Do the World’s Forests Have a Chance?

Rights and Resources Initiative
Public release date: 14-Jul-2008

Contact: Jeff Haskins

LONDON (14 July 2008) — Escalating global demand
for fuel, food and wood fibre will destroy the
world’s forests, if efforts to address climate
change and poverty fail to empower the
billion-plus forest-dependent poor, according to
two reports released today by the U.S.-based
Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), an
international coalition comprising the world’s
foremost organisations on forest governance and

The studies were delivered today at an event in
the House of Commons hosted by Martin Horwood, MP
for Cheltenham. Sponsored by RRI and the UK-based
Forest Peoples Programme, speakers included
Gareth Thomas, the UK Minister for Trade and
Development; authors of the two reports; as well
as advocates for forest communities in Africa and

According to the findings released today in RRI’s
comprehensive study, Seeing People through the
Trees: Scaling Up Efforts to Advance Rights and
Address Poverty, Conflict and Climate Change, the
world will need a minimum of 515 million more
hectares by 2030, in order to grow food,
bioenergy, and wood products. This is almost
twice the amount of land that will be available,
equal to a land mass 12 times the size of Germany.

At the same time, a second RRI study, From
Exclusion to Ownership? Challenges and
Opportunities in Advancing Forest Tenure Reform,
finds that developing country governments still
claim an overwhelming majority of forests and
have made limited progress in recognizing local
land rights, leaving open the potential for great
violence, as some of the world’s poorest peoples
struggle to hold on to their only asset-millions
of hectares of the world’s most valuable and
vulnerable forestlands.

The studies also report a sharp increase in
government allocations of forests to industrial
plantations, and suggest that the booming growth
in demand for food and fuel is rapidly eating up
vast forestlands in the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

“Arguably, we are on the verge of a last great
global land grab,” said Andy White, Coordinator
of RRI and co-author of Seeing People through the
Trees, a comprehensive synthesis of six ambitious
studies of forest tenure, climate change and the
impact of the food and fuel crisis on forest
communities and forest habitats prepared by RRI
Partner organisations. “Unless steps are taken,
traditional forest owners, and the forests
themselves, will be the big losers. It will mean
more deforestation, more conflict, more carbon
emissions, more climate change and less
prosperity for everyone.”

According to Marcus Colchester, Director of the
Forest Peoples Programme and one of the authors
of the research released today, the success of
efforts to address threats to local forest
communities and to the global environment will
depend on the actions of governments and other
influential entities to recognize and strengthen
property and other human rights of indigenous
peoples and other local communities that live in
and around vulnerable forests.

Initial tenure reform experiences, documented in
both studies, suggest that implementing
democratic processes, which also establish basic
conditions for development, can in turn protect
the forests and provide significant economic
benefits. According to the UK’s Gareth Thomas,
the findings will be of great interest to all
countries seeking to contain climate change and
deal with the food crisis.

“The UK has been working with others to help
strengthen the rights of indigenous people to
stop them being forced off the land,” Thomas
said. “For example, we are currently helping the
Batwa and Bafoto peoples in the Democratic
Republic of Congo and will soon be rolling out
this work to three other countries in Central
Africa. These new studies should strengthen
global resolve to protect the property rights of
indigenous and local communities who play a vital
role in protecting one the most outstanding
natural wonders of the world.”

In the second study, RRI researchers report there
has been progress in tenure reform since they
last reviewed the topic, six years ago. In 2002
for example about 22% of developing country
forests were either owned by communities, or were
public forest designated for use by communities.
That figure had increased to 27% by early 2008, a
small but significant shift. Twelve out of the
top 30 forest nations put into place policies
that strengthen community rights, leading in many
cases to new market opportunities for local
people, and providing the means to influence
decision makers in the powerful worlds of
conservation, industry and politics

“There has been important progress, though many
of the fundamental inequalities still exist,”
said Stewart Maginnis, Head of IUCN’s Forest
Programme. “More and more governments are
recognising that some of the fundamental
obstacles to rural poverty reduction are
associated with unclear or unfair forest
ownership arrangements and are beginning to
explore and implement creative solutions to
address these.”

The authors of the RRI study warn, however, that
in most regions of the developing world,
“governments retain a firm grip on the majority
of forests,” adding that “industrial claims on
forest lands are increasing sharply, for biofuels
production, among other reasons.”

Crops that produce biofuels alone will require at
least an additional 30 to 35 million hectares
(Mha) of new productive land within the next
decade or so, the equivalent of 35,000 soccer
fields, according to the authors: “High prices
are intensifying land speculation, deforestation,
and encroachment on an unprecedented scale,” they
note in their report.

The following are official government projections
in just three key producer countries of projected
growth in the area to be used for production of
industrial crops, including those destined for
food and fuel:

* In Brazil, 28 Mha are currently under
cultivation for soy and sugarcane. By 2020, soy
and sugarcane plantations are expected to cover
88 to 128 Mha of Brazilian land.

* In Indonesia, 6.5 Mha of land are dedicated
to oil palm plantations. By 2025, oil palm
plantations are projected to require 16.5 to 26
Mha of land.

* In China, biofuel cultivation alone is
expected to require an additional 13.3 Mha of
land by 2020.

Speakers at the London event noted that many of
the billion people who live in and around
vulnerable forests will be unable to protect
their forests because they lack secure and
enforced customary land rights to help resist the
soaring demand for land. Furthermore, the reports
and discussions make clear that international
initiatives to Reduce Emissions from
Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) will fail
unless there are robust and proactive steps by
all actors to secure local land rights in forest
areas. Investments in forest areas will only
benefit the better off individuals and industries
will neither address the causes of deforestation
nor encourage sustainable development.

Joji Cariño, of the Indigenous Peoples’
International Centre for Policy Research and
Education in the Philippines, called for
fundamental changes to recognise and enforce the
rights of the people who live in and around the
forests. “Unless we initiate such changes,”
Cariño added, “the next generation will be denied
food, medicine and cultural identity, fuelling
greater and more violent conflicts, and the
destruction of their forest homelands.”

Kyeretwie Opoku, an attorney and coordinator of
Civic Response in Ghana, lamented that
international efforts to address climate change
and poverty are only beginning to address “abuse,
poor governance and misuse of natural resources
in the management of forests, particularly in the
forests of West Africa.

“We face a ‘deficit of democracy’ plagued by
violent conflict and human rights abuses,” Opoku
said. “We must address underlying inequities by
consulting and allowing forest peoples to make
decisions for themselves regarding the actions of
industry and conservation–as empowered citizens
with a voice in their own future.”

The authors of From Exclusion to Ownership
provide examples of forest nations that have
stopped short of providing meaningful rights to
forest communities, noting that their findings
have implications for initiatives aimed at
addressing climate change and the global food

* In Peru, the government has violated the
protections of collective land titles. The
allocation of about 80 percent of the country’s
Amazon forests for oil and gas exploration
affects almost all titled indigenous lands.

* In Papua New Guinea, although forest people
are constitutionally endowed with property rights
over the forests they live in, politicians and
the police have tended to side with the interests
of the forest product entrepreneurs.

* In Brazil, where 12 Mha of Amazonian lands
have been designated to secure the rights of
traditional rubber-tapping communities while
promoting forest conservation, the government
officials are failing to prevent incursion on
extractive reserve lands.

* In five Central African countries in the
Congo basin, Cameroon, Central African Republic,
Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon,
there are at least 73 Mha of concessions on
forest lands for timber and mineral exploitation,
compared to 1.6 Mha of forest land legally
designated for use by communities.

The RRI studies call for a number of
recommendations that donor nations, agencies and
advocacy organisations can implement to
strengthen rights and to ensure that indigenous
and local forest communities participate in and
benefit from the carbon markets and compensation
programmes for conserving forests. The following
are among those that should be considered in
designing such initiatives, according to RRI’s
Andy White:

* Condition all funding for conservation on
recognition of customary and equitable land rights

* Develop new capacity to engage in conflict
countries to advance tenure and governance reforms

* Make it a priority to support the
initiatives of community organisations and other
community networks, helping them to build
capacity and to fund what they identify as vital

* Help international and civil-society
advocates advance transparency initiatives and
support the development of freedom of information

* Support information exchanges among key
stakeholders to build knowledge and momentum for

* Develop a role for communities in
designing, monitoring and auditing the
implementation of carbon funds and other
conservation measures

“It is clear from the research that the dual
crises of fuel and food are attracting
significant new investments and great land
speculation,” White said. “Only by protecting the
rights of the people who live in and around the
world’s most vulnerable forests can we prevent
the devastation these forces will wreak on the
poor and the poorly governed hinterlands. In the
process, our studies have shown that we will
protect the forests themselves by recognizing the
rights of the people with the most to lose if
they are destroyed.”


Editor’s Note: For full text of reports,
background information, speeches, and photos,
please visit:

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is a
new coalition of organisations dedicated to
raising global awareness of the critical need for
forest tenure, policy and market reforms, in
order to achieve global goals of poverty
alleviation, biodiversity conservation and
forest-based economic growth. Partners currently
include ACICAFOC (Coordinating Association of
Indigenous and Agroforestry Communities of
Central America), the Center for International
Forestry Research (CIFOR), Civic Response, the
Foundation for People and Community Development
(FPCD), Forest Peoples Programme, Forest Trends,
the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF),
Intercooperation, the World Conservation Union
(IUCN), the Federation of Community Forest
Organisations of Nepal (FECOFUN), and the
Regional Community Forestry Training Center for
Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC). For further
information, visit the Web site at:

Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) is an
international NGO, founded in 1990 to promote
forest peoples’ rights. FPP supports forest
peoples in their efforts to secure and
sustainably manage their forests, lands and
livelihoods. Strategies to achieve this include
promoting the rights and interests of forest
peoples at local, national and international
levels, providing them with opportunities to have
an effective voice in decision-making processes,
challenging top-down policies and projects that
deprive local peoples of resources, coordinating
support among environmental organisations for the
visions of forest peoples, supporting
community-led sustainable forest management, and
publicising the plight of forest peoples through
research, analysis and documentation. For further
information visit the website at


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