Communities often protect their forests better because they live off it and with it. A child from the Sao Felix community in the Brazilian Amazon with a basket of leaves. Brazil. Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT for CIFOR

Whose forest is it? – The opportunities of community rights

The key message of the recent report Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change is unambiguous: Securing and strengthening Community Forest Rights is essential for reducing an enormous amount of carbon emissions. The World Resources Institute and the Rights and Rescources Initiative stress that their paper provides the most comprehensive analysis linking legal recognition and government protection of community forest rights with reductions in carbon pollution. Both organizations will host a session at the Global Landscapes Forum in Lima to discuss the new report:

 Securing rights as a climate change mitigation strategy, Saturday, 6 December 15.45

Using new high-resolution mapping data, 14 countries, including Brazil, Indonesia and Colombia, were analyzed. What the authors found: When governments enhanced and enforced forest rights, communities were more successful at stopping loggers, extractive companiesand settlers from illegally destroying the forests and releasing carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

Caleb Stevens is the lead author of the report and Property Rights Specialist for the Land & Resource Rights initiative in the Governance Center of the World Resources Institute. Ahead of the event, Rahayu Soegiono asked him about securing community rights and his expectations for the Forum.

Q: Why are forests owned by indigenous peoples better protected from deforestation than areas strictly protected by the government?

A: Indigenous groups and local communities rely on forests for every aspect of their lives—from their diets to their incomes. They fish in streams, trap game, and collect fruit, nuts and honey. They gather rattan, and many other items to create products for sale in markets. Even non-indigenous peoples, often referred to as local communities, have deep ties to the forest, going back decades or centuries. For these reasons local communities – indigenous or not – can and do protect their forests.

Research has shown that government-controlled areas in many developing countries tend to be poorly protected compared to community controlled areas. Poorly protected government-controlled areas leave forests open to loggers, settlers, and others who chop down trees illegally. For example – in an area of Guatemala’s government-protected Maya Biosphere Reserve where logging is strictly prohibited, deforestation is 20 times higher than in community concession areas where local communities have recognized and protected legal rights to benefit economically from the forest.

Q: What is the economic angle for strengthening community forest tenure?

A: With proper support and protection, communities will not have the incentives to log unsustainably, like has been seen with private ownership of forest land in many cases. For example, two indigenous community forests in Bolivia have experienced relatively low deforestation, whereas neighboring privately owned forests experienced a deforestation rate of 25%. And strengthening and protecting the rights of forest communities can happen with fairly low costs and provides communities with significant incomes. For example, in Niger modest investment in the 1980s and 1990s to strengthen community land and forest rights has generated an estimated US$900 million in annual economic benefits.

Q: In your report you highlight positive examples from Brazil and Bolivia. How did they manage to secure the indigenous rights when other countries couldn’t? Are those communities (e.g. in Brazil and Bolivia) working together and networking to get a better standing in defending their rights?

A: Indigenous peoples in Brazil, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries have developed active networks with local and international civil society organizations to pressure their governments. In countries that are lagging behind this is not the case. In other countries, donors and governments have not given the issue the attention it deserves, preferring to rely on a model of government ownership and protection of the forest. But this is changing. However, in Africa and elsewhere these networks are beginning to take shape.

For example in Indonesia, after years of pressure from local indigenous rights groups, the High Court recognized indigenous ownership of their forests for the first time. A law to implement this ruling is pending in the National Legislature and could lead to the recognition of at least 42 million hectares, possibly more, of legally recognized community forest in Indonesia. This is a significant increase from the current situation, where only 1 million hectares of community forest is legally recognized.

Q: What could other countries and regions learn from those examples?

A: Quite a few things.

First – when no or weak legal rights exist, change the situation by enacting the necessarily laws to recognize the rights of communities to their forests.

Second – enforce those rights by various means, including registration, border protection, technical support, and refraining from allocating community forest for large-scale commercial uses.

Finally – consider compensating forest communities for the ecosystem services they provide through the protection and sustainable management of their forests.

Q: You will be speaking about this topic at the Global Landscapes Forum. What are your expectations and what do you hope to achieve with the session at the GLF?

To increase awareness of strengthening community forest tenure as a climate change mitigation strategy so that our research may inform the people who decide about land reform and national climate change mitigation goals and strategies. Our review of about 130 studies, mostly over the last 10 years, if it showed anything, it showed that a great deal of powerful evidence has built up in recent years demonstrating that when communities have legal rights to their forests and governments act to support and protect those rights, positive forest outcomes tend to follow. Yet, policymakers and other stakeholders have overlooked that strong forest rights for forest communities can be a solution to curbing deforestation.




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