Studies show land rights key to saving forests
SHANGHAI—Ensuring that forest dwellers have rights over their land is vital for slowing the deforestation that may be causing up to a fifth of the world's emissions of greenhouse gases, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report by the Washington-based NGO Rights and Resources Initiative is aimed at encouraging next month's U.N. summit in Rio de Janeiro to tackle the politically contentious issue of land reforms.
RRI says studies in China, India and Brazil show local residents must have a say over how forests are used to ensure sustainability.
China has made significant progress in restoring its forest cover while also allowing residents to make a living from plantations, forest products and tourism, the RRI report says.
In southwestern China's Tengchong area, local communities are allowed to vote on whether to manage the forests collectively, much as they would traditionally, or to manage sections individually.
Reforms like those have aided replanting, increasing China's forest cover by 1.6 percent in 2000-2010. India saw a 0.5 percent increase, while all other Asian countries saw no change, or declines.
"In Asia, most governments continue to deny local land rights and to promote economic activities that result in deforestation. Forests in the region are being depleted, communities are losing their homelands, and corruption is common," the RRI report says.
Local anger over displacement by logging and other projects in northern Myanmar is a factor behind the flaring Kachin ethnic insurgency, analysts say.
In Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, meanwhile, local authorities have encouraged razing of forests for rubber, coffee, eucalyptus and other crops, reducing biodiversity by wiping out ancient old growth forests.
Without reforms to protect local residents' rights, the problems will only grow worse, says Andy White, a coordinator with RRI.
"Land rights have to be secure for development to be sustainable," White said in a phone interview.
RRI's research shows that forest lands owned by local communities and indigenous people increased slightly over the past decade, from 10 percent in 2002 to 15 percent in 2012.
Conservation groups are pushing for the Rio gathering to include the issue of land rights on an agenda already weakened by decisions of many world leaders not to attend.
Among their priorities is the REDD program -- for Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a global program that provides funds to countries seeking to cut emissions through good forest governance, protecting biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples.
"Unless the land issue is addressed, we are not going to make progress on REDD, global warming or even poverty," White said.
Deforestation -- the burning of woodlands or the rotting of felled trees -- is thought to account for up to 20 percent of C02 released into the atmosphere -- as much as that emitted by all the world's cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships combined.
The aim is to provide incentives to leave forests standing, in many cases retraining people whose livelihoods are linked to the forest -- or its destruction.
Land use rights remain a touchy topic, especially in China, where land grabs often provoke public protests. Local officials barred RRI from taking journalists to see the projects it has backed in Tengchong, the district surrounding Houqiao.
In most of Africa and many other regions, the issue of land rights largely has been ignored, while agribusinesses and global investment funds "slice and dice" public land holdings, says White. As a result, clearing of forests is soaring.