Who Owns The Forest?

Report Traces New Trends in Tropical Forest Land Tenure

Published Jun 10, 2013

WASHINGTON (June 10, 2013) – Traditionally, tropical forest lands are owned by a country’s government, but recently, the control of forests—known as “forest land tenure”—seems to be changing hands. A white paper from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) identifies two new contradictory trends in land tenure. On one hand, governments are transferring forest back to indigenous communities, while on the other, foreign corporate entities are gaining control of agricultural lands.

“It is essential that we protect tropical forests,” said Doug Boucher, director of UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and author of the paper. “Not only are forests important for saving biodiversity and supporting sustainable development, but these resources are also a practical, cost-effective way to help avert global warming.”

The white paper, “Whose Forest Land is It? Trends in Tropical Forest Land Tenure,” analyzes how forest and agricultural land has been transferred in different directions among governments, communities and companies, in different tropical countries and according to whether it is agricultural land or forest land. The paper concludes that these changes in land ownership have resulted in large-scale changes in tropical forest land tenure.

“Community control of forest lands is a gift that keeps on giving,” said Boucher. “Transferring forest land to indigenous communities is a key step in reducing deforestation since they generally maintain this land as natural forests. Furthermore, maintaining forests can be a money maker for the country’s government.”

Under the United Nations program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus related pro-forest activities (REDD+), tropical governments can receive compensation for successfully conserving forests. This program has proved highly profitable for Brazil, which has received about $670 million for their deforestation efforts thus far, with more to come.

Conversely, agricultural lands are being transferred to corporations for crop and biofuel production. This scenario often dispossesses communities of their traditional sources of livelihood and destroys an irreplaceable natural resource, the white paper says.

“With economic incentives already in place and evidence that transferring forest land tenure back to indigenous communities reduces deforestation, there is good reason for tropical governments to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Boucher elaborates on this white paper in a blog post on UCS’s blog, The Equation. For more information on deforestation or to schedule interviews with Boucher, please contact Sarah Goldberg at [email protected].