* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It’s no coincidence that Latin America has had some of the best success protecting tropical forest. That’s because the region, led by countries like Mexico and Brazil, has put more forest land in the hands of indigenous groups and other forest residents than any other part of the developing world, according to the U.S.-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
Forest residents who own or otherwise control the land they live on have a strong incentive to protect it from illegal loggers and other destructive pressures, argues Andy White, head of the initiative, which works on forest policy issues, especially land tenure.
The proof? Brazil’s indigenous reserves have become the heart of that country’s Amazon forest protection effort, he says, and in Mexico, where communities own 80 percent of forest land, forests are more effectively managed and protected than in many parts of the world. Altogether, nearly a third of Latin America’s forests are owned or designed for use by indigenous communities, RRI figures show.
But in Africa, less than 2 percent of land is owned or controlled by forest dwellers – a major impediment to protecting forests in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where government-owned forests benefitted from years of war – which effectively kept out big logging companies – but are now coming under increasing pressure.
“Fundamentally we think this not a healthy situation,” White argues.
That’s particularly important as the world pushes forward with REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a UN-backed effort under which richer greenhouse gas emitting countries pay poorer tropical forest countries to protect standing forest as a way of curbing carbon levels in the atmosphere.
REDD-plus, the latest incarnation of REDD efforts, seeks to ensure that forest dwellers have input in the structure of REDD deals and benefit from them.
But a growing number of multi-million-dollar REDD deals – between donor countries like Norway and beneficiaries such as Indonesia and Guyana – combined with growing world competition for resources like timber and minerals mean “forests have never been so valuable as they are now”, White notes. That presents a growing risk that forest dwellers could see efforts to gain legal rights to their land blocked or even lose rights they already have.
From 1995 to 2000, the forest land owned worldwide by indigenous people doubled, RRI figures show. From 2000 to 2009, it grew by an average of 5 percent a year. But last year, for the first time, progress stalled.
Why isn’t entirely clear. But there are growing worries that governments eager to cash in on REDD deals may naturally be less eager to hand over rights to those forests, and that money, to forest dwellers.
“Empowering local people is now recognised (under REDD) but there was no progress in 2010. That’s deeply worrying,” White says.
How contentious are the issues around increasingly valuable forest land? Indonesia has until recently insisted it has no indigenous people and so no need to consult them on REDD deals, he says. Many Central African nations similarly are reluctant to talk about transferring rights to land.
“It’s political, it’s contentious and it’s difficult to resolve,” notes White. “Few things are as potentially volatile as land rights.”
Rights, by themselves, also aren’t any guarantee of forest protection, he points out. Papua New Guinea’s forests are, at least in name, largely communally owned. But government allocates logging concessions on the land and owns the carbon rights - effectively stripping communities of most of their power over the land, he says.
The good news – in some respects – is that deforestation rates are going down in developing countries, though largely because all of the easily accessible timber in many countries is already gone. Even better is that since 1990, 80 countries that were once losing forest are now gaining it through tree planting programmes, from huge rich nations like China to poorer ones like Niger.
Just as important, once isolated forest dwellers are increasingly gaining the means to become more active citizens and participants in forest protection. REDD-linked training programmes are helping build skills, and technology like cell phones and satellite mapping have given forest residents reach beyond the forest edges and tools they need to help protect forests.
White doubts whether REDD will ultimately work as a way to reduce carbon emissions worldwide, largely because he is sceptical a global carbon market will ever emerge.
“REDD was supposed to be fast, cheap and relatively easy,” he says. “We’ve learned it’s not quick, easy or cheap.”
But he says he believes it may be transformed into a useful tool for adaptation to the effects of climate change, as tree planting efforts spurred by REDD help create jobs, reduce poverty and vulnerability, protect watersheds and provide other benefits.
“That,” he says, “is where we’ll get transformation of the world’s forest areas.”
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.