Skip to content

How securing indigenous land rights can help to fight climate change

Profile of By Peter Veit
By Peter Veit
Director, Land and Resource Rights Initiative, World Resouces InstitutePeter Veit is Director of the Land and Resource Rights (LRR) initiative at the World Resources Institute. LRR seeks to strengthen land tenure and natural resource rights of rural people and communities.

Securing land rights for indigenous communities is a low-cost, high-benefit investment in the fight against climate change, and geospatial maturity is a key enabler for establishing them. 

The world’s forests are our best defence against climate change. Trees naturally capture and store carbon in a process known as carbon sequestration. Planting trees is the simplest way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.    

Deforestation is a major threat to the environment – 25 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and other land-use changes. This year, WRI’s Land and Resource Rights Initiative will publish a report showing a strong link between forest loss and mining on indigenous land in the Amazon Rainforest. 

Community land rights are essential to both slowing deforestation and capturing carbon: forests that sustain communities with land rights hold 29 times more carbon than the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world. Developing this land would be a climate catastrophe because it would release this carbon into the atmosphere.  

panaromic view of forest with ocean in the far background
Forests that sustain communities with land rights hold 29 times more carbon than the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world.

Globally, a third of the carbon stored in forests is located on community land that is not legally recognized, putting both the communities and stored carbon at risk. Communities in tropical and subtropical countries manage 17 percent of the total carbon stored in forestlands. Releasing this carbon — equivalent to 33 times the global energy emissions of 2017 — would be devastating. 

Compelling studies have shown that tenure-secure community land yields positive environmental outcomes: the average annual deforestation rates in tenure-secure indigenous forestlands in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia are two to three times lower than in similar land not managed by indigenous people. In Peru, titling of indigenous lands reduced forest clearing by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds in two years.    

While communities usually prefer to own land, long-term leases can also encourage sustainable land use, as shown by a study in Guatemala. 

These examples show that land security for indigenous communities not only helps to fight climate change, but also promotes sustainable development. This is especially important in Latin America, where converting forests to farmland and other uses account for almost half of total emissions.  

Father and son from South America
Establishing digital base maps is key to enabling accurate land registries necessary for providing tenure and land security for forest communities and indigenous peoples. 

Other carbon capture and storage approaches are more expensive than securing community land rights. A report authored by myself and others in 2016 revealed that carbon capture and storage at power plants is up to 29 times more expensive than the costs of securing indigenous lands in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia. For natural gas-fired power plants, the average cost of carbon capture and storage is up to 42 times more expensive than securing indigenous lands. 

The climate mitigation benefits from tenure-secure community land can help countries achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals relating to climate change, sustainable development and economic growth. They can also help to achieve commitments made under the Paris Agreement.  

Many governments recognize the key role that forests play as carbon sinks, committing in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) as part of the Paris Agreement to protect forests, reduce deforestation rates and restore forest lands.  

Yet despite this global imperative, communities' land rights are being eroded. Globally, national laws recognise only 10 percent of land as belonging to communities. 

Carbon emissions from developing community and indigenous forestland represent just one part of the huge toll deforestation presents to the biosphere. Forests provide not only carbon capture and storage, but also a host of ecosystem services, which include things like preserving biodiversity, enabling insect pollination and preventing soil erosion.  

Securing land rights for these communities is not only good for the environment, but also makes sense economically. Cost-benefit analyses have shown that the cost of securing land tenure for forest communities is less than one per cent of the value of the ecosystem services provided to them by the land.  

Land and its natural resources are critical assets for rural communities and indigenous peoples. Community land provides food, water, fuel and medicinal plants while also providing inhabitants with security, status and social identity. For many communities, land is also historically, culturally and spiritually significant. 

Safeguarding communities' and indigenous peoples' right to their land is critical to meeting many of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Establishing digital base maps is key to enabling accurate land registries necessary for providing tenure and land security for forest communities and indigenous peoples. 

For more on the societal benefits of geospatial maturity, read this piece on the future of mobility and this piece on measuring its benefits. 

Profile of By Peter Veit
By Peter Veit
Director, Land and Resource Rights Initiative, World Resouces InstitutePeter Veit is Director of the Land and Resource Rights (LRR) initiative at the World Resources Institute. LRR seeks to strengthen land tenure and natural resource rights of rural people and communities.