By Alfred Brownell and Devan Braun
Respect for the rights of community members—especially land rights in rural areas—is a critical factor in the resilience of communities as they respond and adapt to natural disasters and destructive social conflict driven by climate change in many parts of the world. Such community resilience greatly influences the sustainability of rural livelihoods. It is thus no surprise that two recent international agreements—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change—both highlight the importance of land rights.
In the last several years, a number of empirical analyses and field-based investigative reports have quantified the carbon stored above ground in tropical forests that are legally owned, or traditionally held and managed, by indigenous Peoples and local communities. Some of the key findings include:
- Indigenous Peoples and local communities manage 24% of the total carbon stored in the world’s forests, which is greater than 250 times the amount of carbon emitted from worldwide air travel in 2015;
- At least one-tenth of total carbon in above-ground forests is located in collectively-managed forests lacking formal recognition, placing over 22,000 million tonnes carbon (MtC) at risk of deforestation; and
- Indigenous peoples and local communities customarily claim at least 50% of the world’s lands, but legally own or have resource rights to only 10%. The gap between recognized and unrecognized areas points to significant opportunities to scale-up the protection of customary rights.
In countries that provide stronger legal rights to indigenous communities to own and manage the forests, there is an overwhelmingly positive correlation with decreased carbon emissions, reduction of land degradation, and stabilizing of forested landscapes.
The literature concludes that protecting the land and resource rights of communities and indigenous peoples can help restore forests and strengthen community resilience in adapting to climate change. Against this backdrop, we have been exploring the viability of a land tenure security index. This data-based tool would allow for a cross-country comparative analysis of the steps taken by governments to recognize, formalize, secure, and protect the land tenure rights of their citizens, especially the most vulnerable populations.
Alfred Brownell is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence with the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University School of Law. Devan Braun is a law student at Northeastern and a PHRGE Research Assistant..