RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Giving indigenous people land title deeds is one of the most cost-effective ways to preserve South America's endangered rainforest, a research group said on Thursday.
Deforestation rates in Brazil on land formally owned by indigenous groups were 2.5 times lower than on other comparable territories, said a report from the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based group.
Similar figures hold true for forests in Bolivia and Colombia, said the report, which drew its conclusions from World Bank data, official statistics and research from Brazilian universities.
As governments across South America struggle to balance their budgets following a crash in commodities prices, the report said giving formal title deeds to people who have lived on the land for generations is one of the cheapest ways to protect forests and combat climate change.
This is because indigenous communities who own the territory are more likely to conserve the forest than other land users, the report said, echoing other studies on forest protection.
The Amazon, the world's largest tropical rainforest, plays a key role in sucking climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, acting as a bulwark against global warming.
"There is a sound economic argument for meeting climate mitigation targets by securing indigenous land rights," WRI researcher Peter Veit told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"There is still a significant amount of land that needs to be formally recognized," he said.
About 13 percent of Brazil's territory, mostly in the Amazon rainforest, has been demarcated for the country's indigenous people, according to government data.
But a considerable portion of this land has not been formally titled to specific tribes or communities, which means that many indigenous residents do not have secure ownership over the territory.
Formally recognizing specific tracts of indigenous territory costs about $5.50 per hectare, the report said, as government officials need to travel to remote areas to conduct surveys and consult residents to determine who should receive land titles.
The report's conclusions on the benefits of formal land ownership in South America apply to other large developing countries where most of the world's tropical forests are located, Veit said.
More than 30 percent of the world's land is held informally by indigenous people and local communities under customary tenure agreements, he said.
If more of this land was formally recognized and residents had title deeds to the territory, communities would have an easier time protecting forests, the WRI said.
"This huge amount of land is vulnerable to being acquired in unwelcome ways," Veit told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault, Editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)