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Protecting Indigenous Land Rights Makes Good Economic Sense

On Nov. 2-3, the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment will host the 11th annual Columbia International Investment Conference, entitled “Climate Change and Sustainable Investment in Natural Resources: From Consensus to Action.” The conference, taking place one week before COP22, will offer a high-level opportunity to explore the complex challenges of the Paris Agreement in light of sustainable development, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the real challenges facing developing countries within the global economy. This blog series will help to frame some of the questions and issues that will be raised at the conference. For more information and to register (for free), visit the conference website.

River in Colombia
Yupati, Colombia. Indigenous peoples own or manage 50-65 percent of all land on Earth, but governments recognize only 10 percent as belonging to them. Photo: Mauricio Romero Mendoza/flickr

By Peter Veit and Helen Ding

Indigenous peoples and other communities hold and manage 50 to 65 percent of the world’s land, yet governments recognize only 10 percent as legally belonging to these groups, with another 8 percent designated by governments for communities.

That’s bad economic policy.

WRI’s new report, Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs: The Economic Case for Securing Indigenous Land Rights in the Amazon, examines the value of lands legally held by Indigenous Peoples in Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia. We found that these “tenure-secure” indigenous lands generate billions and sometimes trillions of dollars’ worth of benefits in the form of carbon sequestration, reduced pollution, clean water and more.

Four graphics tell the story:

Tenure-Secure Indigenous Lands Have Low Deforestation Rates

For the period 2000 to 2012, the average annual deforestation rates inside tenure-secure indigenous lands were two to three times lower than in similar forests without secure tenure in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia. The three countries have undertaken a regularization and titling process to recognize and protect indigenous lands since the 1990s and, in particular, in the past decade. The effects on reducing deforestation are already observable, suggesting that deforestation rates have declined over time and that these effects will likely continue if the indigenous lands remain secure.

The Benefits of Tenure-Secure Indigenous Lands Outweigh the Costs

Tenure-secure indigenous lands in the Amazon store carbon, reduce pollution by filtering water, control erosion and flooding by anchoring soil, and provide a suite of other local, regional and global “ecosystem services.” These benefits far outweigh the costs of securing land tenure.

Tenure-secure indigenous lands in the Amazon can generate a net total benefit ranging between $4,888 and $10,784 per hectare in Bolivia, $4,636 and $10,402 per hectare in Brazil, and $4,610 and $10,344 per hectare in Colombia. This translates into estimated total economic benefits for a 20-year period of $54–119 billion for Bolivia, $523–1,165 billion for Brazil and $123–277 billion for Colombia. The total costs of securing these indigenous lands for 20 years are at most 1 percent of the total benefits derived.

Tenure-Secure Indigenous Lands Help Reduce Emissions

One of the many ecological benefits that tenure-secure indigenous lands provide is sequestering carbon, which reduces CO2 emissions and helps curb climate change. These lands provide significant global carbon-mitigation benefits in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia, amounting to a total of US$25–34 billion over the next 20 years through the avoided annual release of 42.8–59.7Mt CO2 emissions. This is equivalent to taking between 9 and 12.6 million passenger vehicles off the roads for one year. (The graphic presents just the lower-bound estimates of the annually avoided CO2 emissions.)

Securing Indigenous Lands Is a Cost-Effective Carbon Mitigation Strategy

The estimated costs of carbon mitigation through securing indigenous land in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia range from $2.04 to $11.88 per tonne of carbon dioxide (tCO2). These costs are significantly lower than the average costs of avoided CO2 through carbon capture and storage of fossil fuels, which are estimated to be about $58/tCO2 for coal-fired power plants (five to 29 times more expensive than securing indigenous lands), and $85/tCO2 for natural gas-fired power plants (seven to 42 times more expensive).

3 Steps to Securing Indigenous Lands

These findings present a strong economic case for securing indigenous lands, with significant implications for finance ministers, international development agencies and national and local governments. Three recommendations flow from these findings:

  1. Secure indigenous and community lands. Governments and their partners should reform their laws to provide indigenous peoples and communities with sufficient legal protections, and take other necessary actions to strengthen land rights, including mapping, demarcating and formally registering this land.
  2. Make tenure-secure indigenous and community lands a central climate change mitigation strategy. Had indigenous lands not been secure in the Amazon, CO2 emissions would have been higher—about 9 percent more per year in Bolivia, and 3 percent more per year in Brazil and Colombia. Investing in securing indigenous lands is a relatively inexpensive action that governments can take to help meet emissions-reduction objectives, such as the Nationally Determined Contributions submitted as part of the Paris agreement on climate change.
  3. Utilize international development funds to secure indigenous and community lands. Governments and their development partners should increasingly direct their resources to securing indigenous and community lands. The funds could support government agencies in formally documenting and protecting indigenous and community lands, as well as the indigenous peoples and communities who invest in protecting their lands.

For more information and to download the full research report and the report summary in English, Spanish, Portuguese or French, go to:

Originally published on Insights, the World Resources Institute’s blog.

Peter Veit is director of the land and resources rights initiative at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Helen Ding is an environmental economist at WRI. The views expressed here are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Earth Institute. To learn more about these issues, join WRI’s president and CEO, Andrew Steer (@AndrewSteerWRI), at the 11th annual Columbia International Investment Conference: Climate Change and Sustainable Investment in Natural Resources: From Consensus to Action. For more information, see here.



Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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