Engaging local peoples helps climate-shielding forests, study says

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Christian Haugen/Flikr

By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Feb. 3, 2014

Just after the recent Paris climate talks pinpointed tropical forests as a key weapon against global warming, a new study has found that direct engagement with local peoples in these territories and recognition of their land rights is more successful at preserving land than attempting to buy them off.

Given that forests act as a carbon sink, governments and investors alike have pledged to protect these habitats in an effort to reduce net carbon emissions — by conserving forests within their borders or by investing or donating resources to developing nations to do so.

While the typical strategy has been to cordon off a natural area, often displacing or severely restricting the rights of local peoples living there, experts have found that engaging those communities makes more fiscal sense and is often more successful in protecting the land.

“Conventional thinking is, ‘pay them off and they’ll move,’” said Andy White, coordinator for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a nonprofit organization that works for policy reform related to forests. RRI on Wednesday released a report saying that investors cannot buy their way out of direct engagement with local peoples.

“This research finds that it’s really difficult and expensive to do that, so it calls for an approach where investors see the local community as parties to the deal who they have to deal with directly — they have to work with the locals,” White said.

RRI analyzed over 400 cases of conflict related to mining, energy, agriculture and forestry. Researchers wanted to find out at what point in the investment cycle the conflicts occurred, and what was caused them.

They found that the vast majority of the conflicts involved the local populations of minorities or indigenous peoples living in areas in which proposed projects would take place. In the forestry sector alone, 90 percent of the conflicts involved minorities and indigenous peoples living in those areas.

Another surprising finding was that such conflicts were rarely about compensation, White said.

Instead, RRI found that local communities are often concerned with their rights to the land, and resources such as water. The community’s role in the decision-making process is also a concern.

Not only is it more expensive to kick people off of their traditional land, but local communities typically do a better job of preserving the land, White said.

“There is mounting evidence in recent years of how effective indigenous people are in protecting forests,” White said. “But until now there hasn’t been both tools and data to assess the trade offs and costs — that’s what’s unique about our study.”

In the report, White and other experts looked at Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both countries made commitments in Paris to increase their forest areas — Liberia by 30 percent and DRC by 17 percent.

RRI looked at where traditional communities were located in both countries, and where the proposed protected areas were. It then looked at new data on the cost of displacing those people. There are two ways, White said, to displace local peoples: economically, by putting restrictions on what people can hunt or use from the forest, and full physical displacement, in which people are resettled.

RRI found that in Liberia, the government of Norway had pledged up to $150 million to implement their strategy of converting protected areas in the name of conservation. In the process, however, people were displaced either through reduction in rights or full physical displacement.

“Our findings show the costs of compensating the people in those areas would be four to six times the total investment from Norway,” White said. “Then if you roll the film forward … to keep the park alive, you have to pay for guards. And there, again, using the data available showing how much it costs to maintain parks, it costs at least $100 million over the next 20 years.”

“It becomes an unfunded liability to the government,” he said.

Governments and investors seeking to meet their commitments to the climate by preserving forests can use this new body of tools to see what the best approach is for them, White said.

RRI and TMP, a private company that develops economic and technological systems that improve the efficiency and impact of aid and philanthropic spending, have created two free, open-source tools — IAN: Risk and IAN: Diligence — to provide investors and risk analysts with reliable means of identifying risk and responding to the risk of disputes with local communities.

“We have the tools and data to help implement policies on both the public and private side to achieve the goals,” White said. “I think the climate community can finally recognize that securing indigenous peoples’ forest rights is a key climate strategy to reduce emissions.”

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