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First-of-its-kind map of the Amazon's indigenous lands and forest carbon will empower indigenous communities to protect their forests – and the climate

Para español, vea el blog del Instituto del Bien Común

On the last day of our meeting in Lima, Peru last month, five consultants from indigenous organizations across the Amazon were hunkered down at their computers.

WHRC's Alessandro Baccini (center) teaching Peruvian indigenous participants how to use software to analyze satellite imagery. (Photo credit: Dylan Murray)

Three of them represented the Madre de Dios region in eastern Peru, where illegal mining threatens their forests and rivers. Another was from the Ecuadorian Amazon, which is grappling with the implications of a recent presidential decree to open up the land for oil and gas exploration. The fifth worked with tribes in rural Colombia, where a dearth of ways to make a living has both fueled a decades-long insurgency and the isolation of indigenous peoples there.

The three-day workshop was the latest effort facilitated by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to inform Amazonian indigenous communities about REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), a program that would provide forest-dwellers with economic incentives to keep their forests standing.

In Lima, EDF brought together a top-notch team to begin finding answers to some of the larger questions about REDD+.

For example, if a program were created where communities could be paid for not deforesting, just how much would the forests in all Amazonian indigenous reserves and protected areas be worth? And, would the economic and social benefits from such a program compare to the rewards reaped from deforestation, mining, or other unsustainable activities that often fail to benefit indigenous communities?

Since about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the carbon released by deforestation, incentive programs such as REDD+ that can keep the carbon locked in forests will be a key part in stopping climate change. Determining how much carbon a given forest owner or community holds is necessary to determine compensation.

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EDF's Chris Meyer explains how satellite imagery and on-the-ground measurements by indigenous participants helped to improve estimates of forest carbon in indigenous territories. (Photo credit: Dylan Murray)

During the workshop, indigenous consultants representing COICA, a pan-Amazonian indigenous coordinating body, worked with scientists from Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and RAISG, a network of remote-sensing scientists from Amazon countries, to quantify how much “forest carbon” was being stored in these territories.

WHRC provided a trove of satellite data that gives estimates of how much carbon is stored in tropical forests around the globe – crucial information in and of itself, as some forests hold much more carbon than others. Meanwhile, RAISG brought to the table a painstakingly detailed map of all indigenous lands and protected areas in the Amazon. WHRC and RAISG’s work yields a tool that is nothing less than state of the art.

By merging the content from the two organizations, the team has created a first-of-its-kind map* that simultaneously shows the density of forest carbon throughout the Amazon and where the indigenous and protected areas are relative to it.

So what does this mean for indigenous peoples?

Maps could inform indigenous groups’ interactions with government, buyers of REDD+ credits

The new map that shows how forest carbon aligns with indigenous territories means indigenous groups will better understand the climate benefits of preserving their tropical forests.

The five consultants are preparing detailed maps for specific regions in their countries in the hopes that they may be REDD+-eligible in the future, and plans are in the works to disseminate the complete maps and their underlying data to communities throughout the Amazon Basin. This will in turn allow communities that want to participate in REDD+ to represent themselves more effectively to governments and REDD+ credit buyers when REDD+ markets come on-line.

The consultants are optimistic that their efforts in specific regions in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia might lead to their countries’ inclusion in an eventual “Jurisdictional REDD+” system. Whereas most REDD+ efforts function at the smaller project-level, the increasingly popular jurisdictional approach allows for areas at the sub-national scale (for example, the Madre de Dios region) to be certified as having zero net deforestation.

Indigenous lands have less deforestation, but face political pressures

These maps also illustrate what’s at stake if we lose sight of indigenous people’s proven record of environmental stewardship.

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Indigenous participants and collaborators from RAISG, WHRC and EDF at the workshop. The maps being held illustrate the indigenous reserves and protected areas throughout the Amazon Basin. (Photo credit: Instituto del Bien Común)

Past studies, including one co-authored by EDF’s Director of Tropical Forest Policy Steve Schwartzman, have proven that indigenous lands suffer from much less deforestation than non-indigenous lands.

Recent political winds in Brazil and Ecuador, though, suggest that politicians are leaning towards unbridled agricultural expansion and resource extraction in the Amazon, even if this means violating or scaling back indigenous rights.

These maps can help make the case that indigenous management of tropical forests makes both environmental and economic sense. With such a tool, indigenous communities can convince their countries that they do not have to sacrifice environmental protections and the well-being of indigenous communities for economic growth.

*Note: The maps are still being finalized, and are expected to be done by early 2014.

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