The just concluded U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit focused attention on Africa’s promises and challenges, including energy, agriculture and the $14 billion in investment pledged by companies. The visiting heads of state—just shy of 50—also discussed climate change and its effects on crop production, nutrition and food security. New research by the World Resources Institute and Rights and Resources Initiative on the climate dividends of secure community land rights can help Africa address these challenges.

Agriculture is a mainstay of most African economies. Ninety-six percent of all agriculture in Africa is rain-fed. Sixty percent of the population is rural, with farming central to local livelihoods. Agricultural losses due to climate change are expected to cause the loss of between 2 and 7 percent of GDP. With so much at stake, many African governments are focused on climate change adaptation, including compensation for losses from climate change, new financial resources, technology transfer and capacity building to respond to the range of climate change impacts, including more severe and prolonged droughts, and crop-killing heat waves.

Lost in this discourse is Africa’s contribution to addressing climate change. The world’s more than 4 billion hectares of forests (about 10 billion acres) store approximately 860 gigatons of carbon, or as much as 45 percent of all the carbon stored on land. Deforestation and other land use changes account for 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Seventeen percent of the world’s forest land is in Africa. The forests of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest block of high-canopy rain forest—only the Amazon is larger—hold almost two-thirds of Africa’s biomass carbon.

In a global context, annual deforestation rates are relatively low in the Congo Basin compared to rainforests in Southeast Asia and South America – from 2000 to 2005 the net annual deforestation rate in Central Africa was 0.17 percent (as compared to 2 percent in Indonesia and 0.6 percent in Brazilfor the same period). However, with the world’s growing appetite for timber, minerals, oil and palm oil, governments have granted new concessions which now cover much of the Congo Basin forests, threatening the wellbeing of rural populations with customary claims or ownership of much of the forests. These developments could also undermine global efforts to mitigate climate change.

Communities Help Curb Deforestation

A recent WRI and RRI report, Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change: How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Climate Change, shows that when local communities have secure rights over their land and forests, and those rights are protected by government, deforestation rates are lower and the forests are healthier than those outside community control. The carbon content of community forests also tends to be higher than in the forests outside these areas.

Two of the 14 forest-rich countries analyzed in the report are in Niger and Tanzania. In both countries, the law provides communities with legal rights to their land and trees, and supports their efforts, by, for example, providing community- based organizations with technical assistance and capacity-building. The results have been dramatic.

  • Tanzania. Over the past 20 years, the Tanzanian government has promoted participatory forest management (both community-based forest management and joint forest management of government reserves) as a major strategy for managing forests for sustainable use and conservation. More than 1,800 villages are engaged in legally recognized management of forests, covering 3.6 million hectares (about 8.9 million acres) or about 10 percent of the country’s total forest area. And participatory forest management leads to improved forest conditions.

  • Niger. When the government strengthened the rights of farmers to manage trees on cropland, tree cover increased significantly. Over past 20 years, Niger has added 200 million new trees, storing an additional 30 million tons of carbon. Community rights not only prevent deforestation, they also encourage restoration of agroforestry systems across agricultural landscapes, and in the process have helped to improve food security and resilience for millions of rural households.

Despite Successes, More Protection Needed

Despite these successes, Africa lags behind Latin America and Asia in implementing and protecting community land and forest rights, with Indigenous Peoples and communities having legal rights to only 6 percent of forests in 12 African countries for which there is reliable data—compared to 39 percent in Latin America and 37 percent in Asia. From a climate change perspective, the focus must be on the Congo Basin, which contains the largest concentration of stored carbon in Africa. In 1994, Cameroon ushered in a new Forest Code that for the first time recognized communities’ legal rights for some forest land. Other Central African countries followed Cameroon’s lead, including Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today there are at least 340 Community Forests in Cameroon to which communities have legal rights, although they cover just 1.2 million hectares—1/20th of the forest, with another 50 legally-recognized Community Forests in Equatorial Guinea.

While many African countries recognize customary tenure arrangements over land and forests in their national laws, the process of on-the-ground implementation and protection of community forest rights and land rights is slow. Few governments have established the strong legal protections required, and even when recognized by law, they often fail to protect community land from encroachment or support villagers in securing their land. This makes community land and resources vulnerable to mineral extractors, ranchers, illegal loggers, and other developers.

African countries have a golden opportunity to promote community development, protect forests, and mitigate climate change by strengthening community rights to forests and building the capacity to protect these rights. If African governments do this, the continent’s climate negotiators can show the world they are contributing to global efforts to curb climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation and maintaining forests as carbon sinks.