Why community rights to forests are critical for adaptation

On the International Day of Forests, we highlight why empowering communities to safeguard forests is a win-win for communities and climate change.

F orests soak up billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, mitigating climate change. This has been an acknowledged fact since global climate negotiations began. Their critical role in helping us adapt to the impacts of climate change is finally garnering the attention it deserves.

The focus on nature-based solutions for climate adaptation acknowledges that a monotony of grey concrete jungles cannot offer the same level of services and protection as green forests. Forests are key. They are essential for heat waves and for flooding; to regulate global rainfall patterns and to safeguard soil and water resources; to mitigate the spread of disease and for psychosocial resilience; to protect critical infrastructure and to shield against climate hazards; and for resilient livelihoods and for safety nets in times of crises. The protection of forests is paramount to our survival.

Yet, we continue to lose 10 million hectares of forests each year.

Past decades have shown that simply fencing off forests with physical barriers and legislation for protection is futile. Forests also need social fencing. The co-dependence between forests and 2% of the global population (1.6 billion people) that live around them is one that we can no longer deny. Forests make communities resilient to climate change by providing food, water, livelihoods, housing, and medicine. This relationship is easily abused—especially where it is broken through the denial of rights to access these services, and estranged communities feel they have no stake in protecting forests for national or global good. Where we nurture it, and where we also prioritize local rights, we can empower communities to become custodians and defenders of the forests.

Read, for example, the powerful stories of communities leading forest conservation efforts in the 2023 edition of Stories of Resilience from the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA).

Local leaders show the way

Read about Irene Walimba in Uganda, who convinced the keepers of Mount Elgon National Park that the forests need people as much as people need forests. Walimba persuaded the Uganda Wildlife Authority to issue rights to the community to use land within the national park to cultivate bamboo and other species. This was a way of stabilizing the mountain slopes and protecting against landslides during periods of heavy rainfall, while generating sustainable livelihoods for the communities that live around the Park.

Read also, the story of the Indigenous People of Vanuatu’s Espiritu Santo Island, where the Women’s Environment Network is fighting local and international threats to their forest resources by using modern technology to uphold ancient traditional values. The women are focusing on the economic and environmental benefits of forests. They are also focusing on their cultural and spiritual benefits. They convinced traditional authorities that customs do not condone the commercial sale of local timber resources for purely economic gain at the expense of local environmental services like water supply, food, medicine, clean air, and building materials.

The mangrove stewards of Gazi Bay in Kenya have gone a step further by linking their forests with the global carbon market. Their Mikoko Pamoja (“Mangroves Together” in Kiswahili) mangrove conservation and restoration project was granted co-management rights to the forest under Kenyan legislation. Mangroves are champions at capturing and storing carbon dioxide within tree roots and surrounding soil. They do so much better than other major forest types.

The community teamed up with the Plan Vivo Foundation to generate credits through a payment for ecosystem services agreement. The project has resulted in emission reductions of 18,052 tons of carbon dioxide since it started, generating payments in carbon credits of US$143,976 to the community. This revenue is deposited in a community development fund, which is used for community projects in water and sanitation, education, health, and environmental conservation.

In Meru County in Kenya, community involvement in forest restoration is supporting the psychological wellness of farmers who suffer losses due to the impacts of climate change. The Central Imenti Environmental Rehabilitation Program has found that collective, productive activities such as tree planting can foster a sense of belonging, purpose, and accomplishment that can be as effective as other traditional forms of therapy, while also building the community’s resilience.

National and global systems must follow

These locally led successes deserve to be applauded. But they also serve as reminders of the abject failure of national and global systems to support them adequately through policies, legislation, budgets, including the design of global forest protection schemes (such as REDD+). Indigenous peoples and local communities living around forests typically earn less than $1.25 per day. Less than 1% of climate finance goes towards supporting their land and tenure rights. Even concerted efforts to route money to these groups fall well short of their goals.

Communities that depend heavily on forests understand too well that ecosystem resilience is community resilience. Their potential contribution to national and global goals of mitigating climate change, protecting life-giving ecosystems, and building climate resilience—for themselves as well as for the global community—is enormous. It is time that we support and encourage them in this role through a fundamental redesign of systems, to value their role as stewards of the forest. We must help them strengthen their rights and provide them with much-needed finance to sustain and scale up their efforts.

This blog was originally published on the Global Hub on Locally Led Adaptation

Anju Sharma is Global Lead on Locally Led Adaptation at the Global Center on Adaptation.

Alexandra Hillesheim is the Junior Program Officer, Locally Led Adaptation at the Global Center on Adaptation.

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