08/01/2014 08:49 EDT | Updated 10/01/2014 05:59 EDT

The Overlooked Group of Climate Change Fighters

There are a group of people often overlooked in the fight against climate change and they can be one of our greatest allies as we figure out how to limit the damage from extreme weather, rising seas and threats to food security.

They are the millions of indigenous people who live in the world's remaining forests.

Often overlooked, ignored, marginalized and attacked, they stand at the heart of a global solution on climate change that all of us, whether we live in big cities or remote villages, can benefit from.

That's because forests, particularly tropical rainforests, are important to all of us. They are a key way to lock up mankind's growing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal, oil and gas. Yet large-scale clearing and burning for agriculture, mining and infrastructure means deforestation is a major cause of global warming, contributing to about 11 percent of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions.

The planet needs better forest managers. Luckily, we have them.

Indigenous and local communities know their forests because they rely on them for food, medicines, incomes and culture. They are excellent forest managers, developing centuries-old knowledge that not only ensures the forests survive, but become richer stores of biodiversity and carbon.

What they need most is legal recognition of their right to live and manage those forests matched with support from local and national governments.

A major report published by the World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative shows that local communities are an undervalued tool in fighting climate change. The report, entitled "It Takes a Community...", finds government support of community forest rights tends to lower CO2 emissions and deforestation. Indeed, communities with legal forest rights maintain or improve their forests' carbon storage.

Yet when communities have no legal rights, their forests tend to be vulnerable to deforestation and become a major source of CO2 emissions. Forest clearance often leads to conflict with companies and government and loss of forest accelerates poverty. Deforestation also leads to significant loss of biodiversity and other problems, such as flooding, soil erosion and reduced river flows, all of which have local and national economic consequences.

The report's findings centre on examples from 14 forest-rich countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The authors found that deforestation rates inside community forests with strong legal recognition and government protection are dramatically lower than in forests outside. Also, the forests tend to be in better shape, often containing more carbon per hectare than areas outside.

For example, the rate of deforestation in the legally recognized community forests of Guatemala's Petén Maya Biosphere Reserve is 20 times less than other parts of the reserve. Legally recognised community forests in Brazil also record significantly lower rates of deforestation. Similarly so for community forests under government-approved management plans in Mexico.

Yet in Peru, some indigenous community forests have suffered the worst deforestation in the Amazon, losing up to 51 percent of their forest, the report says. Oil and gas concessions cover nearly 75 percent of the Peruvian Amazon, suggesting the deforestation will continue.

Indonesia has already lost half its forest cover to development. Its forests are under increasing pressure as its population keeps growing and demand for resources accelerates. A study published in June showed destruction of Indonesia's primary forests increased alarmingly between 2000 and 2012, with total clearance in 2012 of 840,000 ha. That's the equivalent of 3,223 soccer pitches per day or just over two soccer pitches being cleared every minute.

Put another way, imagine watching a recent World Cup soccer match. The pitch, at 7,140 square metres (76,820 square feet), is pretty big. Now imagine that pitch is covered in forest. Over the 90-minutes of the game, forest covering more than 180 pitches has been cleared -- just in Indonesia.

There are between 50 million and 70 million indigenous people in Indonesia, with about 40 million hectares customarily held by communities. Yet Indonesian law does not legally recognise any indigenous rights over this land, though this could soon change.

"No solution to climate change can be found without reducing deforestation," WRI's president and CEO Andrew Steer wrote in an opinion piece on Wednesday. "Every minute of every day the planet loses an area of forest the size of 50 soccer fields. Forest loss and degradation is also the main reason why species loss is running at a rate 1,000 times that of the pre-industrial era."

Globally, governments recognize at least 513 million hectares (1.2 billion acres) of their lands -- an area approximately twice the size of India -- as community-owned or controlled, the report says.

In total, these community forests contain 37 billion tonnes of carbon, or more than 29 times that emitted annually by all the passenger vehicles on Earth, the report says. That means these communities are stopping all that carbon going into the atmosphere.

The catch is that these community forests account for only about one-eighth of all forested areas. Much more needs to be done to enhance legal recognition and support for large areas of remaining community forests, particularly in Indonesia.

The report radically changes the image some have of indigenous communities. Aggressive agricultural and mining firms often see these communities as backward and a hindrance to development and profits. In reality, they are sophisticated land and forest managers with knowledge we can all benefit from. They are the keepers of some of the world's greatest treasure troves of species, including genetic resources that can be used in foods and medicines.

Failure to appreciate this means more forests and indigenous communities will be wiped off the map in the quest to grow more food and build more mines, roads and dams, releasing huge amounts of CO2 along the way. That makes little sense when we all live in a world imperilled by more destructive storms, deadlier wildfires and crippling droughts. We can and should use existing land more efficiently.

Forests and local communities are key to fighting climate change. Ensuring indigenous communities get the rights and legal recognition they deserve will mean forests can play their part in curbing global warming.


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