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Luis Ubiñas Headshot

Look to the World's Forests -- and the People Who Live There -- for Climate Change Solutions

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More than a decade of record heat and a ceaseless progression of "once in a century" storms have put climate change at the top of the global agenda. Today, the world marks the International Day of Forests, an urgent reminder of the largely unrealized potential of innovative forestry programs -- and the local communities who manage them -- to drive new solutions to our climate challenge.

The global dialogue around climate change tends to focus on energy policy. But there are issues beyond energy. Forest loss is now responsible for almost one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions -- more than all global transportation combined. Fortunately, real progress on this issue is within our reach. We now have a number of tools to prevent forest loss and keep the oceans at bay. One of the least appreciated is community management of forests, a proven approach that can help turn the tide.

Just last month, the World Bank released a major review of its support for nearly 500 forestry projects, confirming what the Ford Foundation has learned after three decades working on these issues -- when local communities are given the ability to manage these lands, forests are preserved.

As this report shows, community management of forests produces tangible and enduring environmental benefits like reducing deforestation, regenerating degraded forests, reducing soil erosion and incidence of fires, and protecting biodiversity.

But what makes this the rare policy win-win is that community management of forests is an engine for economic growth, providing jobs and improving the quality of life for those who call these places home. In Mexico, local communities now own 60 percent of the country's forests, spurring the creation of small businesses that employ hundreds of thousands of people. In the Amazon, where a dramatic decline in deforestation stands as one of the greatest environmental accomplishments of the last decade, giving Indigenous communities clear rights over forests has been a significant factor in success.

And in places around the world -- from India to Albania and from Indonesia to Honduras -- these stories are being replicated in the form of new jobs, vibrant local industries, higher wages and improved standards of living. All while bringing climate benefits.

Unfortunately, not everyone is getting the message. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, communities control only 30 percent of forests in developing countries, with weak government bureaucracies controlling most of the rest. This is far too small a share, particularly when one considers the benefits. By doubling community ownership over the next twenty years, and investing in helping communities manage their forests, we could make significant progress in addressing the world's climate challenge.

Moreover, the World Bank report shows that even when communities do have control over land, governments can be an impediment to progress. Millions of poor people depend on informal, even illegal, small-scale forestry activities and there are far too few efforts to help them grow their incomes and manage their forests better. Policies to formalize community ownership and extend best practices are missing. As the World Bank notes, whenever government forest bureaucracies are not accountable and hold too much power, the benefits enjoyed by communities may be too limited to provide sufficient incentives to ensure that local people manage the forests sustainably.

The climate crisis demands a more robust effort to expand and strengthen community rights to the world's forests.

This means providing the tools and funds needed to give rural communities clear rights over hundreds of millions of hectares of additional forests; it means engaging with private companies to help clarify which forests and lands communities have rights to, so that they can make long-term investments and forge viable agreements; and it means creating new public/private partnerships to build support for community forest rights, similar to those used to address other global issues like HIV/AIDS and malaria. Most of all, it means working to promote transparency, fight corruption, and cut bureaucracy, so that communities can truly benefit from the rights that are already theirs on paper.

At a time when global warming can seem unstoppable, community forestry represents a key tool to slow its course. We have the evidence it works and we must take advantage of the opportunity.

Luis A. Ubiñas is president of the Ford Foundation.