Indigenous Lands Help Protect Amazon Forests, Study Finds

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
February 28, 2006
While deforestation in the Amazon continues at a rapid pace, a recent
study sounds a hopeful note.

Reserve areas established for Indian peoples in Brazil (map) are as effective as uninhabited nature parks in preventing burning and clear-cutting, the study finds.

An international team of researchers tested a longstanding assumption: that land in uninhabited parks is better protected than that in reserves with human populations.

The scientists used satellite data taken from 1997 to 2000 to compare rates of fire and deforestation inside and outside the boundaries of different reserve types. Only protected areas larger than 25,000 acres (10,100 hectares) were included in the analysis.

In the February issue of the journal Conservation Biology, the researchers report that reserves of all types are providing significant Amazon forest protection, but tribal lands may be especially important to preventing region-wide deforestation.

"Many indigenous groups are very well organized, and they are also willing to use force to defend their lands," said Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, who led the study.

In the Line of Fire

The study confirms new thinking about conservation priorities in the Amazon. In the past, efforts have focused largely on protecting isolated areas with little human presence.

Nepstad and others argue that while establishing parks in inaccessible regions is important, that alone doesn't slow deforestation where it most commonly occurs: along the forest's retreating edge.

In fact, it is the proximity of many indigenous lands to Brazil's advancing agricultural frontier that makes them so important, conservationists say.

The front line of deforestation in the Amazon has been moving into the forest from the south and east, leaving soybean fields and pastureland in its wake.

But in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso, that march of destruction has been halted by a vast complex of indigenous lands occupied by the Kayapo and Xingu peoples.

The protective barrier created by these tribal lands is enormous—two and half times larger than the country of Costa Rica.

Here, study findings confirm what is visible to the naked eye from satellite maps.

"Where indigenous land in the Amazon starts is where the frontier stops," said Stephan Schwartzman, an anthropologist with New York-based nonprofit Environmental Defense and a co-author of the study.

The study did not examine how protected areas with human populations—including indigenous lands and national forests—maintain aspects of environmental health other than standing forest.

In some parts of the Amazon, gold mining, selective logging, and illegal hunting have caused extensive damage. But these threats are less severe in many indigenous territories, where tribal groups guard against outside intrusions.

"Logging and hunting aren't trivial, but I'd far rather have these kinds of impacts than have lands with little or no forest at all," said William Laurance, a staff scientist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Manaus, Brazil.

"Despite often being under staggering pressures, the indigenous lands are doing a pretty good job of protecting the Amazon," Laurance said.

New Alliances

By demonstrating such protection, the new study underscores the value of strategic alliances among conservationists, indigenous tribes, and other rural land users.

Such alliances have helped tribes like the Kayapo gain official recognition of reserve areas and aided them in enforcing bans on forest clearing and other illegal activities.

Study co-author Paul Lefebvre, a research associate at the Woods Hole Research Center, says a number of groups share a common interest in maintaining the forest.

"There are some who still argue that you need to put up fences and keep people out to protect the forest," Lefebvre said.

"What we're seeing now is that by keeping the people there, you can actually enhance protection."

After proceeding at a record rate from 2002 to 2004, Amazon deforestation slowed a bit in 2005.

While falling prices of commodities found in the region are thought to be partly responsible, new reserves and improved enforcement also played a role.

Last year the Brazilian government created nearly 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers) of new sustainable-use reserves north of Kayapo lands.

These reserves create a formidable new barrier to frontier expansion, and alongside other reserves they form a nearly continuous protected zone over 90,000 square miles (233,000 square kilometers).

"The alliance between conservation and indigenous groups has now extended to 'smallholder' organizations," Nepstad said, referring to groups of small-scale farmers and forest users whose advocacy helped lead to the new protected areas.

"They are, in one respect, the Amazon's new conservationists," Nepstad said.

With additional new reserves planned over the coming years, more than 40 percent of the Brazilian Amazon forest will have some protected status.

"This is cause for optimism," Nepstad said, "but reserves will not be enough. We also must harness market pressures on large-scale ranchers and soybean farmers to improve their environmental performance."

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).


© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.