Climate, forests, and peoples

Dean Tony La Viña
Protecting community and indigenous tenure over forests has enormous potential to preserve healthy forests and prevent deforestation

How do you solve a wicked problem like climate change? The truth is that no single country or approach can succeed in overcoming this most serious of sustainable development challenges.

Strong commitments at the global level must be combined with local actions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bringing warming down to a 2 degree Celsius scenario, as urged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Thankfully, many emerging solutions are integrated with sustainable development, so that confronting climate change is coupled with stimulating economic growth in the developing world. One such proposition involves strengthening the rights of indigenous and local communities over their forests.

Last week, on July 24, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), both of whom are partners of the Ateneo School of Government, released a report presenting compelling new research on the relationship between strengthening community forest rights and climate change mitigation. The report, titled Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change, sheds light on an approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that has so far been largely undervalued. It makes a strong case that protecting community and indigenous tenure over forests has enormous potential to preserve healthy forests and prevent deforestation.

Deforestation and forest degradation play a substantial role in climate change. In addition to destroying ecosystems and threatening biodiversity, deforestation accounts for 11% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. This destruction is happening at a rate of 50 soccer fields a minute, with 13 million hectares of forests cleared each year around the world. There is thus a growing consensus among the global climate community on the importance of forest conservation as a mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change.

What role, then, can communities play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation? Globally, communities have legal or official rights to 513 million hectares of forest, making up 1/8 of the world’s forests. These community forests contain about 37.7 billion tons of carbon, 29 times more than the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world. Still even larger areas of forest are held by communities under customary tenure systems that are not recognized by governments, or only weakly so.

This constitutes a significant volume of global forests in which legal rights and recognition for community customary tenure can help maintain and protect healthy forests, ensuring their role as carbon sinks. Forest communities already have a strong interest in protecting forest health as they depend on the forest for their food, livelihoods, and culture. Strengthening their forest rights is therefore a promising policy tool to reduce deforestation and degradation.

Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change finds a compelling link between strong legal rights for forest communities, government actions to protect and support those rights and lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emission from deforestation. Examining community forest rights in 14 forest-rich countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, the report reveals that deforestation in community forests with strong legal recognition and government protection are dramatically lower than in forests outside these areas. For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, the most carbon-rich forest in the world, deforestation was 11 times lower in community forests with strong legal recognition and government protection than in other parts of the Brazilian Amazon.

Cover of the "Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change" report. Image courtesy World Resources Institute

However, governments in low- and middle-income countries often face pressures to issue mining, hydrocarbon, agricultural, and logging concessions, leading to deforestation that destroys communities’ livelihoods and homes. This is a significant problem in Papua New Guinea, where communities own almost all forests, but the government still issues leases to private investors, giving them the freedom to engage in deforestation and forest degradation. So far, the government has leased out about 4 million hectares of forest, which could release almost 3 billion tons of CO2 if converted to palm oil plantations as planned.

In Indonesia, where only one million out of 42 million hectares of community forest is legally recognized, the government also gives out vast concessions over forest land to be used for palm oil, timber, and other conflicting land uses. As the second largest global emitter of CO2 from deforestation and other land uses, strengthening forest community rights is an approach that the Indonesian government can embrace that would benefit forest communities while also generating substantial reductions in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on these and other findings, the report persuasively argues that governments should recognize community forest rights to meet climate goals, safeguard forests, and protect the livelihoods of their citizens. In addition to granting legal recognition for indigenous and local community forests, governments should enforce the rights granted to these societies by preventing trespassing and illegal forest use, and provide technical assistance and training to build local capacity for sustainable forest management. It would also be beneficial for governments to set aside funds to compensate local communities for their sustainable forest management practices, thus creating further economic incentives for safeguarding forests.

Forest communities represent a vast potential for national governments to make headway in countering climate change.  For too long that potential has gone underappreciated and undervalued.

Incidentally, although not include in the report, Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change is also relevant in the Philippines where we have shifted forest policy from one focusing on commercial utilization to emphasizing indigenous peoples rights and community based forest management. The National Greening Program, where the government is investing billions to regenerate our forest, can be informed by the findings and recommendations of the report.

Climate change is a formidable problem but solutions are possible. An approach that combines climate and forest objectives, while respecting and promoting community rights, is one that will make a difference. –

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