By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK - Granting forest dwellers legal rights to their traditional lands helps fight deforestation and climate change, but the vast majority of the world's forests remain under government control with limited access for communities, researchers said.
Only about 14 percent of forests, or about 527 million hectares, were legally owned or designated for local communities in 58 countries surveyed by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.
Forest area with legal rights for communities has grown nearly 40 percent since 2002, but recognition of such rights has slowed in recent years, it said in a report published this week.
"Given evidence that deforestation rates are often lower and carbon sequestration greater in forests where indigenous peoples' and local communities' rights are legally recognised, there is an urgent need to scale up tenure reform," they said.
"Yet governments are failing to act, just as the need for climate solutions has become more urgent than ever."
RRI's study was released as philanthropists pledged more than $450 million to rescue shrinking tropical forests that suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ahead of a global climate change summit in San Francisco.
Indigenous and local communities own more than half the world's land under customary rights. Yet they only have secure legal rights to 10 percent, according to RRI.
Governments maintain legal and administrative authority over more than two-thirds of global forest area, much of which is claimed and contested by local communities, it said.
In Asia, which accounts for about 60 percent of the world's population, forest tenure recognition has progressed "modestly", with China accounting for most of the gains, according to RRI.
Few Asian countries have legal frameworks recognising communities as forest owners, while progress is uneven in nations that have enacted laws to do so.
In India, a new planned forest policy could open the door for private firms to grow commercial plantations.
In Thailand, communities are being evicted from national parks under a law aimed at conserving forests.
An Indonesian government proposal to return customary lands to indigenous people has fallen short of its target, while recognition of ancestral domains in the Philippines has slowed, rights groups say.
Meanwhile, killings of indigenous people and land rights activists have risen across the world, with nearly four killed each week in 2017, the deadliest year on record.
"Over the coming years, government progress in the recognition of community-based tenure could stagnate, preventing the world from achieving key development and climate milestones," RRI said in its report.
Instead, urgent action is needed to accelerate the recognition of local communities as forest owners.
"It gives the world its best chance of combating climate change," it said.