In the span of nearly a decade, deforestation in Indigenous Territories (ITs) within the Brazilian Amazon has led to the emission of a staggering 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). This alarming figure represents a shift in the role of these forests, altering them from a carbon sink to a source of emissions.
The data was revealed in a study led by a Brazilian team of experts and published in the journal Scientific Reports. The shocking trend is not subtle. The last three years of the study period alone (2019-2021) have accounted for almost 60% of this emission, which can be attributed to the rapid acceleration of forest destruction.
The researchers found that from 2013 to 2021, a total of 1,708 square kilometers (km²) were deforested in ITs, a figure that constitutes 2.38% of the total deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
They closely studied 232 ITs and discovered an average annual deforestation of 35 km², showing an alarming increase of 129% between 2013 and 2021. Even more shockingly, the increase soared to 195% in the last three years of this period.
The experts also demonstrated that the distance from the borders of the ITs to the areas of deforestation significantly increased during this time, rising 30% from an average of 6.80 km to 8.87 km.
Celso H. L. Silva-Junior, first author of the article and a professor in the Program of Graduate Studies in Biodiversity and Conservation at the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA), emphasized the gravity of the situation.
“In absolute numbers, the areas deforested in these ITs may not seem so large, but ITs are supposed to be environmentally protected, so the impact is all the greater,” said Professor Silva-Junior.
He further highlighted the cascading effects of deforestation, from the destruction of nature to diseases and threats to the survival of isolated Indigenous communities. A recent instance involved the Yanomami community, many of whom lost their lives due to encroachment by wildcat miners.
Indigenous Territories, typically seen as an effective model of forest conservation, are increasingly succumbing to illegal alluvial panning and mining operations. The authors point to policy reversals on Indigenous rights by the government as a contributing factor to the growing deforestation problem, thereby jeopardizing the Amazon’s essential function as a carbon storehouse.
Tropical forests are critically important in mitigating the detrimental impacts of climate change, serving as carbon sinks when left undisturbed. However, rampant logging, burning, and clearing are transforming these areas into substantial sources of carbon emissions, reinforcing the critical role of ITs in promoting conservation and battling deforestation.
Guilherme Mataveli, a co-author of the study and a researcher in the Earth Observation and Geoinformatics Division (DIOTG) of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), emphasized the strategic importance of ITs in achieving Brazil’s environmental goals and mitigating climate change impacts.
“Conservation of the forest and rivers in these areas is essential. The law must be enforced so that they continue acting as a force field to protect the standing forest and the traditional communities who live in them,” Mataveli stated.
The study, partly funded by the Research Center for Greenhouse Gas Innovation (RCGI) and the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC), echoes previous warnings.
In a Science article published the previous year, Mataveli cautioned about escalating deforestation in ITs jeopardizing Brazil’s ability to meet its environmental targets. As a part of its Nationally Determined Contribution targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement, Brazil had committed to restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares of forest by 2030 and aiming for zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
Another study by the same group of scientists underscored the alarming expansion of illegal mining activities, particularly by wildcat miners, in the Indigenous Territories within the Legal Amazon, a federally designated area spanning nine Brazilian states created for environmental protection and development.
This type of mining activity saw an enormous 1,217% increase from 1985 to 2020, growing from 7.45 km² to 102.16 km². Almost 95% of this increase occurred in the Kayapó, Munduruku, and Yanomami ITs in the states of Pará and Roraima.
The scientists’ most recent study found that deforestation intensified in 42% of the analyzed ITs, notably in 20 ITs ranging from Arara in Pará, with a rate of 0.02 km² per year, to Apyterewa, also in Pará, with 8.58 km² per year.
On a more positive note, deforestation decreased in 11% of the ITs analyzed, significantly in five of them. One such area is Alto Turiaçu in Maranhão state, home to approximately 1,500 members of the Awa Guajá, Ka’apor, and Tembé communities.
According to Silva-Junior, these encouraging reductions in deforestation can be attributed to initiatives launched by the Indigenous communities themselves. “The focus of the article was the threats to Indigenous Territories, but this decrease was an interesting finding. In the case of Maranhão, for example, the Indigenous communities achieved this positive result because they have initiatives of their own to combat deforestation, such as groups who patrol the area as forest guardians,” he said.
As scientists continue to analyze and reveal the devastating impacts of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon’s Indigenous Territories, their findings highlight the urgency of conservation and the importance of these areas in the global fight against climate change.
The challenge that lies ahead is considerable, but the evidence increasingly points to the critical need to uphold and reinforce the protection of these areas for the survival of their Indigenous communities, the preservation of biodiversity, and the health of our global environment.