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To protect forests and fight the climate crisis: Secure community land rights

Posted Oct. 7, 2013 / Posted by: Jeff Conant

With the release last week of the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report  reconfirming the scientific consensus on both the reality and the urgency of the climate crisis (enough to make meteorologists cry), we can expect a redoubling of extractivist efforts to frack our way to energy security, to profit from the crisis through carbon trading, and to “feed the world” industrial monocrops and genetically engineered seeds under the dubious guise of climate smart agriculture. Each of these paths, of course, are ways to continue exploiting resources for the greed of the global one percent, rather than to safeguard resources for the needs of the rest of us.

This may not sit well with the techno-optimists out there, but the climate crisis is not a technical problem – it is a socio-economic problem. With this reality in mind, a growing consensus among civil society groups, global agencies and social movements worldwide, as expressed at a recent conference that Friends of the Earth attended in Switzerland, is that securing access to land and resources for the world’s poorest people is among the most important steps we can take to adapt to the ongoing climate crisis, to mitigate its impacts, and to ensure equity in the process.

When it comes to forests, for example, a recent study by the Center for International Forestry Research revealed that tropical forests under the care of local communities have far lower rates of deforestation than those owned and managed by governments. The Center for International Forestry Research study compared peer-reviewed case studies in 16 countries and found that government-protected forests, including national parks, suffered six times greater rates of deforestation. Similarly, the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment Initiative has shown that securing land tenure for indigenous peoples is far more effective at protecting forests than top-down, market-based forest management schemes.

Protecting forests, of course, is essential to mitigating the impacts of climate change -- though how forests are protected, by whom and for whom, is just as important as that they be protected at all.

“When done properly, the benefits of community-based management can be seen over the long term, leading to greater conservation participation, reduced poverty, increased economic productivity and the protection of many forest species,” said Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR’s senior scientist and a co-author of the recent study.

In contrast, weak land tenure laws and widespread landgrabbing have directly enabled forest destruction by commodities such as palm oil -- the world’s fastest growing agricultural product, and the world’s leading cause of rainforest destruction.

In many developing countries, governments control more than 90 percent of the land, even though indigenous peoples and local communities have lived there for hundreds or thousands of years – and rather than preserving and protecting land, governments often hand it over to the private sector in the name of “development”. Yet, a new report from the Munden Project shows that thirty percent of the lands that governments have granted to commercial concessions are already used and occupied by indigenous communities – leading to ongoing conflict.

Businesses and investors in these concessions often do not know the land is occupied because there are few formal land titles in much the developing world. From an investment perspective, “legal, civil and sometimes violent opposition to projects can impair profitability” by preventing and disrupting operations, Lou Munden, head of the project, told Interpress Service. This contestation for land puts some five billion dollars of investments at risk, Munden calculated.

More urgently, it puts lives at risk -- a situation that should not be tolerated.

A case in point is Honduras, where the national body of Indigenous organizations, COPINH, is fighting tooth-and-nail against a dam concession granted by the government. The dam, which will flood vast areas of forest and agricultural land, may bring electricity to Honduras’ cities, but will profoundly undermine the food security and territorial rights of thousands of people, including the most poor and marginalized in that deeply impoverished nation. Not far from the site of the proposed dam, Honduran peasant farmers are also fighting an onslaught of palm oil backed by the world’s largest financial interests.

Legal access to land for smallholder farmers and forest-dwelling people is crucial to preventing such abuses and to protecting forests, food sovereignty and basic human rights. Yet even legal recognition, necessary as it is, is not adequate, since it cannot be assumed that laws are functional in all countries, especially in the face of economic pressures to exploit resources at any cost. In the workshops Friends of the Earth joined at the land rights conference last month, we acknowledged that, while national legal systems must recognize community land rights, international bodies, the private sector and development agencies, must also work to turn strong principles, such as the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests, into national action and mandatory international policy.

Securing the rights to land and resources of the majority of the world’s people will not only prevent the worst of the climate crisis from dispossessing the bottom five billion of their lands, rights, and cultural patrimonies -- it will help curb the crisis itself by protecting forests and other natural commons for all of us.

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