Expanding and strengthening the community forest rights of indigenous groups and rural residents can make a major contribution to sequestering carbon and reducing CO2 emissions from deforestation, according to a new report. The World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Rights and Resources Initiative said that indigenous people and rural inhabitants in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have government-recognized rights to forests containing nearly 38 billion tons of carbon, equal to 29 times the annual emissions of all the world’s passenger vehicles. By enforcing community rights to those forests, the study said, governments can play a major role in tackling climate change. In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, deforestation rates are 11 times lower in community forests than in forests outside those areas. In areas where community forest rights are ignored, deforestation rates often soar. The report made five major recommendations, from better enforcement of community forest zones to compensating communities for the climate and other benefits their forests provide.
In the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation rates are 11 times lower in community forests than in other forested areas.
WRI and the Rights and Resources Initiative studied 14 forest-rich countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal, Niger, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. Indigenous people and other local communities currently have legal or official rights to 513 million hectares of forest, or about one-eighth of the world’s forest cover. But the report said those rights are frequently ignored by national or local governments, leading to severe deforestation. The report cited the example of three indigenous forest lands in the Amazon region of northwestern Peru. Despite supposed recognition of those rights, the Peruvian government allocated indigenous lands to mining and oil and gas drilling, leading to deforestation rates of 24 to 51 percent in those three community forest areas from 2000 to 2010.
In Papua New Guinea, the report said, all forests are owned by communities, but the Papuan government has given leases to private companies — often for oil palm plantations — on about 4 million hectares, an area the size of Switzerland. Indonesia, which has one of the world’s worst deforestation records, legally recognizes only 1 million of the 42 million hectares of forest reputedly controlled by local communities.
By contrast, Brazil, which has half of the world’s remaining tropical forests, is more rigorous about recognizing and protecting community forests, the report said. Roughly 300 indigenous territories have been legally recognized in Brazil, and protection of these areas, while not perfect, is far better than in some other countries, according to the report. That protection is crucial: The report noted that from 2000 to 2012, forest loss was 0.6 percent inside indigenous territories, compared to 7 percent outside.
In parts of the Mexican Yucatan, deforestation rates are 350 times lower than in unprotected areas, the report said. In Guatemala’s Peten region, deforestation rates are 20 times lower.
“The bottom line is clear,” said Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate and Energy Program at WRI. “Strengthening community forest rights is a critical policy approach to mitigate global climate change through reduced deforestation and carbon sequestration.”
For example, the report said that fully protecting indigenous territories and government forest reserves in the Brazilian Amazon could prevent 27.2 million hectares from being deforested by 2050 — an area larger than the United Kingdom. If the carbon in those forests were released as CO2, it would amount to 12 billion tons of carbon dioxide — equivalent to three years of CO2 emissions from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The report made five major recommendations to enhance the ability of community forests to slow climate change:
- Give communities legal recognition of their forest rights.
- More rigorously enforce community forest rights, including mapping boundaries and evicting trespassers.
- Provide forest communities with technical assistance to sustainably manage their forests and get forest products to market.
- Involve forest communities in decisions involving investments in their forests.
- Compensate communities for the benefits provided by their forests, including mitigating climate change.