Accurately evaluating forest carbon stocks is difficult to do in remote rainforests where researchers are afforded limited access. It is widely believed that only experts can properly measure forest biomass, but a new study found that well-trained indigenous technicians are just as effective at collecting the necessary data to monitor forest carbon variability.
This article originally appeared on Mongabay.com. (Republished under Published under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND).
During the UN climate talks in December 2015 that would ultimately produce the Paris Climate Agreement, indigenous leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America presented a fairly simple proposition: give indigenous communities rights to their ancestral forests and end the criminalization of their efforts to protect those forests, and negotiators would have a powerful but affordable climate solution to work with.
There is an abundance of research to support this claim. It’s been estimated that as much as 10 percent of total global carbon emissions are due to deforestation. And according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, by securing indigenous land rights in Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia alone, we could avoid the release of up to 59 megatons of carbon emissions every year — the equivalent of taking 9 to 12 million passenger vehicles off the road.
In other words, “Securing indigenous forestlands tenure has significant potential for cost-effective carbon mitigation,” as WRI put it.
It’s not just in Latin America that huge carbon savings are to be had by securing land rights for indigenous and other local forest communities, either. In order to bolster their pitch at the climate talks in Paris, the indigenous leaders pointed to an analysis by the Woods Hole Research Center that found Indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin, the Mesoamerican region, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia comprise more than 20 percent of the carbon stored above-ground in Earth’s tropical forests.
The global community clearly signaled that keeping forests standing will be a key strategy in combating global warming by including REDD+, the UN program for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, as a standalone article in the final Paris Climate Agreement.
“Given that large swaths of tropical forests, and forest carbon stocks, are held in indigenous territories, both recognized and under claim, it behooves national REDD+ programs to engage with these communities in culturally appropriate ways that will ensure their legitimate participation, generate clear benefits for them, and leave a legacy of capacity for future REDD+ related endeavors,” Smithsonian predoctoral fellow and McGill University Ph.D. Candidate Javier Mateo-Vega, lead author of a new study published in the journal Ecosphere last month, said in a statement.
Accurately evaluating forest carbon stocks is difficult to do in remote rainforests where researchers are afforded limited access, however. It is widely believed that only experts can properly measure forest biomass, but Mateo-Vega and team found that local, non-expert field technicians are just as effective at collecting the necessary data to monitor forest carbon variability. What’s more, using well-trained indigenous technicians is more cost-effective, takes less time, and, of course, helps meet the requirement for full and effective participation by indigenous peoples in REDD+ programs, the researchers said.
For the study, a team of thirty indigenous technicians performed a forest inventory in order to measure the forest carbon sequestered in five Emberá and Wounaan territories in Darién, Panama. (Six of the indigenous technicians are co-authors of the Ecosphere paper describing the results of the study.) At the same time, data was also collected by forest ecologists with study co-author Catherine Potvin’s Neotropical Ecology Lab at McGill University.
The researchers then compared the tree height and diameter data gathered by the expert technicians and the trained indigenous technicians and found no significant differences. Meanwhile, access to Darién’s forests was only possible because the study was managed by the Organización de Jóvenes Emberá y Wounaan de Panamá (OJEWP) in coordination with traditional indigenous authorities, in accordance with the principle of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.
“We were invited to provide scientific leadership to the project, while administration of the grant and the logistics of our expeditions fell squarely in the hands of our indigenous counterparts,” Mateo-Vega said.
He added: “The forest inventorying method devised through this study not only proved to be cost-effective, rapid and accurate, but also serves as a legitimate mechanism for indigenous communities to actively participate in climate change mitigation strategies such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+).”
The global climate isn’t the only beneficiary from this forest inventorying model. The indigenous communities themselves enjoyed substantial benefits, as well, including knowledge of forest carbon stocks, ownership of the data they collected, income (by directly participating in the forest inventories or by providing services such as food, lodging, and transportation), and the capacity for participation in future REDD+ initiatives that might direct funding and other resources their way.
One Emberá chief, Elibardo Membache, told the researchers that participating in the forest inventory was an invaluable opportunity for the technicians and tribal authorities to get experience directly managing a conservation project and will help prepare them for discussing forest carbon with government officials.
While the study provides a blueprint for carrying out this process in eastern Panama, Mateo-Vega said that it is applicable to other indigenous territories across the tropics, though modifications will have to be made to suit each context it is deployed in. (Indeed, a 2015 study done in Guyana found similar results.)
“The experience this paper documents demonstrates that it is not necessarily complicated or expensive — it’s actually cheaper — to include indigenous peoples in REDD+ related activities and monitoring,” Chris Meyer, a study co-author with the Environmental Defense Fund, said. “The idea that inclusion is complex and costly unfortunately seems to be a common myth held by some experts who are assisting countries in developing their systems and programs.”
- Mateo-Vega, J., Potvin, C., Monteza, J., Bacorizo, J., Barrigón, J., Barrigón, R., López, N., Omi, L., Opua, M., Serrano, J., Cushman, K. C., & Meyer, C. (2017). Full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in forest monitoring for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+): trial in Panama’s Darién. Ecosphere, 8(2). doi:10.1002/ecs2.1635
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