The historic injustice of government’s failure to recognize and respect the human, civil, and political rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants has long undermined the culture, survival, development, and dignity of not only those communities, but also their countries and the world. This abuse led to widespread environmental degradation and violent conflict between communities and the external actors threatening their lands and livelihoods. Despite the depth of suffering and harm, these issues were long ignored by the international development community, deemed too political for their intervention. Though local resistance was widespread and Indigenous and community organizations have grown in strength and political power, until the 1990s there were only a few, small, international organizations who were actively engaged in supporting these local organizations and their agendas. Some actors in the international development community were aware that the lack of respect for these people and their customary land rights were major drivers of deforestation, rural poverty, failed conservation, and conflict, but were skeptical of the possibility of international organizations intervening in a manner that would help position local actors to right the injustices and achieve major, transformational changes in laws and policy at the national level.
Starting in 2000, Forest Trends and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) began to collaborate with champions in Chinese research organizations and government agencies. This collaboration eventually led the Chinese government to advance forest tenure reforms across the country, strengthening the rights of hundreds of millions of people and leading to reduced poverty and increased reforestation. This experience gave confidence that strategic collaboration between international activists, researchers, and local champions could achieve large-scale, globally significant tenure reforms, and that these reforms would indeed enable major progress on development, conservation, and climate goals. About the same time, Forest Trends published a pathbreaking analysis of global forest tenure which showed that Indigenous Peoples and local communities had formal rights to 22% of the forests in developing countries, and that this had roughly doubled in the prior 15 years. It also made the case that this was still only a portion of the legitimate claims held by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and identified opportunities for scaling-up recognition even further. These findings surprised the forest and land sectors, gave some hope for greater progress, and established a baseline for all to monitor that progress.
The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) was established in 2005 to build on these gains and catalyze greater strategic coordination between organizations to support the recognition of the forest land rights of local communities, Indigenous Peoples, and Afro-descendants; address historical injustices; and help transform rural areas across the world. The Rights and Resources Group (RRG) was established to coordinate the coalition.
It was created by the leaders of Forest Trends, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC) -The Center for People and Forests, ACICAFOC (Central American Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Association for Community Agroforestry), and the Foundation for People and Community Development (FPCD). These leaders developed the original set of rules and governance structure of RRI. Over the years, the coalition membership and its structure has fluctuated in response to interest and opportunities. Read more about RRI’s current Coalition here, and read RRI’s latest Memorandum of Understanding here.