Brazilian tribe owns carbon rights to Amazon rainforest land


Rhett A. Butler, –

Date of publication: 
9 December 2009

A rainforest tribe fighting to save their territory from loggers owns the carbon-trading rights to their land, according to a legal opinion released today by Baker & McKenzie, one of the world’s largest law firms.

The opinion, which was commissioned by Forest Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based forest conservation group, could boost the efforts of indigenous groups seeking compensation for preserving forest on their lands, effectively paving the way for large-scale indigenous-led conservation of the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous people control more than a quarter of the Brazilian Amazon.

“This really is a landmark opinion,” said Michael Jenkins, President and CEO of Forest Trends. “What we have been able to demonstrate here is that there will be opportunity and a path forward for indigenous groups to participate in emerging markets from a global warming deal. In fact, the indigenous groups would now be part of the solution.”

Baker & McKenzie reached its conclusion based on the Brazilian Constitution and legislation, which “provides for a unique proprietary regime over the Brazilian Indians land… which reserves to the Brazilian Indians… the exclusive use and sustainable administration of the demarcated lands as well as… the economic benefits that this sustainable use can generate.”

The Surui have worked closely with Google Earth Outreach to develop ways to map and monitor their territory
While the legal opinion was commissioned on behalf of the Surui tribe in Rondonia, Brazil, it should apply across Brazil and could set a precedent in other countries as well.

“This finding should greatly help the Surui and, by extension, other indigenous groups in Brazil,” said Beto Borges, Director of Communities and Markets Programs at Forest Trends. “Not only do the indigenous groups have the ethical right for carbon credits projects on their land and because of their stewardship role over the generations, but this finding now means they have the legal right as well. It’s a major step forward.”

Securing forest-carbon rights to their land would allow the Surui to win compensation for their efforts to protect their forest home. The tribe has long battled development interests and is counting on payments from carbon conservation to help finance its 50-year sustainable development plan.

“This study confirms that we have the right to carbon, and is also an important political and legal instrument to recognize the rights of indigenous people for the carbon in their standing forests,” said Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, leader of the Surui tribe. “It helps in our dialog with the government, businesses, and other sectors, strengthening the autonomy of indigenous peoples to manage our territories.”

Recent research has shown that indigenous reserves are particularly effective at slowing forest clearing in high-deforestation frontier regions. A study by researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center and the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia found that the incidence of fire and deforestation within indigenous reserves was half that of surrounding unprotected areas. But this very stewardship has raised fears among some that indigenous groups would miss out on forest carbon payments since these schemes typically reward activities that reduce forest clearing relative to a baseline of past deforestation.

REDD should enhance recognition that indigenous people have maintained the state of their forests, not penalize them for this stewardship,” Vasco van Roosmalen, director of the Amazon Conservation Team-Brazil, an NGO that has helped the Surui develop ethnographic maps of their lands, told mongabay. “Indigenous lands are the most important barrier to Amazon forest clearing”