A new analysis released by WCS, University of Queensland, Charles Darwin University, University of Maryland, and others shows that Indigenous Peoples are critical to maintaining intact forest landscapes that are essential for avoiding catastrophic climate change. The analysis can be viewed here and was released as groups gather for Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco from Sept 12-14. WCS’s Caleb McClennen explains the importance of Indigenous Peoples and intact forest landscapes in the fight against climate change here.

The analysis finds that at least 35 percent of the world’s remaining intact forest landscapes are managed or owned by Indigenous Peoples. The findings build on a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the significant contribution of Indigenous Peoples to protecting these vital forest ecosystems.

Forests can provide at least 30 percent of the mitigation action needed by 2050 to keep global warming below 2°C – widely believed to be the threshold to avoid catastrophic climate change. However, many scientists consider that this target will not be met without conserving our remaining intact forest landscapes – the least degraded forest ecosystems that have remained free from significant industrial activity.

Intact forest landscapes globally now total 11.62 million square kilometers (4.4 million square miles), or 24 percent of all forests globally. They are disproportionately valuable for the environmental services that they provide, not least for their role in climate protection. They are estimated to absorb around 28 percent of the world’s carbon emissions annually, while also storing very significant carbon stocks – around ten years’ worth of human-caused emissions.

Said Cristián Samper, WCS President and CEO: “The planet’s future quite literally relies on how well we protect the world’s last intact forest landscapes. Working with Indigenous Peoples, who own and manage so many of these remaining forests, is absolutely critical if we are to be successful.”

The analysis includes a global map showing the overlay between Indigenous Lands and intact forest landscapes in 2000, 2013 and 2016.  It shows that nearly 10 percent of intact forest landscapes were lost between 2000 and 2016 and their rate of loss is increasing. Loss were slightly lower (around 8 percent) in Indigenous People’s lands, but this is still dangerously high.

Indigenous peoples manage at least 25 percent of above-ground carbon in tropical forests globally. These critical carbon stocks and sinksthat are found in particular in the great intact forest regions of Amazonia, Central Africa, New Guinea, and North American Boreal, are also at greater risk because of the lack of recognition of land rights for indigenous peoples and local communities or support for their management.

2015 study found that deforestation rates in the Amazon were five times greater outside indigenous peoples’ territories and conservation units than they were inside those areas. However, only 21 of 131 tropical countries have commitments to expand Indigenous and local communities’ land tenure rights under their Paris commitments.These new findings build upon a study appearing in the journal “Nature Sustainability” showing that Indigenous Peoples manage or have tenure rights over at least a quarter of the world’s land.

Said Samper: “Stewardship of Indigenous lands is crucial to conserving the world’s remaining intact forest ecosystems. It is vital that natural resource governance systems enable them to build on and expand that role as a central part of any strategy to safeguard intact forests in the future.”

Indigenous-led conservation is a linchpin of WCS’ strategy to protect the world’s remaining intact forest, alongside work to strengthen protected areas and address threats such as mining and logging. For decades, WCS has practiced a rights-based approach to forest conservation, which seeks to support Indigenous Peoples and other local communities to: secure formal recognition of their rights to traditionally held territories, water, and natural resources; exercise those rights to ensure effective, transparent, and accountable governance, cultural integrity, and broader respect for these rights; and realize the benefits that allow them to improve their quality of life, sustain economic growth, and ensure that their objectives are reflected in regional and national development planning.