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Governments must axe their hold on the forests
Below is an Op-Ed authored by the Rights and Resources Initiative, invited by the Guardian and published in the Guardian on August 15th. Click here to read it on the Guardian's website.
During a conference in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon recently, I saw hope for saving the world's tropical forests.
The answer is not in the recommendations of renowned environmentalists from the rich north, but in the work of hundreds of millions of forest dwellers in poor nations, who are claiming ownership and the right to sustainable use of the forestlands of Africa, Asia and the Americas. Some of these new entrepreneurs described their successes and their tribulations to colleagues at the conference in Brazil, and their message was revolutionary.
It is clear that, when their rights are respected and their enterprises are allowed to compete, indigenous and other local communities in tropical forests worldwide are addressing poverty and protecting the forests they depend on for a living. The evidence shows that, overall, forest communities take better care of the forests than any other manager, public or private, and do so while boosting income of local residents.
They invest at least $2.5bn (£1.24bn) of their own in cash and labour purely in conservation of their forests, more than double that invested by international organisations, and, unlike large-scale industry, invest most of their profits in local health, education and other development projects. Household and community forest ownership and enterprises already dominate in Europe, the US and China.
The successes of this community sector in the forests ought to transform national policy in every tropical nation, and change the way the world spends its money on conservation and its strategy for meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals.
Too bad, then, that the reality is so different. As the 300 participants return this week to their individual nations, most will face government leaders, private industry and environmental organisations that will dismiss the conference's recommendations as too radical. These powerful decision makers remain captive to a model in which forests are owned and controlled by governments, an approach largely unchanged since feudal times.
Speakers from the few countries to recognise land rights told their colleagues that they are drowning in red tape and high taxes. They lack ready access to markets, and to the lines of credit that could help them strengthen their fragile enterprises.
Help could come from the world's forest conservation community, but many of its leaders have yet to embrace democracy and human rights.
But there was sincerity in the voices of the government officials present at the conference - the environment ministers of Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo pledged to support community forestry. Even more impressive than the speeches from the ministers was the commitment that grew out of the recognition of common ground among those living thousands of miles from each other. Together, these communities have created a new global alliance and helped organise the conference in Rio Branco.
Their timing is good. As worldwide awareness grows about the critical role of forests in combating climate change - in particular tropical forests - perhaps forest communities will get their due. Our future, as well as theirs, depends on it.
· Andy White is coordinator of the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, a new coalition of organisations for forest tenure reform. rightsandresources.org
Posted By Anne-Sophie Samjee at 2:55pm on August 16, 2007
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