With the COP 21 just a few weeks away, countries are putting forward their national emissions-reduction commitments through their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Many of the plans submitted so far aim to curb emissions by protecting and restoring forests. For example, Mexico made a bold commitment in its INDC to achieve zero percent deforestation by 2030. Brazil has similarly committed to a goal of zero illegal deforestation by 2030. These countries—as well as others—would do well to include community forests, in particular, in their climate mitigation plans.

Community Forests And Climate Change

For many countries in Central and South America, community forests – forests traditionally inhabited by Indigenous Peoples or other local communities – represent a large percentage of the total forest area. For example, community forests comprise around 60 percent of total forest area in Mexico and 22 percent of the Amazon biome in Brazil. In 2013, Indigenous Peoples and communities held at least some legal rights to at least 511 million hectares of forest — about 15.5 percent of the world’s forest. Not only do these forests support local livelihoods, but research shows that communities can be good protectors of forests.

Recent studies have found that Indigenous Territories in the Brazilian Amazon and community forests with concessions in the Guatemalan Maya Biosphere Reserve are effective at curbing deforestation compared to similar forest areas without tenure security or protection status. Evidence from community forest enterprises in Mexico also indicates a shift towards sustainable forest management practices.

And a report from WRI and the Rights and Resources Initiative, Securing Rights: Combating Climate Change, found that the world’s legally recognized community forests hold about 37 billion tonnes of carbon, about 29 times the annual carbon footprint of all the passenger vehicles in the world. In short, community forests represent a vital carbon mitigation strategy for meeting climate and deforestation goals.

Protecting Communities’ Rights to Forests

What Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico and other countries have in common is that their communities and Indigenous Peoples have secure tenure over their forests through strong legal recognition and positive government action. Many community forests around the world, however, struggle with weak legal protection and are showing increasing deforestation rates. Securing Rights noted that forest outcomes were negative (e.g., showed increasing deforestation and/or degradation) for Indonesia, Peru, and Ecuador where legal rights and/or government action to support tenure security was weak.

Understanding the Many Benefits of Community Forests

While the climate mitigation argument is gaining traction, decision makers have asked for economic evidence to make the case for protecting Indigenous and local communities’ rights over their forests. That is, what are the costs of securing and maintaining secure tenure compared to the benefits, and what benefits exist beyond climate mitigation?

Decision-makers often lack data on what benefits – and their economic values – these areas are generating through improvements in forest management practices and reduced deforestation and forest fires. These benefits may extend well beyond climate mitigation benefits, as community forests potentially provide or improve provision of other ecosystem service benefits, such as biodiversity protection, water provision and filtration. They may also reduce costs associated with conflict over resource rights, or provide social benefits coming from job creation and community reinvestment in health and education programs. This economic lens allows decision makers to understand the importance of community forests and, thus, make better investments and policies.

WRI is currently partnering with the Climate and Land Use Alliance to better understand the economic argument for community forests. Our forthcoming working paper will explore the costs and benefits of securing and maintaining community forest tenure for two study areas in Latin America: Indigenous Territories in Brazil and community concessions in the Guatemalan Maya Biosphere Reserve. Tune in for the findings later this week.