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Indigenous Communities May Offer the Most Affordable, Effective Forest Protection

Two new reports suggest that the best way to protect forests is to let indigenous and local communities manage them. Released Thursday, both reports provide evidence to support that community-led management is a financially and environmentally responsible approach to curbing deforestation.

For the first time, economists from the World Resources Institute (WRI) were able to quantify the economic value of securing land rights for indigenous and local communities. Their report, The Economic Costs and Benefits of Securing Community Forest Tenure: Evidence from Brazil and Guatemala, analyzed two areas: the Indigenous Territories in the Brazilian Amazon, which cover more than 111 million hectares (13 percent of the country); and nine Community Forest Concessions of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, which cover 332,000 hectares.

Over 20 years, the WRI researchers expect that secure rights to community forests will prevent the release of over 5.4 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) from the two regions. WRI estimated the mitigation costs as US$0.39 per tCO2e in Brazil and US$7.37 per tCO2e in Guatemala.

“Secure rights in community forests of Brazil and Guatemala are a positive investment for both countries, which carries important implications for many other countries,” said Erin Gray, WRI economist and lead author of the paper. “Similar investments would provide government officials, climate negotiators and donor agencies the opportunity to pursue a cost-effective and powerful climate change mitigation strategy.”

The benefits from carbon capture and averted emissions were quantified as US$161.7 billion in Brazil and US$605 million in Guatemala over a 20-year period. Put another way, investment of US$19 per hectare in Brazil or US$63 per hectare in Guatemala today would respectively yield the equivalents of US$1,473 and US$1,899 in benefits in 20 years. The calculations used the U.S. government’s social cost of carbon of US$41 per tCO2e, but the authors note that the benefits outweighed the costs even when much lower social costs of carbon were used.

“The global implications are huge,” said Juan-Carlos Altamirano, WRI economist and report co-author. “Indigenous Peoples and communities have some legal rights to about one-eighth of the world’s forests although they actually hold and use much more under customary arrangements. When we invest in strengthening their rights, we now know we are not only doing the right thing, we are also making a smart investment in a more climate-stable world.”

Worldwide, indigenous and local communities lack legal rights to almost three-quarters of their land. The community concessions for the Maya Biosphere Reserve were granted about 25 years ago by the Guatemalan government and will expire in a few years. At this crucial time for the local people, the Rainforest Alliance looked more closely at how effective their management of the forest has been.

The report gives particular focus to five timber species under threat from deforestation, including the endangered big-leaf Mahogany. The indigenous and local communities were able to successfully bring the endangered species back from the edge, while providing jobs and increasing incomes. They were able to sustainably log the mahogany, including for the manufacturing of furniture exports, and outperformed a private company.

These findings suggest that investments in secure rights for indigenous and local communities are worthy sustainable development efforts, with benefits that far outweigh the costs. As the world takes on the Sustainable Development Goals and leaders convene for the COP21 climate conference, this management approach could represent a win-win in reducing social inequality while curbing climate change.