by Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque
Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque is a Tenure Analyst with the Rights and Resources Initiative, and one of the lead researchers of “What Future for Reform?” along with Fernanda Almeida and Jenny Springer. He is currently managing and updating RRI’s various tenure tracking data sets and developing new methodologies to track changes in community tenure.
Few things are as political as the rights to the world’s remaining forest land. Forests are viewed by a wide range of actors as a source of timber, fiber, food, fuel, medicine, carbon storage, biodiversity, spirituality, and as sites of cultural belonging. Vast mineral, gas, and oil resources are also found beneath the world’s forests. As populations and incomes grow, pressure will continue to rise on the shrinking, yet increasingly important forest estate and the resources it contains. To understand the current contestation for these resources, it is important to begin with the following question: Who ‘owns’ or ‘controls’ these resources?
While the answers are rarely clear, and frequently contested, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and its Partners have been developing approaches to answering it since 2002. RRI’s recent report, What Future for Reform? Progress and slowdown in forest tenure reform since 2002, is the latest in a series of reports tracking developments related to four different statutory forest tenure categories: 1) forest land under government administration; 2) forest land designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities; 3) forest land owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities; and 4) forest land owned by individuals and firms.
The report presents tenure data from 2002 and 2013 under these four categories for 52 countries, representing nearly 90 percent of the global forest area. Of these, the 40 countries that have complete data for each category and time-period exclusively inform the global aggregates. The aggregates for low and middle income countries (LMICs) are drawn from 33 countries.
On a global scale, it is clear that while governments have increasingly recognized indigenous and local community control and ownership of forest land, governments retain the lion’s share of the global forest estate. Between 2002 and 2013, the proportion of forests owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities increased from just over 11 percent of the global forest estate (at least 383 Mha) to 15.5 percent (at least 511 Mha). The proportion owned by individuals and firms only increased by 0.6 percent over this same time period.
The bulk of the global forest tenure transition toward indigenous and local community control and ownership took place in LMICs from 2002 to 2013. In fact, almost all (97 percent) of the global change in the recognition of community rights over the 2002-2013 period took place in LMICs. More specifically, the proportion under community ownership or control in LMICs rose from just over 21 percent of forest area (at least 353 Mha) to 30 percent (at least 478 Mha) in 2013. This equates to an increase of at least 125 Mha of forests in which communities’ rights have been recognized. More than 62 percent of these 125 Mha are owned by communities.
However, there is considerable regional variation in statutory recognition of forest land rights, with most of the tenure transition taking place in Latin America, and the implementation of reforms in sub-Saharan Africa lagging far behind the other regions. While the report delves more deeply into the regional nuances of the forest tenure transition, it is striking that 80 percent of the total forest area legally owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities in 2013 is found in only five countries. China and Brazil alone account for 55 percent of the global area, while Colombia, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea account for another 25 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the countries with the world’s remaining tropical forests have failed to implement meaningful tenure reforms in terms of recognizing local rights. Ninety-nine percent of the forests in the Congo Basin and peninsular Southeast Asia remain under government administration.
Furthermore, the growth in each of the two categories (owned by and designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities) was higher in the period 2002-2008 than 2008-2013, suggesting a ‘slowdown’ in terms of the recognition of rights in LMICs. The slowdown was particularly noticeable in terms of the indigenous and local community ownership category, where the recorded increase from 2002-2008 was 66.8 Mha and the recorded increase from 2008-2013 was only 11.2 Mha.
Contestation of rights & data gaps
This ‘slowdown’ coincides with the boom in the large-scale transfer of land and resource rights to investors in the last years of the 2000s. Most of these large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) were through long-term leases or concessions agreements that were not captured within RRI’s forest tenure tracking. As such, the true extent of these leases is not yet fully understood on a global scale (and especially not for forest areas), nor is the extent of the overlap of these leases with different forms of community rights or individual and firm ownership.
The consequences of these overlaps on land statutorily controlled and owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities are substantial, as these transactions often take place without community consent in cases where laws allow governments to sell community land. In other cases, institutional protections of communities’ rights are inadequate, even if the transactions are illegal. For example, even though the recognition of rights in Papua New Guinea has been extensive and the laws provide for relatively robust rights, these reforms have not been complemented by improved governance, and communities’ rights therefore remain under threat.
However, the challenge facing Indigenous Peoples and local communities is particularly acute in contexts where their rights have not been statutorily recognized and governments can therefore allocate lands for concessions or conservation purposes with limited consultation with communities. Even countries that have recognized that vast swathes of their territories are under community tenure (Brazil and Peru, for instance), they have not yet recognized all of the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities that depend on these resources for their livelihoods and cultural survival.
One major challenge for recognition of local rights is that the extent of indigenous and local community use and dependence on land and forest resources is currently unknown at the global level. Some localized mapping efforts have started the process of visualizing these claims on landscapes, but the scale of these efforts still vastly underrepresents the actual extent of such land, rendering the presence and tenure of such communities invisible to international and national policy makers.
What future for reform?
As demands on forest resources and landscapes grow, the world cannot afford to continue to ignore the essential question of who owns and controls them. Even though there is an apparent slowdown in the recognition of rights over the past few years, Indigenous Peoples and other forest communities are mobilizing in new and more effective ways to assert and defend their rights, and pressure is mounting on policy makers and those who seek to invest in these contested landscapes.
Over the past decade, a wide range of tools developed by these communities have come online, including – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP); the mainstreaming of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC); the development and wide adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGTs); the legal reforms catalyzed by processes such as REDD+ and the negotiation of Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA) between governments and the European Union to ensure compliance with Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade (FLEGT) regulations; and the opening of fora for the mediation of communities’ grievances against company abuses in the Forest Sustainability Council (FSC) and Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), among others.
With increased legal rights and new tools, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are able to leverage unprecedented power and gain access to policy conversations about the future use, management, and preservation of resources that had formerly excluded them. With these developments gaining momentum, the costs for governments and private sector investors of resisting or ignoring this groundswell of indigenous and community mobilization are rising.
Ensuring local rights and improving local-level resources governance leads to meaningful outcomes for economic development, conservation, and climate change mitigation. What remains now is for policy makers to respond to the research and rising groundswell and make the necessary investments to deepen and secure these rights.
 Countries in order of total forest area: Russian Federation, Brazil, Canada, United States, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia, Indonesia, Sudan, South Sudan, India, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Angola, Bolivia, Zambia, Venezuela, Mozambique, Tanzania, Myanmar, Argentina, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, Japan, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Finland, Gabon, Malaysia, Cameroon, Thailand, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Guyana, Philippines, Suriname, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Nigeria, Honduras, Republic of Korea, Liberia, Nepal, Kenya, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Timor-Leste, Belize, Gambia and Togo.
 RRI’s tenure tracking only has a category for ownership by individuals and firms. This gap exists because individuals and firms may acquire time-bound rights to the forests under any one of the four tenure categories.