Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, as forests and the many forms of life they support are important for carbon sequestration. Yet an estimated 13 million hectares of forest are cleared every year. So, if we want to minimize the negative impacts of climate change, reducing the amount of forest that is destroyed annually should be a priority.
Yet an important tool for preventing forest loss is often overlooked: legally recognizing the right of forest communities and indigenous peoples. A new report from the World Resources Institute lays out research that shows how these local communities in developing countries, which are often dependent on a thriving forest for their livelihoods, help prevent deforestation.
“If it were not for the legal recognition of the community protection of forests, then deforestation would have been substantially higher,” said Caleb Stevens, one of the report’s authors.
This finding isn’t entirely new. Over the past 10 years, as satellite mapping data of tree cover has become available, the relationship between local community rights and protecting forests has become more clear. A 2012 study from the Center for International Forestry Research showed that forests managed by local communities suffered from less deforestation than government-managed protected areas.
Stevens said that the new report is an effort to bring these findings into the larger discussion about climate change. “The climate change specialists, and the forest specialists, and the land-use specialists—their research and findings aren’t always talking to one another,” he said. “So, this report was really trying to bring these three things together.”
According to the report, there are 513 million hectares of legally recognized community forests, which account for about an eighth of the world’s forests. These forests store an estimated 37.7 billion tons of carbon, which is 29 times the carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world.
In order to effectively protect their forests, indigenous peoples and local communities need a few key rights. One is the right to exclude or expel intruders or unwanted people from the area, which can cut down on activities like illegal logging. Another is giving local communities the right to choose how to manage the land and its resources. Finally, it’s important that communities have the right to compensation should the government choose to use their forests for other purposes.
However, the majority of community forests in Latin America, Africa and Asia are not legally recognized as such and are often owned by national governments. As heavily forested countries in the developing world are looking to accomplish their climate goals, protecting community forest rights is a key policy, the report argues.
“One of the most basic things that governments can do, is they can register the right,” said Stevens. “It’s one thing to recognize rights in the law or constitution, but it’s another thing to actually go out there and give communities official documentation that they in fact have legal rights to their forest.”