The best way to protect rainforests is to keep people out, right? Absolutely not. The best way to keep the trees, and prevent the carbon in them from entering the atmosphere, is by letting people into the forests: local people with the legal right to control what happens there.
Given the chance, most communities protect rather than plunder their forests, says a new study by the World Resources Institute and Rights and Resources Initiative, both in Washington DC. The forests provide food, water, shelter, medicines and much else.
The report, Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change collates many existing studies. It concludes that forest communities only have legal control over one-eighth of the world’s forests. The rest is mostly controlled by governments or leased for logging or mining, often in defiance of community claims.
But community-owned forests are often the best-protected. In the Amazon rainforest, deforestation rates in community-owned areas are far lower than outside.
Hand it over
Since 2000, annual deforestation rates in Brazil have been 7 per cent outside indigenous territories, but only 0.6 per cent inside. The report estimates that indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon could prevent the emission of 12 billion tonnes of CO2 between now and 2050.
Brazil’s indigenous territories are an important reason why deforestation rates there have fallen by two-thirds in the past decade. The country is a leader in handing over forests to local people, having recognised some 300 indigenous territories since 1980. Almost a third of all community forests are in Brazil.
Likewise, in Guatemala’s Peten region, which includes the Maya Biosphere Reserve, deforestation is 20 times lower in community areas than those under government protection. In Mexico’s Yucatán state, deforestation is 350 times lower in community forests.
"We can increase carbon sequestration simply by transferring ownership of forests from governments to communities," says Ashwini Chhatre of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the report. He led a 2009 study that reached similar conclusions (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0905308106).
Not happening yet
However, global progress on recognising community claims has slowed since 2008. Governments, especially in Asia and Africa, are reluctant to give up control. In Indonesia, which recently overtook Brazil as the country that is deforesting fastest, the report found that only 1 million of its 42 million hectares of forests are formally under the control of their inhabitants.
"No one has a stronger interest in the health of forests than the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods and culture," says Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative. "It is tragic that this has not yet been fully adopted as a climate change mitigation strategy."
That could change. This year’s round of international climate negotiations will be in Lima, Peru, near the Amazon. Agreeing how to protect forests and the carbon they contain will be a central focus. “Strengthening community forest rights is critical to mitigating climate change,” says Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute.