New research from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences has identified a key to successful forest restoration: long-term, local governance by Indigenous peoples or local communities. The more formalized the land tenure rights, the better the outcomes. Research shows that Indigenous and rural communities are the best stewards of the forests they live in, but the study’s novel finding is that community-managed forests yield better, more positive results for both environmental and social outcomes.

“Where people depend upon forest resources for a range of livelihood benefits, like firewood, timber, food, various things, they often have an incentive to take care of those forests. It’s really quite simple,” said lead author Harry Fischer. “When you give communities the opportunity to manage in those ways, you will often see better outcomes.”

Forest restoration is a critical tool for global climate change mitigation, and is particularly important to the 1.8 billion people living in, and relying on, forests for their livelihoods. Restoration projects have historically prioritized environmental outcomes like planting trees to improve biodiversity, or monetizing carbon sequestration through carbon credit schemes. But typically, those interests take precedence over the interests of local communities. The authors argue that a locally focused, rights-based approach means that those interests don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

The study analyzed data collected by the International Forestry Resources and Institutions over three decades, from 314 community-managed forests, across 15 nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Researchers wanted to understand what the best forests had in common in order to better inform future restoration efforts. The study focused on tropical ecosystems because of the high prevalence of forest restoration efforts in these regions, like the Trillion Trees project and other tree-planting initiatives. Common measures of successful forest restoration include healthy biodiversity, like planting trees or stopping deforestation, climate change mitigation services, like carbon sequestration and carbon credits, and improved livelihoods for local communities in the form of access to forests for food and housing. But the forests with the best results across all three measures were the ones where local communities determined the rules for forest management.

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Fischer and the other researchers’ critique of those efforts is that they are target-based. Forest projects focused on planting trees or selling carbon credits saw benefits concentrated in those areas, but poor performance in other areas, particularly when it comes to improving the livelihoods of local peoples. That means that while those projects may be good on paper for international conservation groups or investors, they don’t provide positive spillover effects to the people that live there. 

“What we’re saying in our study is, ‘OK, planting trees is not bad,’” Fischer said. “Giving power to local people is going to be more effective over the long term. If they have power, the interventions are going to be more legitimate. They’re going to have more local buy-in for that.”

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But that transfer of power isn’t being applied. Additional reports show that the world remains off track from reversing forest degradation and meeting decarbonization goals — in part due to a failure to work with Indigenous peoples or local communities, or recognize their rights. A study earlier this month from the Forest Declaration Assessment, a nonprofit that tracks forest conservation efforts, analyzed the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans of 27 countries with substantial forest ecosystems and Indigenous populations. According to the study, those plans to establish national conservation efforts had gaps where Indigenous peoples were performatively included or completely left out. Less than a third of those countries engaged Indigenous peoples when developing their plans.

Levi Sucre Romero, coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests and co-chair to the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, says this low rate of inclusion is one of the critical issues on the table at COP28 in Dubai.

“This implies that decisions are still being made from desks, from cities, for an issue as crucial as forests and those of us who are living and protecting those forests are not taken into account,” Romero said. “The world’s rulers must hear that they can no longer continue making promises about the problem of climate change if they are not going to fulfill them.”

Fischer says that a forest restoration approach that prioritizes local livelihoods instead of making them a secondary benefit will take time — but on average will generate the best results for both environmental and social concerns. 

“If we’re going to have participation, let’s do it in a way that really sort of redistributes power over a long, long period,” Fischer said. “[Then], people are able to really manage and get practice, and these practices get institutionalized over time.”