All over the world, indigenous communities tend to be marginalized both politically and economically. So awarding them formal legal rights to the forests they have historically controlled, often for hundreds of years, is probably a good idea from the standpoint of social justice and economic development.
But what about the environmental consequences? Will titling indigenous communities, who control enormous swaths of tropical forests, help stem deforestation and forest degradation—and all the attendant environmental problems, including biodiversity loss, climate change, and soil erosion? Unfortunately, there are good reasons to expect that titling could either make these problems better or worse.
On one hand, titling could dampen perverse incentives for indigenous communities and other agents to clear forests in order to establish use rights and to harvest timber quickly before property rights change. It could also deter encroachment by outsiders. And it could enable indigenous communities to participate in activities to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) and other formal conservation initiatives.
But on the other hand, titling entire communities instead of individual indigenous households could create common pool resource problems; leave indigenous communities vulnerable to being co-opted by powerful mining, gas, and logging companies; and improve access to credit used to harvest timber and convert forests to agriculture.
We have virtually no rigorous evidence to help us understand which outcome is more likely. Granted, several studies show that rates of deforestation inside indigenous communities are typically lower than outside. However, indigenous communities are usually located in remote, sparsely populated areas with relatively little deforestation pressure to begin with. As a result, simply comparing deforestation rates inside and outside indigenous communities does not tell us much about the likely effect of awarding title; for that, it is important to control for preexisting characteristics of community forests.
This is the gap in the evidence we sought to fill with a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Titling Indigenous Communities Protects Forests in the Peruvian Amazon.” My coauthors (Leonardo Corral, Eirivelthon Lima, and Greg Asner) and I use longitudinal data from 2000–2005 derived from satellite images along with fixed-effects regression models to study the effect on both forest clearing and disturbance of titling a sample of 51 indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon.
Our results indicate that, overall, titling in the Peruvian Amazon significantly stems forest cover change. Specifically, we find that titling reduces clearing by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds in a two-year window spanning the year title is awarded and the year afterward. Data constraints prevented us from determining whether or not titling has longer-term effects.
We expect our results to be of interest to not only those concerned with indigenous community rights and forest conservation but also with climate change. Roughly 10 percent of global carbon emissions are from forest cover change. A recent study led by the Woods Hole Research Center found that fully one-fifth of the world’s forest carbon is controlled by indigenous communities. Therefore, in principle, titling indigenous communities could represent an important tool for curbing forest carbon emissions.
Looking ahead, our future research on this topic will focus on two questions. First, do our findings generalize to other countries? To answer that question, we already have begun conducting similar studies in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. Second, how exactly does titling reduce forest cover change? To address this, we plan to conduct field research to complement our analysis of satellite data.