Enhancing indigenous land rights may slow deforestation

Transferring land rights to indigenous populations in developing countries may be an effective way to prevent deforestation, according to a new report by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). The Washington-based NGO has reviewed a number of recent studies finding that territories controlled by Indigenous Peoples and communities are more successful than state-controlled forests at sequestering carbon and preventing deforestation, as well as delivering community benefits.

This report finds that globally, the forest area governed by Indigenous Peoples is growing, from 10% in 2002 to 15% today (from 15% to 21% in developing countries), with over 50 laws enacted since 1992. But the bulk of progress has been made in only a few countries, mostly in Latin America, where about one-third of forests are under legal ownership of Indigenous Peoples. Africa in particular is lagging behind, with governments still claiming 97% of forests. Asia has had mixed results; for example, the Indonesian government owns 99% of the forests of that country.

The RRI report notes that a recent review by Chhatre and Agrawal concluded that “community-owned and managed forests delivered both superior community benefits and greater carbon storage” across 80 forest regions in 10 countries. Other studies found positive associations between local autonomy and sustainability, and between government ownership of forests and unsustainability. This suggests that policies to enhance customary land rights could deliver a win-win-win in terms of enhancing human rights, supporting economic development and reducing carbon losses through land use change.

If the study’s conclusions are valid, strengthening Indigenous Peoples’ and communities’ land rights may be an effective method to reduce deforestation and ‘land-grabbing’ globally, and hence also to reduce indirect land use change (iLUC) emissions from biofuel production (which occurs when increased demand for agricultural commodities like corn and vegetable oil spur agricultural expansion onto natural lands). 

Life-cycle analyses