Who (still) owns the world’s forests?

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Who owns the world’s forests? When Andy White and Alejandra Martin posed and answered this question in their 2002 report by the same name, they found that 77 percent of forests worldwide were administered by governments. The good news was that the forested area owned and designated for use by local communities and indigenous peoples was rising.

This year, William Sunderlin and colleagues updated the numbers in their report, From Exclusion to Ownership? Challenges and Opportunities in Advancing Forest Tenure Reform. Their findings are sobering for those who hoped to see an upsurge in community control over forests. Sunderlin found that only a few of the 30 most forested countries in the tropics had made significant changes in forest tenure since the 2002 study. Most are in Latin America.

Brazil alone is responsible for much of the global progress, with an increase of 56 percent in the forest area designated for use or owned by communities and indigenous peoples. Peru and Bolivia recorded significant increases. Columbia also posted a small increase. In Africa, communities made small gains in Tanzania, Sudan and Cameroon. But Zambia and the countries of the Congo Basin registered virtually no change at all. In Asia, India added more than five million hectares to the forested area designated for use by communities and indigenous peoples. Indonesia recorded no gains.

Even in the few countries that have reformed forest tenure, the granting of rights has not guaranteed their realization. In Peru, for example, the government has allocated forested areas for oil, gas and mining exploration in violation of indigenous land titles in the Amazon. In Brazil, the government has failed to prevent illegal incursions into extractive reserves by loggers, ranchers and miners. Even when there’s a will to recognize rights, there’s not necessarily a way: meaningful tenure reform requires administrative capacity, expertise and financial resources to demarcate and enforce community rights.

Are there any reasons for optimism? Sunderlin says yes. Countries ranging from Angola to Venezuela have made changes in law and policy to facilitate recognition of indigenous, customary and community rights to forested lands. These recent developments could set the stage for accelerated tenure transitions in the near future. In addition, rising interest in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) will put a new premium on clarifying forest-related property rights.

But unless the pace of change is quickened and extended to more countries, it could take decades to shift the global balance of forest ownership from governments to rural people. Translating rights on paper into control over what happens on the ground is an equally daunting challenge, and one that will depend on sustained commitment from potential beneficiaries, governments, and the international community.

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Further reading

Sunderlin, William D.; Hatcher, Jeffrey and Liddle, Megan. 2008. From Exclusion to Ownership? Challenges and Opportunities in Advancing Forest Tenure Reform. Published by Rights and Resources Initiative. The book is available at: http://www.rightsandresources.org/documents/files/doc_736.pdf

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