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Slow but steady progress on recognizing indigenous land rights is interrupted by commodity boom

Progress over the past 25 years in recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights to land and resources has been interrupted by a worldwide commodity boom, argues a new report published by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).

The report, “Pushback: Local Power, Global Realignment,” says that surging food and energy prices—and associated appreciation of land values—have led some governments to pause on land tenure reform, and in some cases, rollback hard-won rights. The report cites instances in Asia, Africa, and South America where large blocks of land traditionally used by local people have been sold or leased to industrial interests. Local people have seen little in return.

In a conversation with, Andy White, coordinator of RRI, discussed the new report and broader rights issues.

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANDY WHITE What is your background and what led you to this line of work?

Andy White: I was raised in far western North Carolina where my father was in the sawmill business and my favorite pastime was running around the woods, camping and backpacking. So I grew up loving both the wind in the trees and the smell of fresh sawdust.

Andy White
Andy White.

My interest in the politics of forests was sparked by a public consultation meeting held in Robbinsville, North Carolina in 1975 when the Bemis Lumber Company was selling its forest land, adjoining the southern edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park. The Sierra Club wanted the government to buy it and extend the park and the local community wanted to keep the logging and jobs going. It was quite a feisty meeting and they all seemed to have reasonable arguments to me. It was a fascinating experience for a young boy and a wonderful introduction to the complicated challenges of figuring out what’s best for society.

I went on to study forestry and political science, then spent 5 years in Haiti learning about development from peasants. After that I went back to graduate school for a Masters in Anthropology studying traditional rural organizations and institutional and technical innovations, and then a PhD in forest economics – studying the conditions for collective action for natural resources management. I then spent 5 years working for the World Bank on rural development and environmental projects in Haiti, the DR and Mexico, and subsequently left the Bank to help start Forest Trends. I left Forest Trends in 2005 with colleagues to start the Rights and Resources Initiative, where I am now. You have spoken about a global land grab in the tropics. What is driving this land grab? In what countries is the problem the worst?

Andy White: It’s driven by the increasing scarcity of arable land and the booming demand for all land-based commodities (food, biofuel, wood fiber) plus minerals (the location of which also overlaps with forest areas). It’s hard to say where it’s worst. It depends on your definition of “worst”. It is present in China, where local governments are still often corrupt and local people do not have rights of legal recourse; in India, where the bulk of the “grab” is from domestic, rather than international investors – and there’s little transparency and thus difficulty in tracking; in Latin America – where rights are conferred on paper, but governments often still allocate use to oil, gas, and bioenergy investors; and Africa – where governments still officially claim ownership over the land and seem eager to hand it over to the highest bidder despite the longstanding existence of local people. Are there countries that are doing a good job protecting the rights of communities to manage their resources?

Andy White: Certainly. Mexico comes to mind as perhaps the best, and rights are generally stronger, and community organizations are generally stronger in Latin America than in other regions. What does a workable REDD-mechanism look like? What are they key safeguards that need to be in place? How can REDD be made more inclusive?

Dani woman working in a sweet potato field in Papua Province, Indonesia
Dani woman working in a sweet potato field in Papua Province, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Andy White: I don’t know what a workable REDD mechanism looks like. I think it will take different forms in different countries. I don’t expect to see a global market for forest carbon, at least anytime soon. There need to be social and environmental safeguards (the UNFCCC REDD text is pretty good). And because the REDD world has become so fragmented – with the majority of funds now going through bilateral, rather than the multilateral channels, it’s now critical for bilateral parties to adopt safeguards (e.g. the Norwegians, USAID, DFID, etc). Industrial interests like to tout their role in poverty alleviation efforts, especially in places like Indonesia. What are your thoughts on these claims?

Andy White: True, clearcutting forests and tending oil-palm plantations creates jobs. But these are “boom-bust” jobs, often given to outsiders, not sustainable, local jobs and not nearly to the scale produced by small-holder forestry or oil-palm and local enterprises. The recent analysis by RRI and colleagues shows that small-holder production and enterprises can on average double the jobs and revenues to conventional industrial enterprises. The conventional business models also abuse the human and civil rights of local people and foster corruption – not exactly what governments and the global community should be promoting. Are there any large companies you would cite as leading the way on issues like FPIC and community management of resources?

Andy White: I don’t know of any right now, not in the developing world. Stora Enso (Finnish-Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer) is of course better than most – but we just saw how they willingly screwed up in China – letting their overall ambitions blur their commitments to CSR.

Of course, FPIC and community management of forests is standard practice in the developed world, where rights are recognized and protected by government and legal systems – and large forest companies have developed successful business models around these social and political realities. For example, UPM Kymene and Stora Enso operations in the Finland and Sweden are all based on purchasing wood from small-holders, and they certainly only purchase if the private holder gives them permission. The bulk of the US forest industry now relies on supply from the private, non-industrial forests of the American Southeast. So, large companies and large conservation organizations are not inherently averse to human rights, they just have managed to pursue their interest for decades without having to face them in developing countries. Of course, they will have to adapt as democracy and development emerges in the forest areas of the developing world. We will see who among the companies and the conservation organizations continue to hold out against rights and justice, and who becomes willing allies for democracy and (real) development. Taking a step back, are global policy-makers more or less aware of issues like community involvement in management of resources than they were a generation ago? Is progress being made or are we regressing?

Andy White: I think more so, but awareness is not nearly sufficient. The vested interests in the status quo are just as strong, or stronger, and now that forests are worth a lot more there is even more reason for governments to not hand them over. That said, there is progress in some places, just as there is rollback in others.

I wrote the following in reference to the UNFF meeting in NY last week


Over the last few days, as I’ve had time to think about it more, it’s now finally dawning on me that the central message of “Pushback” is that to achieve conservation at scale, as well as poverty alleviation, food security – development and democracy in the forest areas of the world – we need to look beyond the piecemeal protected areas and REDD projects, and recognize the rights and unleash the entrepreneurial energies of the over 1 billion poor that live in and around forests. This is the real “game-changer” that will save our forests, and enable our forests to help save our planet. Rather than continue to parachute ideas (or money) in from the north, it’s time to recognize that these people are citizens, they are entrepreneurs and they have rights – and they are also far better than their governments in conserving forests!

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