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At a Crossroads: Consequential Trends in Recognition of Community-based Forest Tenure From 2002-2017

Author: Rights and Resources Initiative

Date: September 9, 2018

Despite the substantial forest area held, claimed, and managed by Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and rural women, the vast majority of the world’s forests formally remain under government administration as national or provincial forests, protected areas, or forests allocated to third parties under concessions. Given evidence that deforestation rates are often lower and carbon sequestration greater in forests where Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ rights are legally recognized, there is an urgent need to scale up tenure reform in order to safeguard the world’s remaining forests.

This analysis reports on trends in global forest tenure over the fifteen-year period from 2002-2017. It is the fourth in a series of analyses monitoring the legal recognition of forest tenure around the world according to four categories of legally recognized (statutory) forest tenure: government administered, designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities, owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and privately owned by individuals and firms.

Notwithstanding the limited progress overall, emerging evidence and opportunities provide reason for hope: across the same 41 countries, two-thirds of the advancement in community tenure between 2013-2017 relate to increases in community forest ownership, with over 90 percent of this progress stemming from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Moreover, recent laws in a number of countries establish new legal pathways for communities to own their forests under national law. Together, these advancements signal possible movement toward the recognition of additional and more robust forest tenure rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

NEW! This publication is now available in French.

  • Key Findings
  • Related Analyses

Key Findings

  • While significant gains in the legal recognition of Indigenous Peoples and local communities as forest owners and designated rightsholders have been made over the past 15 years, the pace of recognition has generally remained slow since 2008, despite a very slight uptick since RRI last reported on the distribution of forest tenure in 2013. As of 2017, 15.3 percent (521 mha) of forests across the 41 complete case countries assessed are cumulatively designated for and owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
  • Encouragingly, the rate of increase in forest area owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities over the four years from 2013-2017 exceeded that observed over the previous five-year period
    (2008-2013)—possibly signaling an emerging increase in the legal recognition of community forest ownership. The recognition of forests designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities since 2013 was markedly lower than recognition during the 2002-2008 and 2008-2013 periods.
  • The pendulum has swung in favor of community ownership since 2013. Of the nearly 28 mha of community forests (both owned by and designated for communities) recognized during the 2013-2017 period, almost two-thirds (18 mha) are recognized as owned by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
  • Governments continue to maintain legal and administrative authority over more than 70 percent of forestlands (2,473 mha), much of which is claimed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
  • Despite the vast areas under dispute, a large proportion of government administered forest is either managed as protected areas or locked in state-issued concessions, licensing agreements, or untapped resources claims held for the benefit of private companies, local elites, or other investors.
  • Private forest ownership by individuals and firms (excluding concessions) remained relatively constant over the fifteen-year period, increasing from 11.1 percent (380 mha) in 2002 to 12.0 percent (407 mha) in 2017. However, a lack of up-to-date and transparent data concerning the status, size, and owners of private forest holdings hampers the ability to discern trends with respect to privately owned forests.
  • In Africa, the recognition of communities’ forest rights continues to lag behind progress made in Asia and Latin America, despite positive steps by some countries to legally recognize community-based tenure.
  • In Asia, the rate of statutory forest tenure recognition for Indigenous Peoples and local communities has progressed modestly over the last 15 years, with China accounting for most of the gains achieved.
  • Within the nine complete case countries in Latin America, the rate of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ recognition as forest owners increased markedly between 2013-2017 as compared to the previous five-year period (2008-2013).
  • The restoration of forest landscapes necessitates careful contemplation concerning who will maintain rights to own and administer these spaces, ensuring that Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and rural women are both respected partners in and beneficiaries of these efforts.


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