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Forests in protected Indigenous lands are healthy and resilient

Over the past two centuries, human activities have led to global warming, a massive carbon imbalance, and biodiversity loss. However, according to a new study led by the University of Sheffield, there are certain cases where human stewardship appears to help remediate these damages. By examining tropical forests from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, the experts found that those located on protected Indigenous lands were the healthiest, highest functioning, most ecologically resilient, and most diverse. 

“I’m looking at Indigenous lands to see how conservation outcomes on these lands are, instead of only focusing on protected areas, which are often state run, so that conservation policies might be designed to be more effective and equitable,” said study lead author Jocelyne Sze, an ecologist at the University of Sheffield.

To evaluate forest health, the scientists examined four types of lands: non-protected lands, Indigenous lands, protected areas that overlap Indigenous lands, and protected forests outside of Indigenous lands.

“We used a metric called forest integrity to measure the quality of the forest pertaining to its structure, its composition, and its function—it refers to how resilient and healthy a forest is. Our previous research found that across the tropics, deforestation and degradation rates were lower in Indigenous lands compared to non-protected areas, but deforestation and degradation rates are quite simple measures, so we wanted to look at forest integrity,” Sze explained.

The analysis revealed that forests in areas where protected and Indigenous lands overlapped had the highest integrity, with the Americas having the most land falling into this category, and Africa the least. 

However, some of the findings surprised the scientists. “It was actually really interesting that it wasn’t all positive. We found that, in Asia and the Americas, within spaces that are only Indigenous lands – so outside of protected areas – the effect on integrity was actually worse than non-protected areas,” Sze reported.

This surprising feature may be explained by the fact that, in many parts of Asia, for instance, Indigenous lands and Indigenous rights were not recognized. Thus, although an area may be characterized as traditionally Indigenous, Indigenous people may actually have little control over their lands. Moreover, since many minerals, oil, and gas deposits are often found within Indigenous lands, these lands are often highly exploited.

In future studies, the researchers hope to clarify how Indigenous land rights and management fit into current conservation policies. “My research is very much inspired by what decolonial climate movements are trying to achieve, in trying to have Indigenous communities and local communities have more autonomy over these spaces,” Sze concluded.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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