Indigenous people gain greater forest rights

More and more Asian governments are giving indigenous people greater control over their natural resources and habitat in a bid to stem deforestation, a new report states.

Countries such as China, India and Vietnam are making "dramatic" progress, not only in stopping deforestation, but also in expanding their forests, thanks to reforms that include giving more rights to communities and indigenous groups, according to the report by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) released on 12 July.

"The state remains the predominant actor in the region's forests, but the trend towards increased and legally recognized local control now emerging is incredibly important," Andy White, coordinator of RRI, a global coalition of groups advocating forest land tenure and policy reforms, said in a statement accompanying the report.

"It's no coincidence that the countries granting more rights to communities and indigenous groups are the same ones making progress toward more sustainable management of their forest resources," he said.

According to the report, The Greener Side of REDD+: Lessons for REDD+ from Countries where Forest Area is increasing, between 1990 and 2010, 78 nations in the world with significant forest cover either maintained or increased their forested areas.

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a global initiative to help developing countries reduce carbon released into the atmosphere by tropical forest destruction.

And while Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia have all increased the amount of land devolved to communities since 2002, the report says the pace of change in the region remains uneven.

Indonesia, home to the world's fifth-largest forested area, remains excluded from the promising regional trend, the report said. There are almost 30,000 villages on land claimed by the Indonesian government, yet communities have rights to less than 1 percent of the nation's forests.

Indonesia reserved 600,000 hectares for communities in 2002 but the area appeared to shrink to 230,000ha by 2008, according to government figures cited by RRI.

The new data shows that in 2010, fewer than 100,000ha had been legally recognized as under local control, far short of an Indonesian government target to devolve at least 500,000ha per year, the report said.

Signs of progress

But RRI also reported signs of progress. In the past few years, the country has made efforts to improve its policy, including creating a process for designating new areas as "community" and "village" forests that would be under local control.

Moreover, Indonesia is co-hosting an international forestry conference on Lombok island focusing on forest tenure and governance from 11-15 July.

That fact alone "says a lot about the realization at very high levels that the status quo is not a perfect one and it needs improvement", Boen Purnama, an adviser to the country's Forestry Ministry remarked.

According to Hedar Laudjeng, chief of community affairs at the government-sponsored National Forest Council, conflicts between local communities, companies and the government stem from unclear regulations governing forests.

"Foresty-related laws are not in favour of local communities, making the risk of conflicts high," he said in a statement at the start of the Lombok forestry conference.