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Who owns the forests?

[CAR] A scene of deforestation in the rainforest of the Central Africa Republic.
(CAR's Ministry Water & Forestry Resources)

The Congo Basin countries, home to the world's second largest tropical forest, are 260 years behind those of the Amazon Basin, where the trend is to hand ownership of the forest to communities, according to a new study assessing tropical forest tenure.

The conclusion was drawn from a comparison between the annual rate of transferring forest to communities in 39 countries, representing 96 percent of global tropical forests.

Community ownership - making people the custodians of the forests - was critical to stopping deforestation, which would stem greenhouse gas emissions and alleviate poverty, said Jeffrey Hatcher, leading author of the study by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), a UN treaty-based agency, and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global coalition of non-governmental and community organisations working to advance forest tenure.

Much attention is being paid to forest tenure, as the study released at an international conference in Cameroon on 26 May points out, because there is money to be made in saving forests, which could help the communities living there. 

• Deforestation, a major driver of climate change, is responsible for 17.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions - way ahead of emissions from the transport sector, which account for just over 13 percent - according to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), an international scientific body. 

• At the UN meeting on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognised halting deforestation as critical to keeping the global mean temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.

Various studies have shown that a rise of 2 degrees Celsius in mean global temperature would probably destroy 30 percent to 40 percent of all known species of plants and animals, generate bigger, fiercer and more frequent heat waves and droughts, more intense weather events like floods and cyclones, and raise the sea level by at least a metre, displacing millions of people.

• The need for implementing a strategy - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) - in developing countries was also recognised in Bali. Various policies are now being put in place to help local communities conserve forests, including funding these efforts through governments and market-based mechanisms, like trading the carbon stored by forests as credits to greenhouse gas-emitting industries.

''...the poor risk exclusion: approximately 800 million people live in forests, of whom a large but unknown number have weak formal land and resource tenure security, or none at all''

• This gives communities and individuals with forest-ownership rights more bargaining power than those who are tenants of the state, but the nettlesome questions of the extent of such rights have yet to be settled: Who owns the carbon sequestered in trees and forest soils? Who owns the rights to the carbon emissions avoided? Who should be compensated for protecting the world's forests and aiding climate stability? 

• Should it be only those with formal, secure tenure? If so, the poor risk exclusion: approximately 800 million people live in forests, of whom a large but unknown number have weak formal land and resource tenure security, or none at all.

• Ten countries responsible for 54 percent of global carbon emissions caused by deforestation have transferred no legal ownership of forest areas to communities and indigenous peoples, or very little: Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Venezuela.

• More than 70 percent of Africa's remaining tropical forests are located in the Congo Basin, where civil conflicts, inadequate governance, and a lack of action on land reform have put much of it at risk.

Hatcher and his co-authors noted in the report that even if the Congo Basin countries moved as quickly as the Amazon countries, a change in forest ownership would take 16 years. "The conference in Cameroon is a step to bringing awareness," he told IRIN.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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