A new report authored by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), and World Resources Institute (WRI) shows that at least one quarter of the carbon stored aboveground in the world’s tropical forests is found in the collectively-managed territories of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Because these communities often lack secure rights to their land, one tenth of the world’s carbon contained aboveground in tropical forests is in collectively managed forests that lack formal, legal recognition. Without secure land tenure and natural resource rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities, these forests are at risk of illegal exploitation by more powerful interests, leading to the destruction of forests and the release of immense stores of aboveground carbon into the atmosphere.

While research has shown that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the best stewards of their lands, and that strengthening the land and resource rights of these communities is a proven and cost-effective way to protect such forests, a previous RRI analysis found that only 21 of 188 countries that have a national plan for reducing carbon emissions have included strategies for strengthening the rights of forest peoples in these plans. The new analysis from RRI, WHRC, and WRI of aboveground carbon in community forests provides hard evidence that governments, international organizations, and development donors must include Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ land rights as an integral part of the solution to global climate change.

What did we find?

The analysis examined the customarily claimed lands of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in 37 tropical countries, finding that community lands in these countries contain at least 54,546 million metric tons of carbon (MtC)—roughly equivalent to four times the total global carbon emissions in 2014. Of this store of aboveground carbon, 22,322 MtC is found in collectively managed forests over which communities do not have formal legal recognition, placing it at imminent risk of being released into the atmosphere—and accelerating global climate change.

The research focused on communities in tropical countries where documentation exists on ownership and community management of land. As such, the estimates contained in this analysis rely on conservative estimates of the amount of forests managed by communities. The full extent of forest lands managed, and by extension the aboveground carbon they contain, is almost certainly much greater. Indeed, research has shown that Indigenous Peoples and local communities have a claim to at least half of the world’s lands, though they hold legal recognition of just 10 percent of this land.

Toward a Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands Graphic | RRI

How do secure land rights help mitigate climate change?

When Indigenous Peoples and local communities enjoy legally recognized and enforceable rights, deforestation and carbon emissions can be significantly lower compared with areas outside of community forests. For example, community and indigenous forests in Brazil store 36 percent more carbon per hectare, and emit 27 times less carbon dioxide from deforestation than outside forests. This new research quantifying the amount of aboveground carbon in community forests demonstrates that the struggle to secure land rights will play a crucial role in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the global threat of climate change. Furthermore, securing land rights as a method of preventing emissions is remarkably cost-effective relative to other strategies to prevent global climate change—when accounting for other benefits of tropical forests such as clean water, flood control, and tourism—and presents a huge boon to local and national economies. Securing these community land rights requires an investment of only a few dollars per hectare of forest each year, which comes to less than 1 percent of the total benefits each country would reap.

What now?

This analysis launches a long-term partnership between the Woods Hole Research Center, Rights and Resources Initiative, and World Resources Institute to track aboveground carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests, with this report acting as a global baseline. As more data becomes available and the legal recognition of communities’ rights to their forests changes, the report will be updated to provide up-to-date and accurate information on the crucial role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in protecting tropical forests and mitigating global climate change.

The release of the report also coincides with the ongoing UN climate change conference taking place in Marrakech, Morocco, which presents an excellent opportunity for those actors present at the conference to commit to securing Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ land rights. International development donors and national governments must move forward on conserving the world’s tropical forests by supporting civil society and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in their efforts to secure collective land rights, as well as develop strategies to enhance Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ participation in implementing national strategies to combat climate change.

Read the full report, “Toward a Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands.” The report was released on November 1, 2016.