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To tackle climate change cheaply, first secure indigenous forest rights

  • Over 20 years, the secure forest rights of indigenous groups in the Brazilian Amazon and communities in a Guatemalan reserve will prevent the release of 5.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the emissions of more than a billion cars in a year – as a result of avoided deforestation, a new report shows.
  • The report calculates that the economic benefits from those averted emissions as well as carbon capture in the secure forests will surpass $160 billion.
  • A second report finds that the way local communities harvest timber on their concessions in the Guatemalan reserve represents state-of-the-art best practice for tropical forest management.

Handing forests over to the people who live in them will help keep sea levels from continuing to rise, and it’s a course of action that more than pays for itself, new research shows. Investing in forest rights for indigenous peoples and local communities can yield massive economic benefits in averted carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report the Washington, D.C.-based NGO World Resources Institute (WRI) released this month.

The report examines the economic costs and benefits of community forest tenure in indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon and in community forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. Over a 20-year period, the report found that secure local forest rights in the two regions will prevent the release of 5.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the emissions of more than a billion cars in a year – as a result of avoided deforestation. The economic benefits from those averted emissions as well as carbon capture due to the secure local forest rights are calculated to surpass $160 billion.

“The main message is that investing in or securing community forestry rights is a low-cost, high-benefit action that’s important for helping to stop climate change,” Juan Carlos Altamirano, an economist at WRI and one of the report co-authors, told Mongabay.

The WRI study comes on the heels of other research into indigenous and community land and forest tenure and deforestation patterns. Around the world, 1.5 billion indigenous people and others living in local communities lack legal rights to the lands on which they live and depend, according to a September 2015 report from the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). A 2014 report by RRI and WRI found that lands held by communities and indigenous peoples were less impacted by deforestation than privately owned lands or even government protected areas.

Map shows indigenous territories in Brazil, in 2015. Map courtesy of World Resources Institute.

The new WRI report defines tenure security as “the certainty that a community’s land rights will be recognized and protected if challenged,” and it applies to forest tenure even though community forest rights often do not go hand in hand with outright land ownership. In many cases, the first step toward establishing tenure security involves creating or changing a country’s institutional and legislative framework. Lands then need to be identified, demarcated, and formally recognized as community forests, before forest management plans can be drawn up and monitoring and enforcement activities coordinated.

The path to secure tenure is a long one, but evidence of its benefits is piling up. To the authors’ knowledge, the WRI report, titled The Economic Costs and Benefits of Securing Community Forest Tenure: Evidence from Brazil and Guatemala, is the first analysis to develop a model to compare the economic costs and benefits of securing community forest tenure. Altamirano considers it likely that one of the reasons it had never been done before is the way people envision climate change solutions.

“When we think about climate change, we usually think about solutions that are more technology-based,” he said. “We tend to forget that there are more institutional solutions to climate change.”

Kaiapo father with child in the Brazilian Amazon. The Kaiapo have legal title to their land and have successfully prevented deforestation there. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Approaching the issue through the lens of an economic cost-benefit analysis was no easy task. Researchers had to first identify and describe the costs of establishing and maintaining secure community forest tenure, from constitutional and regulatory reform, to demarcation and management plans, to ongoing operational and monitoring costs. They encountered data constraints along the way.

“There’s a lack of transparency and data quality in most of the countries in Latin America,” said Altamirano. “That’s a challenge we faced.”

Calculating the economic benefits was somewhat more straightforward, as the researchers left many social and environmental benefits out of the equation, and focused primarily on the benefits of avoiding deforestation.

The Guatemalan study area includes nine active community forestry concessions covering 332,000 hectares within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Brazilian study area is comprised of hundreds of indigenous territories in the Amazon, covering more than 111 million hectares — roughly 13 percent of Brazil’s total land area, or the equivalent of California and Texas combined.

The difference in scale is massive, but in both cases deforestation rates are lower where communities have forest rights, according to previous research comparing deforestation rates in tenure-secure forest areas and otherwise similar forest areas with no tenure policy.

Based on the lower deforestation rates, the report authors calculated the carbon mitigation benefits associated with the avoided deforestation. Investing $19 per hectare today in securing community forest tenure in Brazil would yield $1,473 per hectare in benefits in 20 years, whereas in Guatemala, a $205 investment would yield $1,920, the report concludes. The figures for Guatemala include the economic benefits of the sustainable harvest of forest products.

WRI researchers are now working to replicate the analyses in other regions in Latin America, particularly in indigenous territories in Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil, according to Altamirano. In the meantime, he hopes countries will view the published report as a guide for investment in community forest tenure as one means of complying with sustainable development goals.

“We hope that this report can influence political decisions,” said Altamirano. The research also shows the global community of international agencies and donors that investing in securing forest rights pays off, highlighting the importance of communities and particularly indigenous communities in tackling climate change, he said.

Map shows land-use zones in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Map courtesy of World Resources Institute.

Local associations managing the community forest concessions in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve hope another new report will also influence political decisions. Coinciding with the release of the WRI report, a study led by the Costa Rica-based Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) published on November 5 examined the conservation status and management of big-leaf mahogany and the four other species most commercially harvested within the forest concessions in the biosphere reserve.

The core finding of the study is that the way local communities harvest timber in the Maya Biosphere Reserve is sustainable and represents state-of-the-art best practice for tropical forest management. “The fact that community-based enterprises — working together with government and technical assistance agencies — are practicing better forest management than highly capitalized industrial firms operating in other parts of the tropics is a globally important finding,” note the report authors.

A collector carries a load of xate palm fronds, sold for floral arrangements. Research shows that community forestry concessions in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, where xate palm fronds are harvested, can conserve forest at least as well as national parks and other protected areas. Photo by Charlie Watson/USAID/Rainforest Alliance Forestry Enterprises.

Located in the Petén department in northern Guatemala, the Maya Biosphere Reserve covers one-fifth of the country. Together with adjacent areas in Belize and Mexico, it is the largest remaining tropical forest area in Mesoamerica. Home to 180,000 people, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is comprised of three zones with varying levels of permitted human activity: a core zone of national parks and nature reserves; a buffer zone; and a multi-use zone. Eleven community forest concessions are located in the multi-use zone.

There is growing evidence that community forestry can provide a model for sustainable forest management and halt deforestation, but it has yet to gain much traction among decision-makers, according to Benjamin Hodgdon, director of forestry at the Rainforest Alliance and a contributor to the new report.

“Since the advent of the modern environmental conservation movement, efforts to halt deforestation have largely tried to apply a model of strict protection born in the thinly-populated American West. Such an approach has not only failed in the tropics — where forests tend to be home to a lot of people, as in Vermont, where I live — but also made conservation efforts complicit in state schemes to dispossess and exclude rural populations from their customary lands,” Hodgdon told Mongabay via email.

Local groups involved in community forestry concessions in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve reinvest earnings in community services and forest management. Photo by Charlie Watson/USAID/Rainforest Alliance Forestry Education.

The granting of forest concessions to communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve after its establishment in 1990 generated controversy, but it appears to have paid off. The CATIE-led study found that at present levels of harvesting, populations of big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata), manchiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi), pucté (Bucida buceras), and santa maría (Calophyllum brasiliense) are all expected to recover their commercial densities and volumes during the regeneration periods between harvests. A report Rainforest Alliance published earlier this year examining deforestation trends in the reserve found that community concessions can conserve forest at least as well as protected areas.

“The [Maya Biosphere Reserve] offers one of the few beacons of hope for the world’s tropical forests,” Hodgdon said. “Most ‘forestry’ as practiced in the tropics is not really forestry at all, but simply timber mining. The findings of the report show that practicing real forestry in tropical forests can be sustainable, and is the best way to save them.”

Among the recommendations of the CATIE report on community forestry management within the reserve is that the Guatemalan government should extend concession contracts beyond their current 25-year terms to encourage even greater stability and sustainability in planning and investment. The local Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) has been advocating for the extension or renewal of active community forest concessions and hopes the new findings will help prompt government action.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, ACOFOP is the umbrella organization for 24 local community associations, indigenous groups, and co-operatives involved in the community forest concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

“Some [community forest concessions] have resident populations and others don’t – they live outside of the area they manage, but they still invest resources in the control and monitoring of these areas,” ACOFOP communications staffer Julizza Bol told Mongabay. Communities help fund, coordinate, and engage in joint patrols with government protected-area officials and state security forces to protect the forests they manage from fires, illegal logging, and other threats.

Women in one of the community forestry concessions in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve harvest nutritious ramón tree seeds, which can be eaten after boiling or grinding into flour. Photo by Carlos Kurzel/ACOFOP.

Aside from the sustainable timber harvest, communities also harvest and market non-timber forest products, including allspice, Ramón tree (Brosimum alicastrum) seeds, Sapodilla tree (Manilkara zapota) sap for chewing gum, and ornamental xate palm (Chamaedorea elegans, C. ernesti-augusti, and C. oblongata). The local groups then reinvest some of their earnings in managing their forests and in community services.

“It’s a model that benefits the communities,” said Bol.

The community forestry model in the Maya Biosphere Reserve is being showcased this week when ACOFOP hosts the third Mesoamerican Community Forestry Congress. “For us, it’s important to show what the communities are doing,” said Bol, adding that social and community development are important parts of the story alongside the more technical research findings.

ACOFOP hopes the new reports by WRI and CATIE will assist efforts to secure community forest concession contract extensions from the Guatemalan government. There are always outside interests where territory is concerned, said Bol, and there are concerns the government could bend under pressure from outside parties interested in expanding nearby tourism projects or oil exploration in the area.

“It’s not easy for us,” said Bol. “Sometimes there’s more belief in the [community forestry] model at the international level than at the national level.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect figures for the amount of investment per hectare and the resulting benefits that would accrue over a 20 year period from securing community forest tenure in Guatemala.