March 28, 2014

Commentary Series: Forest Tenure Security for Long Term Security against Deforestation

By Omaira Bolaños

This post is part of a series developed by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Landesa to highlight the importance of securing land rights for smallholder farmers. This series is running concurrently with the World Bank’s 2014 Land and Poverty Conference taking place in Washington, DC. Follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #landrights.

According to the UN, 17 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions are due to deforestation. Of that total, Latin America contributes 46 percent – which alone, accounts for roughly 8 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. For a region that is home to the largest basin of tropical forest in the world, effectively managing these forests is no small task. But for the 40 million local and indigenous people who call these areas home, effective forest management and land conservation is just something they’re good at.

In Mesoamerica, where Indigenous Peoples and local communities control over 50 million hectares of forest land, research shows that their conservation of these forests greatly outperforms areas not under their control.[1] Similarly, in Brazil, where Indigenous Peoples and local communities control and manage the largest aggregate of forest lands globally, the same was also found to be true. These communities were more effective in inhibiting deforestation and forest fires than government-managed and protected areas. But why?

Indigenous Peoples and local communities have vested interests in protecting these forests. The forest provides not only food and shelter, but it serves as the very basis of their livelihoods, and the social landscape from which many define their identity and culture.

Yet despite their proven delivery on sustainable development goals and their unique relationship to the forest, when it comes to creating effective climate change mitigation strategies, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are too often overlooked. Their rights to these lands and resources are often infringed upon by governments and institutions in favor of costly, suboptimal conservation schemes and large scale land projects that harm forests, accelerate global warming, and dispossess forest communities from their lands.

Brazil’s Belo Monte dam is a case in point. Construction of the dam, which in itself is neither carbon nor greenhouse neutral, is expected to flood 500km of forest land, directly affecting 200 Amerindians and indirectly affecting hundreds others living nearby. Whether the dam will work as an effective renewable energy source remains to be seen. As it stands, however, its surging price tag (expected to reach US $27 billion) would saddle taxpayers in debt, outweighing the social benefits it was designed to provide.

Although Indigenous Peoples and local communities in Latin America legally own or control almost 40 percent of the region’s forest, the lack of political will to clarify and safeguard these rights has created a tenure system mired in contestation and conflict. This constant contestation of land – made worse by increasing global demands for food, fuel, fiber and minerals – is disastrous for forest conservation, climate change mitigation, and communities alike. Insecurity in local forest tenure not only endangers the welfare of the people best suited to care for the forests, but it effectively undermines their ability to do so.

In a recent mapping of overlapping land claims in the Pacific Basin, researchers found that natural resource extraction and other megaprojects overlap with lands occupied and controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. This land corridor, which starts from the Panama Canal – running through the western edge of Ecuador and Colombia, and down to northern Peru , encompasses 29 million hectares of forest, some of the most biodiverse forest land in the world.[2] These overlapping land claims have led to community displacement and conflict, pushing communities to the fringes and leaving forests vulnerable to groups with very little interest in protecting them. As our study shows, when forests are not under community control – even those under supposedly strict state protection – forests suffer more from illegal logging, which exacerbates the negative impacts of deforestation further. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The twentieth session of the Conference of Parties (COP20), to be held in Lima at the end of this year, is the penultimate meeting before negotiations become commitments. The conference presents a critical juncture in creating a global climate change mitigation strategy that works. Investing in Indigenous Peoples and local communities is an important first step, and it should start with setting tenure reform as a global priority across the board. As the Conference’s host, Latin America has the opportunity emerge as a true champion for climate change mitigation. By embracing the efforts made by its local and indigenous forest communities to protect forest, and by supporting their efforts to secure their rights to forest land, Latin America can help lead the way forward in ensuring long-term security against deforestation and climate change.

Omaira Bolaños is the Latin America Director of the Rights and Resources Initiative. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA