“When an Indigenous territory is given full rights and they are able to take things into their own hands, they tend to be very effective at reducing deforestation.”
Clarity is crucial
The study’s findings do, however, come with an important caveat: Historically speaking, it is only when the land has gone through the process of homologação, or homologation, that Indigenous peoples can properly safeguard the forest.
Under Brazil’s constitution, homologation is the final step in designating land as Indigenous property and is signed off by the country’s president.
While previous leaders have granted parts of the Amazon homologation status regardless of their politics, the current president Jair Bolsonaro and his predecessor Michel Temer haven’t.
As a result, since 2016, about two million hectares of Indigenous land have been left languishing in an earlier stage of the process.
This puts many unspoiled areas of the Amazon at risk. As the study revealed, territories without full property rights saw much greater rates of deforestation. The decline in vegetation in some of these areas is so vast that it is visible from space.
“Our study presents causal evidence that full property rights through homologation are fundamental for Indigenous people to protect their lands and enforce their borders effectively,” Dr Baragwanath says, adding that the barriers to achieving these protections are partly political.
“It’s a very contentious political issue in Brazil. When Jair Bolsonaro ran for government, one of his catchphrases was, ‘Not an inch of Brazilian land will be demarcated under my government’, and he has held to that promise.”
Deforestation happening right outside Wawi Indigenous territory borders in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil (left). The forested land (right) represents the fully homologated territory. Photo: Kamikia Kisedje
Since taking power in January 2019, the Bolsonaro government has not only eroded protections for Indigenous land, it has also smoothed the way for deforestation, making it easier for the Amazon to be developed for mining, agriculture and other economic activity.
It is therefore almost certain that the refusal to grant full property rights to more Indigenous territories has contributed to the escalation of land-clearing. In recent years, Brazil has set several deforestation records in the Amazon.
“There’s this whole affront to reduce the protection that Indigenous people in Brazil have,” says Dr Baragwanath, who is currently conducting research to quantify how much extra rainforest has been lost since 2016.
The international community needs to act swiftly, she says, and “focus their efforts on pressuring the Brazilian government to register Indigenous territories still awaiting their full property rights, strengthening the existing mechanisms that protect Indigenous territories from extractive activities”.
Turning the tide
In their landmark study, Baragwanath and Bayi contend that further degradation of the Amazon’s mega-diverse ecosystem could be catastrophic.
“[It] could lead to faltering rain, increased drought, increased carbon dioxide emissions, increased flooding, loss of biodiversity, loss of medical possibilities, increased fires, and poverty,” the researchers say.
Their contribution adds to the global chorus urging action to preserve the rainforest. This includes a group of academics and activists who warn that the Amazon “will collapse if Bolsonaro remains president”.
So, how can the global community turn the tide on deforestation in the Amazon?
Many point out that market forces and the world’s appetite for products like beef and soy play a large role in increasing deforestation.
Supermarkets and other corporations in Australia and parts of Europe have threatened to boycott products that originate in the Amazon basin, which includes Brazil and seven other South American nations.
While her research doesn’t directly explore the role of agriculture in deforestation, Dr Baragwanath says she is in “two minds” about blocking consumption from certain countries.
“If we discover that some big exporters are involved in illegal deforestation or unsustainable production methods, then blocking consumption from those companies would be appropriate,” she says.
“But there are producers in Brazil doing things the right way, and I don’t think they should suffer the consequences of such a broad policy. I would prefer to see better transparency in terms of the chain of production, supply chains, and how the land was acquired.”
Meanwhile, in 2021, the World Economic Forum released a list of 10 key actions needed to save the Amazon, including an immediate halt to all commercial activities that threaten the survival of the forest and its people.
While there is no single solution to slowing deforestation and ultimately saving the rainforest from collapse, Dr Baragwanath says that the land rights and traditional conservation practices of the Amazon’s Indigenous tribes must be prioritised and respected.
“The protection of Indigenous territories serves a human-rights role, recognising these peoples’ original right to land,” she says. “But they are also a cost-effective way for governments to preserve the Amazon rainforest, which is important for the future of Brazil, and the rest of the world in our attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change.”
Dr Kathryn Baragwanath is a research fellow at ACU’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences. Her research focuses on the political economy of natural resources and environmental politics, with a focus on Latin America, where she is from. Her forthcoming book will explore the effects of oil windfalls on political corruption in Brazil.