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Credit: © Neil Ever Osborne

Land Use

Indigenous Peoples’ Land Management

This image was taken on behalf of the International Conservation Fund of Canada (ICFC), which has worked with the Kayapo people to protect their 26-million-acre landholdings from encroaching loggers, miners, and Brazilian frontier society. From satellite photographs, the Kayapo traditional lands in Mato Grosso and Pará are a jewel of the Amazon, emerald and unblemished. On the margins of their land are the roads, clearings, frontier towns, and billowing smoke from fires clearing the land for cattle and farming. The efforts of the Kayapo have not always succeeded: Construction on the hugely destructive Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in Pará commenced in March 2011 after decades of legal and political resistance. It continues to be contested on legal fronts.

Indigenous communities have long been the frontline of resistance against deforestation; mineral, oil, and gas extraction; and the expansion of monocrop plantations. Their resistance prevents land-based carbon emissions, and maintains or increases carbon sequestration.

Indigenous and community-owned lands represent 18 percent of all land area, including at least 1.2 billion acres of forest, containing 37.7 billion tons of carbon stock. Growing the acreage under secure indigenous land tenure can increase above- and belowground carbon stocks and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.

Beyond carbon, indigenous land management conserves biodiversity, maintains a range of ecosystems services, safeguards rich cultures and traditional ways of life, and responds to the needs of the most vulnerable. Practices include:

  • home gardens,
  • agroforestry systems,
  • shifting swidden cultivation,
  • pastoral approaches to raising livestock,
  • fire management, and
  • community managed forests.

Indigenous communities are among those most dramatically impacted by climate change—despite contributing the least to its causes—because of their land-based livelihoods, histories of colonization, and social marginalization. More can be done to recognize the unique impacts climate change has on them, as well as their critical contributions of traditional knowledge and practices.


Indigenous and community-owned lands: Rights and Resources Initiative. Who Owns the World’s Land? A Global Baseline of Formally Recognized Indigenous and Community Land Rights. Washington, DC: Rights and Resources Initiative, 2015; Stevens, Caleb, Robert Winterbottom, Jenny Springer, and Katie Reytar. Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change: How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Climate Change. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2014.

South and Southeast Asian home gardens: Toensmeier, Eric. The Carbon Farming Solution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016.

Home gardens…sequestration potential: Toensmeier, Solution.

Pastoralists; rangelands; soil carbon: McGahey, D., Davies, J., Hagelberg, N., and Ouedraogo, R. Pastoralism and the Green Economy—a Natural Nexus? Nairobi: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, United Nations Environment Programme, 2014.

community-managed forestland: Chao, Sophie. Forest Peoples: Numbers Across the World. Moreton-in-Marsh, UK: Forest Peoples Programme, 2012.

forest-dependent indigenous peoples: Krishnaswamy, Ajit, and Arthur Hanson, eds. Our Forests, Our Future: Summary Report of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development. Winnipeg: World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, 1999.

tenure security…positive forest outcomes: Robinson, Brian E., Margaret B. Holland, and Lisa Naughton-Treves. “Does Secure Land Tenure Save Forests? A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Land Tenure and Tropical Deforestation.” Global Environmental Change 29 (2014): 281-293.

forest designated for or owned by indigenous peoples: Rights and Resources Initiative, Who Owns.

view all book references

Technical Summary

Indigenous Peoples’ Land Management

Project Drawdown defines indigenous peoples’ land management as: providing indigenous communities with secure legal tenure rights to their traditional forest land. This practice replaces non-degraded forest without such tenure.  

Under indigenous peoples’ land management, deforestation and emissions are significantly reduced, with deforestation and degradation rates roughly ten times lower than the global average. Indigenous peoples have claim to large tracts of forest land around the world, and the current global trend is that indigenous peoples’ legal forest tenure is on the rise.

Granting indigenous peoples and local communities secure tenure to manage their lands thus results in carbon benefits in the form of reduced emissions from deforestation and continued carbon sequestration. It can be seen as a form of productive forest protection, given sustainable management and utilization of forest products.

The indigenous peoples’ land management solution has highly desirable human rights co-benefits, leading Drawdown to prioritize it for forest lands wherever possible.


Total Land Area [1]

The maximum area allocated for indigenous peoples’ land management is 1,040 million hectares, which represents the projected future non-degraded, non-protected area available for protection. [2] Current adoption [3] of the solution is 512.6 million hectares, representing forest land managed by indigenous peoples with secure tenure.

Adoption Scenarios [4]

A total of 1,040 million hectares of non-degraded forest area was allocated to this solution. Adoption projections are linear trends based on growth from 2002-2013 (Ding, 2016 and Summit, 2014). Three custom adoption scenarios were developed for indigenous peoples’ land management. All begin with current adoption of 512.60 million hectares. The custom scenarios were built using the historical data on land area under customary right of indigenous peoples, available for the year 2002 (385.24 million hectares), 2008 (427.92 million hectares), and 2013 (512.60 million hectares). These data points were extrapolated to get the values until 2060, and those values were then used to build three customized scenarios using the projected percent adoption target given for the low- to medium-income countries: in essence, securing formal indigenous and community land rights to at least 50 percent by 2030 (Rights and Resources, 2016).

Impacts of increased adoption of indigenous peoples’ land management from 2020-2050 were generated based on three growth scenarios, which were assessed in comparison to a Reference Scenario where the solution’s market share was fixed at the current levels.

  • Plausible Scenario: The conservative approach of this scenario yields an increase in area from 512.60 million hectares in 2013 to 797.12 million hectares by 2050.
  • Drawdown Scenario: Under the aggressive adoption of this scenario, the indigenously managed area increases to 883.91 million hectares by 2043.
  • Optimum Scenario: Under the most aggressive adoption scenario, the area increases to 883.91 million hectares by 2039.

The continuous annual rate of forest degradation, which is 0.03 percent per annum under indigenous peoples’ land management against 0.31 percent per annum under forest protection by government agencies, limits the 100 percent adoption of the total available land area for this solution, even under the most aggressive adoption scenarios.

Emissions Model

Avoided emissions from indigenous peoples’ land management are set at 314.6 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per hectare, based on meta-analysis of 31 data points from 4 sources.

Financial Model

It is assumed that any costs of indigenous peoples’ land management (e.g. carbon payments or payment for ecosystem services) are borne at a government or non-governmental organization (NGO) level. Drawdown land solutions only model costs that are incurred at the landowner or manager level.

Integration [5]

Drawdown’s Agro-Ecological Zone model allocates current and projected adoption of solutions to the planet’s forest, grassland, rainfed cropland, and irrigated cropland areas. Indigenous peoples’ land management was the third priority for use of non-degraded forest, following peatlands and mangrove protection within the coastal wetlands solution.


Total adoption in the Plausible Scenario is 880.3 million hectares in 2050, representing 84.6 percent of the total available land. Of this, 367.7 million hectares are adopted from 2020-2050. The emissions impact of this scenario is 6.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases reduced or sequestered by 2050. Total carbon stock protected is 231.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. Financial impacts are not modeled.

Total adoption in the Drawdown Scenario is 1,008.8 million hectares in 2050, representing 97.0 percent of the total available land. Of this, 496.2 million hectares are adopted from 2020-2050. The impact of this scenario is 8.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent by 2050. Total carbon stock protected is 265.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent.  

Total adoption in the Optimum Scenario is 1040.4 million hectares in 2050, representing 100.0 percent of the total available land. Of this, 527.8 million hectares are adopted from 2020-2050. The impact of this scenario is 9.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent by 2050. Total carbon stock protected is 274.0 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent.  



Benchmarks for this solution are rare. A World Resources Institute study calculated that secure forest tenure for indigenous people in Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia could reduce emissions by 42.8-59.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent through 2035, on 148.9 million hectares. The Drawdown model shows a global impact of 198-316 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent for 2035, on 367.7-527.8 million hectares between our three scenarios. Comparing the ratio of million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to million hectares, the World Resources Institute study benchmark is 0.28-0.40, while the Drawdown model calculates 0.11-0.53 in the three scenarios; thus, results are similar.


Including economic impacts – e.g. costs to governments and NGOs – would be a valuable addition to future updates.


Despite the fact that forests are degrading, although minimally, under the management of indigenous peoples, Project Drawdown advocates for the adoption of this solution due to its social benefits associated with the indigenous communities, better sustainability over other modes of forest protection, and the remoteness of many forest areas in hard climatic conditions which are difficult to be managed by any agency not living there. This solution addresses long-standing indigenous rights issues, protects carbon stocks equal to hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide, and provides a basis for sustainable rural livelihoods. As such, it should be a top priority for forest lands everywhere that indigenous people are striving to regain control of their traditional forests.

[1] To learn more about the Total Land Area for the Land Use Sector, click the Sector Summary: Land Use link below.

[2] Determining the total available land for a solution is a two-part process. The technical potential is based on the suitability of climate, soils, and slopes, and on degraded or non-degraded status. In the second stage, land is allocated using the Drawdown Agro-Ecological Zone model, based on priorities for each class of land. The total land allocated for each solution is capped at the solution’s maximum adoption in the Optimum Scenario. Thus, in most cases the total available land is less than the technical potential.

[3] Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand supplied by the solution in the base year of study. This study uses 2014 as the base year due to the availability of global adoption data for all Project Drawdown solutions evaluated.

[4] To learn more about Project Drawdown’s three growth scenarios, click the Scenarios link below. For information on Land Use Sector-specific scenarios, click the Sector Summary: Land Use link.

[5] For more on Project Drawdown’s Land Use integration model, click the Sector Summary: Land Use link below.

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