Stewards of the land: the power of Indigenous communities in fostering healthy forests

In 2020, the Brazilian government officially recognized the ownership of the Xingu Indigenous Park by the Indigenous people who live there. This recognition gave the Indigenous communities complete control over the 27,000 square kilometers of protected forest, home to more than 16 different ethnic groups.

This decision was a significant victory for the Xingu Indigenous Park Indigenous communities, who had been fighting for recognition of their land rights for many years. With ownership and control over their land, they can now manage the forest according to their traditional knowledge and practices, protecting it from deforestation and other threats.

There’s been a long and bloody history of control over forests being wrested away from Indigenous communities. In many cases, colonialism and the expansion of capitalist economies led to the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands and the forests that sustained them.

In other cases, forests were taken away from Indigenous communities for conservation purposes, without adequate recognition of their customary land rights or their traditional knowledge and practices. This has often led to conflicts between conservation organizations and Indigenous communities, as the latter were excluded from decision-making processes and saw their livelihoods threatened by conservation measures.

The recognition of Indigenous land rights in the Xingu Indigenous Park is a positive step towards re-acknowledging the importance of Indigenous communities in forest management and conservation. 

What role do Indigenous communities play in reforestation efforts?

Indigenous communities play a vital role in reforestation efforts. Many Indigenous people have long-standing relationships with the forests in their traditional territories and have developed sustainable ways of managing them. They possess traditional ecological knowledge that has been passed down for generations and understand the complex relationships between different species of plants and animals in the forest.

They use traditional practices that stand the test of time

The traditional practices of Indigenous peoples are often more attuned to nature than most modern processes. Examples of these practices include:

Agroforestry: this involves planting crops alongside trees and can help prevent soil erosion, improve soil fertility, and provide food and other resources.

Selective logging: Rather than clear-cutting a forest, Indigenous communities often practice selective logging, which involves selectively removing mature trees while leaving younger ones to grow. This approach can help maintain a healthy forest ecosystem and ensure the long-term sustainability of the forest.

Fire management: In order to manage forest ecosystems, promote the growth of certain plant species, and prevent the spread of wildfires, some Indigenous communities use controlled burning.

They have a deep knowledge of natural ecosystems

Indigenous communities have lived in close relationships with forest ecosystems for generations. They often have a holistic view of the environment and recognize the interconnectedness of different elements within an ecosystem. They have developed a detailed knowledge of the behavior of plants, animals, and other natural resources, their interrelationships, and their ecological roles.

In addition to traditional knowledge, Indigenous peoples also use modern scientific methods to study and understand their local ecosystems. Many Indigenous communities partner with scientists and conservation organizations to monitor and protect their lands and resources. This goldmine of knowledge can help accelerate conservation and reforestation efforts, especially when they’re given back stewardship of the land they have traditionally occupied and nurtured for generations. 

Examples of Indigenous communities successfully leading forest restoration projects

In the recent past, especially, there has been a plethora of instances that show us the absolute good that comes of restoring Indigenous peoples as the custodians of lands and forests. Here are some of those examples:

The Maya Nut Institute in Mesoamerica

This organization works with Indigenous communities to promote the planting and cultivation of the Maya nut tree, a fast-growing and highly nutritious tree species that is important for food security and forest restoration. The Maya Nut Institute has helped to establish over 2,000 community-managed agroforestry systems in Mesoamerica, restoring degraded lands and improving local livelihoods. According to the United Nations University, the tree itself could boost the world’s resilience to climate change.

The United Nauro Gor in Papua New Guinea

A community-driven reforestation effort in Papua New Guinea addressed tribal wars that had had disastrous impacts on the region’s forests during the previous 30 years. The Indigenous community-based organization, UNG, kickstarted informing locals about the importance of forests and bringing back the area’s distinctiveness. UNG collaborated with churches, schools, and universities for support with the goal of fostering environmental responsibility and awareness among the younger generation.

The Nauro managed to plant 50,000 trees after setting up tree nurseries and buying 8,000 tree seedlings from the neighborhood forest agency. This prevented further erosion and boosted the soil’s capacity to store water. About 300 hectares of woodland were restored in total through their efforts.

Chocho-Mixtecas Community Alliance in Oaxaca

Twenty-two communities in the Mexican state of Oaxaca have taken on the task of restoring soils damaged by decades of overgrazing. Even before thinking about planting trees, they had first to repair years of damage to the soil, which had rendered the landscape almost desert-like.

Despite having started from less than zero, over the last two decades, at least 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) have been successfully restored, and many portions have become thriving forests with their own ecosystems. 

Giving more Indigenous communities stewardship over forests

History has shown time and time again that, when given stewardship of the lands they traditionally belonged to, Indigenous communities can restore them in ways modern technology cannot. To keep that up, global communities and political organizations need to:

Recognize and respect Indigenous rights

Many Indigenous communities have a long history of living in and managing forest ecosystems, but their rights to their ancestral lands and resources are often not recognized or respected. Governments and other stakeholders should work to acknowledge and uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples, including their rights to land, self-determination, and cultural heritage.

Foster partnerships and collaboration

Partnerships and collaboration between Indigenous communities, governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders can help to build trust and promote effective forest management. These partnerships should be based on mutual respect, shared decision-making, and recognition of the value of Indigenous knowledge and practices.

Provide training and resources

Indigenous communities often lack the financial and technical resources needed to manage forest ecosystems effectively. Governments and other stakeholders should provide training and resources to support Indigenous communities in sustainable forest management, including agroforestry, reforestation, and sustainable use of forest products.

The final word

Local communities and Indigenous peoples are critical to the world’s fight against climate change in many ways. EcoMatcher is dedicated to supporting local communities with and through its reforestation — by providing them with a steady livelihood, providing tech support for reforestation, and recognizing their claim over traditional lands. The world can no longer afford to operate in silos — we need to band together and take ownership of what we each know best so that we can move towards a brighter future.