Time is right for global focus on forest land rights

By Mark Kinver
Environment reporter, BBC News

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image copyrightReuters
image captionWithout recognised land rights, indigenous peoples' way of life could be threatened, warn campaigners

Recognising the land rights of local people could provide cost-effective protection for many of the world's tropical forests, a report says.

But existing initiatives to tackle deforestation were poorly suited to deal with the issue, it added.

However, there was an "unprecedented opportunity" to act as more nations were willing to acknowledge indigenous peoples' right to own and control land.

The report will be presented at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

The document, produced by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and the Indigenous Peoples' International Centre for Policy Research and Education, warned that growing pressure for land and resources was threatening the long-term future of communities that depended on tropical forests for their livelihoods.

"As customary owners and stewards of large areas of the world's forests and drylands, threats to the rights of these communities place undue risk on the ecosystems that must be preserved to mitigate climate change and provide global environmental benefits," it warned.

But it said that the plight of some of the world's poorest and most marginalised communities was being more widely recognised, presenting an "unprecedented opportunity" to act.

Helping hand

"There are countries, such as Indonesia, where the government has suddenly said there is a need to respect local land rights," explained RRI co-ordinator Andy White.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIntact tropical forests also provide globally important ecosystem services, such as carbon storage

"However, there is no mechanism to provide support, nor the technical assistance necessary. The issue of land rights has always been the poor stepchild to all of the other global initiatives."

Campaigners have had a long-standing suspicion of climate mitigation schemes, such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd), saying indigenous communities would not benefit, or possibly be worse off.

Redd schemes offer financial incentives to encourage governments and companies in developing countries to offset their CO2 emissions against forest protection, conservation and afforestation projects.

However, campaign groups feared that without recognised tenure rights to their land the schemes would leave indigenous communities vulnerable to exploitation or eviction.

Mr White told BBC News that he was hopeful that a new mechanism - the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility (ILFTF) - would help increase the clarity and security of the communities' rights.

The facility, which has received US $15 million of funding from the Swedish government, will provide funding and technical support for tenure reform projects in developing countries.

"It is linked to existing international infrastructure to ensure it does not duplicate what is already available," he said.

It is expected to establish a small number of pilot projects in early 2015 before becoming fully operational in 2016.

However, RRI research suggests that the majority of forests in developing countries are still owned by national governments.

But Mr White explained: "We are hoping that by being more supportive of the governments that are willing to lead and demonstrate the positive outcomes then the laggards will take note and see that it can be done.

"That is why in the early days of the tenure facility we want to focus on the countries that are willing to move again.

"We hope this will see other nations listening and willing to learn and move ahead and take similar types of reform in the future."

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