Who owns the tropical forests? Till recently, the answer has traditionally been “governments,” at least in formal legal terms. But a quiet revolution in forest land tenure has been going on in several countries over the last few decades, resulting in the traditional land claims of forest communities being recognized, not just in law but also in fact. This change, due to struggles by Indigenous Peoples and their allies, has resulted in large-scale changes in tropical forest land tenure, and ironically, could also bring substantial income to tropical governments too.
These changes are explained in a new UCS White Paper that I wrote and that was released earlier this week, entitled “Whose Forest Land Is it? Trends in Tropical Forest Land Tenure.” Using data collected and made public by the Rights and Resources Initiative and the International Land Coalition, I analyzed how land has been transferred in different directions among governments, communities and companies, in different tropical countries and according to whether it is agricultural land or forest land. The most important transfers in terms of land area are shown in this very simplified figure:
However, this diagram conceals some important differences between agricultural and forest land, and also among Latin America, Africa, and southeast Asia. (Well, I did say that it was very simplified, right?) Forest land, particularly in Latin America, has been transferred in large amounts from governments to communities. This has come as a result of many struggles by Indigenous Peoples and their allies for their land rights, with sometimes dramatic results. In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, over 20 percent of the forest is now controlled by the communities who live there, in indigenous reserves and protected areas such as the 280,000 km2 Xingu corridor.
On the other hand agricultural land, especially in Africa, has been transferred from communities or governments to companies – a phenomenon known as “land-grabbing.” Ward Anseeuw and colleagues have documented hundreds of such deals, which often dispossess communities of the traditional sources of their livelihoods.
There are a number of global trends that are driving these tendencies, including the globalization of agricultural markets, rising food prices, populations that are growing (although not as rapidly as in the past), changing diets, and the expansion of biofuel production. I interpret their effects using some basic concepts of political economy, including the distinction between open-access and common-property ownership emphasized by the late Nobel-Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom.
One of my findings is that while land-grabbing may have peaked in 2009 and then declined – the data aren’t yet clear on this — the tendency to transfer forest land to communities seems to be continuing, at least in those countries where it was already well underway. On the other hand it has shown little signs of taking off in other countries, particularly those in Africa. Recent events in southeast Asia – particular the Constitutional Court decision in Indonesia that protected traditional community land against taking by the national government – may signal a change in that region.
The ironic results of such transfers may well be that tropical governments benefit financially from not being the legal owners of forest land. With the recent development of the international effort known as REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, plus related pro-forest activities), tropical governments have begun to receive “results-based compensation” for their countries’ successes in conserving forests. Most notably, Norway has paid Brazil about $ 670 million and Guyana about $ 45 million with more to come. So far Norway is by far the most advanced donor in this respect, but others are beginning to follow their lead.
Two aspects of these REDD+ payments are critical. First, they are based on results. Governments receive compensation after they have reduced their deforestation and thus their emissions, not before, and this compensation depends on how much reduction they have achieved. Secondly, the reduction is calculated on a national scale, not based on what happens in a particular project in one small area. The money comes because of national-scale success – and independently of who owns which land within the country.
This means that if transferring forest land to communities reduces deforestation, governments can get paid for it, even though they no longer are the legal owners of that land. And there is increasing evidence that community control of land does reduce deforestation, sometimes equally or even more effectively than keeping it in government ownership and setting up protected areas.
It’s an unexpected conclusion, but potentially very important for the future of both tropical forests and the communities that live in them. Governments that legally own less land, could actually make more money, through REDD+.
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