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True stewards: new report says local communities key to saving forests, curbing global warming

Yet, many communities, indigenous people lack the rights to protect their own land

Forests provide vital habitat for many species of animals and plants. In particular, tropical forests support the greatest diversity of life on the planet and are home to about 50 percent of its wildlife. In addition, forests also sequester its carbon and help regulate the climate. However, deforestation is compromising forests around the world, destroying habitat and emitting greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. A new report released today finds a possible solution: protecting forests by empowering the local communities that live within them.

For the report, issued jointly by World Resources Institute (WRI) and Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), its authors surveyed almost all relevant literature published within the last 10 years, and supplemented it with their own deforestation and emissions analyses.

“This is the most comprehensive literature review to date on this subject,” said Caleb Stevens, Property Rights Specialist at WRI and main author of the report.

Man cutting Nipa palm frons as construction material in Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The report focused on the 14 most heavily forested countries, including Indonesia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Bolivia, and Guatemala. It set out to answer one main question: what type of forest management is best for reducing deforestation?

They found that land held by local communities and indigenous peoples tended to be significantly less impacted by deforestation than land managed by governments or private entities.

“In most cases, communities and indigenous people outperformed government ownership and government protected areas and also private [management],” said Andy White, Coordinator at RRI. “The evidence was very clear.”

For instance, Brazil’s community forests have resulted in a deforestation rate that is 22 times lower than it would be if none of its lands were under community protection. The report found that these forests experienced an average deforestation rate that is 11 times lower than land outside their borders. In the Mexican Yucatan, the results are even more striking – deforestation rates inside community forests were 350 times lower than other areas.

The reduced deforestation of community forests echoes beyond the trees. The report estimates that because fewer trees are cleared, Brazil produces 27 times less greenhouse gas emissions than it would without community forests. This translates to 12 billion tons of carbon dioxide that will not be released into the atmosphere over the next 30 years.

Legally recognized community-managed forest amounts to 513 million hectares globally, representing an eighth of the world’s forests. Many communities rely on forest resources for food, water, medicine, and building materials. The report attributes the health of community-managed forests to the vested interest members have in sustainably using them.

“No one has a stronger interest in the health of forests than the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods and culture,” White said.

Forest loss (2001-2013) occurs at rates much lower in areas that are managed by local communities and indigenous people. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

However, the ability of local communities to protect their forest homes depends on their legal rights to do so. Without these assurances, developers may have relatively easy access to forests – and even remove residents who have lived on the land for generations. For instance, in 2013 indigenous residents of Batin Aembilan in Indonesia were allegedly forcibly evicted from their village and their homes burned to the ground by Indonesian security forces and PT Asiatic Pesada, a palm oil corporation, which wanted to convert the land to oil palm plantations.

With legal rights, local people have the power to reject development and keep their land under their protection. Doing so not only protects people, their homes, and their livelihoods, but has a dramatic and positive impact on ecosystem health.

“What we find is that where there is legal recognition, and where that recognition is protected, enforced, then you have a very, very sharp reduction in deforestation,” said Andrew Steer, President and CEO of WRI.

According to Steer, the Indonesian government has tried to protect forests – through a logging concession moratorium, for example – but it has encountered difficulties doing so, partly because communities have not had legal protections.

“We estimate that about 42 million hectares of community forest exists in Indonesia, but only one million hectares is legally protected,” he said. “So as a result, it’s almost as if the Indonesian government is trying to do the right thing, but with one arm tied behind its back.”

The report suggests a number of actions to empower and better enable local communities and indigenous people in the protection and stewardship of their land. These include assuring legal recognition of their rights to their forests, providing communities with technical assistance and training in conservation programs and capacity building, and compensating them for the benefits their forests lend to the world.

“Research has shown time and time again that clear and secure property rights for indigenous peoples and local communities have greatly boosted the capacity of countries to achieve national-level forest protection and restoration. It’s tragic that this has not yet been fully adopted as a central climate change mitigation strategy,” White said.

“For us to get serious about curbing climate change, we have to get serious about respecting the rights of local communities to the lands they live and depend on.”