By LUIS UBIÑAS – Published: May 31, 2012
Twenty years ago, the world came together in Rio de Janeiro for a historic summit meeting to tackle the environmental issues that threaten the very sustainability and preservation of our planet. Now, as world leaders and thousands of other participants prepare for the Rio+20 Conference, we are facing an even more urgent set of environmental challenges.
The pace of global climate change has worsened, representing a fundamental threat to the planet’s health and environmental well-being. And there is little indication the world’s leaders are ready to meet the challenges of building an environmentally sustainable future.
But there is some good news to report — and it’s coming from the world’s forests, a critical front line in the effort to slow climate change and conserve biodiversity. In a largely unreported global movement, some 30 of the world’s most forested countries have adopted an innovative idea for protecting forests: granting ownership rights to communities that reside in them.
Almost 90 percent of the laws granting such rights have been passed since the first Earth Summit in 1992, demonstrating that a global consensus can produce real change. A new report from the Rights and Resources Initiative — a global coalition of organizations working for forest-use reforms — presents a growing body of evidence that in places where local communities have taken ownership of forests, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Protected areas, owned by indigenous communities in Asia and Latin America, have lower rates of deforestation, forest fires and, above all, carbon emissions.
Since forests also provide for the livelihoods of tens, even hundreds, of millions of people, clarifying and recognizing ownership rights is helping to spur economic growth and raise living standards.
In Brazil, which is hosting the Rio+20 summit — formally the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development — deforestation rates have significantly declined, even as incomes in indigenous forest communities have increased. Brazil has moved toward this goal by giving communities the legal protections to keep out ranchers, loggers and others seeking to destroy their forests.
Yet the progress we’ve seen across the globe has been uneven, and the potential to build on it stands at risk. As chronicled in the R.R.I. report, most of the new laws that recognize customary rights circumscribe those rights and are applied at limited scale.
In Africa, nearly eight out of 10 laws that recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and communities do not allow them to exclude outsiders — a critical element of land ownership. Even where legal rights exist, complicated bureaucratic procedures often make it difficult to realize them. In Mozambique, for example, to qualify for “community concessions” local communities must provide six copies of a topographical map identifying all the detailed geographical features of the land. Not surprisingly, in 2009 — a decade after the act was passed — no concessions had been granted.
Worse still, some of the countries with rights on the books now find themselves at the center of a growing and troubling land grab by commercial investors focused on clearing forests for agriculture, with little concern for the local communities that call them home.
Recent efforts by wealthy ranchers to weaken land rights in Brazil illustrate this growing threat. In the face of rising food, mineral and energy prices, this fierce competition for land will only increase, making the need for strongly established community rights more important than ever before.
For all of these reasons, Rio+20 must build on the success of its predecessor and serve as a new impetus to expand and strengthen community rights to the world’s forests.
This means ensuring that billions of hectares of forest are turned over to local communities; it means engaging with the private sector to help clarify groups’ rights to land and forest; and it means creating new public/private partnerships, such as those that have been used to combat other global issues like H.I.V.-AIDS and malaria, to build public support for ownership rights. Above all, it means ensuring that the rights already recognized by governments are fully realized in local communities.
Taking action on these fronts will set us on a powerful course for a more sustainable and equitable future — just as it did 20 years ago. Actions that simultaneously strengthen human rights and achieve sustainable development are an unusual win-win. The fact that they also help stop deforestation and climate change makes them an even more attractive and urgent option.
At a time when the struggle against global warming seems more daunting than ever, our two decade-long experience with community forestry shows that we have within our means the ability to turn the tide.
Luis Ubiñas is president of the Ford Foundation.