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Forest Loss and Climate: Empowering Communities Can Help

Editor's Note: This blog post was originally published at LiveScience on Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The need for a successful climate deal has never been clearer—change cannot wait until the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris next year. With nine of the hottest years on record occurring in this young century, and a total of $2.8 trillion in extreme-weather costs since 1980, the evidence of a changing climate is pervasive and alarming. The time to act is now.

No solution to climate change can be found without reducing deforestation, which accounts for more than 11 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. Every minute of every day the planet loses an area of forest the size of 50 soccer fields. Forest loss and degradation is also the main reason why species loss is running at a rate 1,000 times that of the pre-industrial era.

Some political leaders believe their countries must cut down forests to develop their economies. But recent experience shows that healthy economic growth is more likely where forests are maintained and degraded land is restored. Smart governments are now increasingly seeking to protect their forests while accelerating growth. And yet despite this new understanding, and the best of intentions to protect forests, the loss continues.

A major reason is that those who know forests best—the communities that have lived with them and used them for centuries—are not empowered to protect them. Some of the strongest advocates for the world's forests are the communities that depend on them for food, livelihoods and culture.

A new report by World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative finds that strengthening forest rights for forest communities is a valuable tool to protect forests and fight climate change. The research shows that deforestation rates inside community forests with strong legal recognition and enforcement are dramatically lower than forests outside those areas: In the Bolivian Amazon, deforestation was six times lower; in the Brazilian Amazon, 11 times lower; and in the Guatemala Maya Biosphere, 20 times lower.

An added advantage in protecting community forest rights is that the quality of the forests tends to be better, often containing about one-third more carbon per hectare than areas outside community forests.

Conversely, when governments do not recognize or enforce community forest rights, communities are often powerless to keep external forces—such as unscrupulous actors in the timber and oil industries or illegal settlers—from destroying forests. Stronger rights mean less deforestation—a lot less.

This finding is highly significant. Globally, governments recoginize at least 513 million hectares (1.2 billion acres) of their lands—an area approximately twice the size of India—as community-owned or controlled. The report shows that these community forests contain 37 billion tons of carbon, more than 29 times that emitted annually by all the passenger vehicles on Earth. Legal recognition of community forest rights and protecting those rights stops this carbon going into the atmosphere. See images: Extreme Weather Around the World.

But these community forests account for only about one-eighth of all forested areas, and thus represent only a portion of actual community forests. This means we could save even more forested areas if only communities were given legal recognition and protection. This is well illustrated in a country like Indonesia, where the government has done a great deal to protect the forest, and has introduced a moratorium to prevent new clearing of primary forest and peatland. But, despite this moratorium, forest loss has proved to be difficult to reduce. A major reason is that, of the estimated 42 million hectares (103 million acres) of actual indigenous community forest, only 1 million hectares (2.4 million acres) have legal recognition.

Efforts are now under way in Indonesia where the High Court has recognized indigenous ownership of forests and a new law to implement this ruling is pending in the National Legislature to legally recognize the forest rights of communities. If implemented and enforced, this should result in a sharp decline in forest loss and the carbon dioxide emissions it produces.

The impact of effective forest rights, in some cases, can be seen from space. Satellite images of the Brazilian Amazon clearly show the difference between communities with rights to forests and those without. For example, outside the border of the designated Parakanp Indigenous Land in central Brazil, evidence of deforestation can be seen on WRI's Global Forest Watch online tool as wide, pink streaks of forest loss. But the Parakanp's 350,000 hectares (864,000 acres) are virtually free from signs of deforestation, with a gain in forest cover in some areas.

Why does deforestation stop at the Parakanp border? First, the Brazilian government generally protects indigenous peoples' forest rights. Second, indigenous peoples forcefully defend their forest by expelling loggers, ranchers and other intruders.

Communities must not only have rights in law, but these rights must be enforced. In Papua New Guinea, for example, although almost all forests are recognized as community-owned, the government has issued leases to private companies covering about 4 million hectares (9.8 million acres). If logged, areas covered by these leases could release almost 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

The stakes are high. Our report finds that existing legal rights for community forests in the Brazilian Amazon and other areas could prevent 27 million hectares (66 million acres) of deforestation by 2050. That translates to 12 billion tonnes of avoided carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to three years' worth of carbon-dioxide emissions from all Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Recognizing and enforcing community forest rights is an untapped opportunity with huge potential to curb climate change. What is needed now is leadership to assure strong community forest rights that can help nations protect some of their most precious and pressured resources. Rejecting the power of interests that oppose granting rights to forest communities requires courage and political sophistication on the part of national leaders. Those who choose to do so will be supporting their most vulnerable citizens while helping to solve the biggest challenge of our age.

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