Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change
Do indigenous communities have a role in climate stabilisation?
Approximately 70 million indigenous peoples depend on forests for their livelihoods. Another 350 million rural people reside in or near them. Many of these communities have long-standing relationships with forested land and have customary rights that are legally recognized by some states.
In its recent report called Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change - How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Climate Change, the renowned World Resources Institute (WRI) makes a compelling argument for the support of community forest rights as a bulwark against climate change.
WRI, together with Rights and Resources Initiative, made the most comprehensive effort so far to quantify the contribution of traditional forest communities to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
The findings revealed a strong correlation between the level of legal recognition of the indigenous peoples along with government protection and a community’s ability to resist deforestation, maintain forest health, and lower CO2 emissions.
[The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is the latest global instrument on indigenous peoples’ rights. For a non-exhaustive overview of international law and emerging State practice affirming indigenous peoples' right to effective participation in the decisions, policies and initiatives that affect them, see this compendium by the UN REDD Programme.]
The study of 80 forest areas in 10 countries in South Asia, East Africa, and Latin America showed that community-owned and -managed forests have delivered both superior community benefits and greater carbon storage.
A thought-provoking read
The report’s findings and practical recommendations, directed at donors, governments, businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders working on climate change, land rights, and forestry, are thought-provoking.
If these recommendations are implemented, the report suggests, the indigenous communities can increase the carbon in their forests, and in so doing, help reduce CO emissions.
The authors strongly urge members of the international climate change, land tenure, and forestry communities to use the evidence provided to press for strengthening community forest rights in developing countries as a climate policy priority.
Below I refer to the findings and the recommendations as they appear in the WRI/IRR report:
The report’s findings
1. When indigenous peoples and local communities have no or weak legal rights, their forests tend to be vulnerable to deforestation and thus become the source of carbon dioxide emissions.
Deforestation of indigenous community forests in Brazil would likely have been 22 times higher without their legal recognition. In Indonesia, the high levels of carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation are driven in part by no or weak legal rights for forest communities. For example, oil palm concessions cover 59 percent of community forests in part of West Kalimantan.
2. Legal forest rights for communities and government protection of their rights tend to lower carbon dioxide emissions and deforestation.
In Brazil, deforestation in indigenous community forests from 2000 to 2012 was less than 1 percent, compared with 7 percent outside them. The higher deforestation outside indigenous community forests led to 27 times more carbon dioxide emissions than were produced from deforestation on indigenous community forests. And indigenous community forests contain 36 percent more carbon per hectare than other areas of the Brazilian Amazon.
3. Indigenous peoples and local communities with legal forest rights maintain or improve their forests’ carbon storage.
Government protection of the forest rights of communities in Niger added 200 million new trees, absorbing 30 million tonnes of carbon over the past 30 years. Support for community forestry in Nepal has improved forest health and generated a carbon stock of more than 180 million tonnes across 1.6 million hectares.
4. Even when communities have legal rights to their forest, government actions that undermine those rights can lead to high carbon dioxide emissions and deforestation.
The forests of indigenous communities in Peru, where government actions weaken community forest rights, are deforested at a higher rate than other parts of the Peruvian Amazon.
5. Communities can partially overcome government actions that undermine their forest rights.
In Honduras and Nicaragua, indigenous communities have been able to partially forestall deforestation, despite insufficient government efforts to protect their rights. In some cases community forest loss is 0.01 percent, compared with 1.40 percent in the surrounding area.
The report’s recommendations
1. Provide indigenous peoples and local communities with legal recognition of rights to their forest.
Attention must be given to the millions of forested communities without legal rights to their forest. In Indonesia, where communities generally have no or weak legal rights, new legislation is pending to recognize communities’ ownership of their forests. Where communities have some legal forest rights, governments and their partners should strengthen these rights. While this recommendation applies to all relevant countries, those that are heavily forested and have weak community forest rights are of critical importance. In addition, stakeholders should support strengthening community forest rights as part of a future agreement on REDD+.
2. Protect the legal forest rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.
Governments and their partners should help protect community forest rights by, for example, mapping community forest boundaries, helping to expel illegal loggers, and not granting commercial concessions over community forests. In Brazil, the government maps and registers indigenous community forests, helps communities remove illegal settlers, and is generally barred from granting commercial use of community forests to companies. Governments and their partners should commit funds and invest in supporting communities and their civil society partners. In addition, governments and donors should include programs to support community forest rights in their climate change strategies.
3. Support communities with technical assistance and training.
Governments, donors, and civil society should provide training and technical assistance to communities and should undertake capacity building activities. For example, in Mexico some communities receive training and support from the government to improve sustainable forest use and market access. In addition, governments, donors, and civil society should help ensure that people and local communities are able to participate genuinely in the development of legal and policy frameworks related to REDD+.
4. Engage forest communities in decision-making on investments affecting their forest.
Governments and businesses should work together to ensure that government planning is consistent with international standards and that investments do not violate community forest rights. In Peru, the government’s failure to comply fully with international standards contributes to high deforestation of indigenous community forests. For example, national laws should require that the status of Indigenous Peoples and local community forest is determined well in advance of any decisions affecting the community. Also, if legal commercial extraction of subsurface minerals does occur on indigenous or local community forestlands, ensure that the extraction is conducted in the least invasive way possible and only after free, prior, and informed consent of the affected communities.
5. Compensate communities for the climate and other benefits provided by their forest.
Governments and their partners should commit funds and invest in supporting communities and their civil society partners to increase the economic incentives for communities to manage their forests sustainably. In addition, stakeholders should support strengthening of community forest rights as part of a future agreement on REDD+. Ensure that communities receive payments for protecting their forests as part of the design and implementation of REDD+.