For many Indigenous communities, land titles aren’t the same as tenure security

In communities’ visions of a secure future, good governance, transparency, and respect for customary rights matter more than a piece of paper
, Monday, 6 Feb 2023
Women resin transporters, walk as carry resin from the fields to the village, for one kilo they earn Rp. 600, – and usually they can carry fifty kilos one way in Penengahan village, Pesisir Barat regency, Lampung province, Indonesia. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/CIFOR

With international climate negotiations putting Indigenous Peoples and other local communities in the spotlight for climate funding, more attention is being paid to protecting those groups’ rights to their land and forest.

That often takes the form of land titling programs, but titles alone don’t guarantee rights. And while tenure security can make communities more secure, exactly what that means varies from place to place, according to a new study by the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

“I think a lot of people still believe that land titles grant tenure security, and it’s hard to get away from this idea,” said CIFOR-ICRAF principal scientist Anne Larson. “Data show that people often consider a piece of paper reassuring — a sign of legitimacy meaning that others will respect their rights. But anyone who has worked in this field for very long knows how limited a title can be.”

Larson has seen cases in which a newly titled community’s leader has sold off forest rights to the highest bidder, or an Indigenous community has won title only to have government agencies fail to support its efforts to defend itself against settlers who invade its land.

“It’s frustrating to share in the victory of seeing a title granted to an Indigenous community that has been fighting for it for so long, only to see all the apparent advantages of having that title practically eroded by the time it is delivered,” she said.

So what do communities expect from land tenure?

“In a study that included communities in Indonesia, Uganda and Peru, we found that many things matter for the well-being of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, but secure tenure is the foundation,” Larsen said. “The study shows how multiple factors that influence well-being are interconnected.”

If a title does not ensure tenure security, however, what does?

Visions of the future

When Larson and her colleagues dug into what forest dwellers mean by tenure security, they found that it varies from place to place but with important common threads.

They used a method called participatory prospective analysis, in which people involved in tenure issues — community members, government representatives, members of non-governmental organizations and academics — created future scenarios involving land and forests.

The result, Larson said, was a more comprehensive understanding of how tenure relates to the livelihoods, identity, and the overall well-being of local communities.

The three countries were chosen because they reflected various tenure models, from ownership of forest resources by Indigenous or traditional communities to arrangements in which communities and state entities share forest management.

Multiple workshops were held in the three countries in 2015 and 2016, leading the participants through a five-step process. In the first step, they defined their situation, answering questions such as: ‘What is the future of tenure security in this region 20 years from now?’

Once that was defined, they identified factors that could have a positive or negative impact on forest and land tenure. They then examined how those factors affected each other, to identify the most influential or ‘driving’ forces — the ones that could lead to a domino effect

After determining what those drivers would look like if they were positive or negative, the participants chose the most logical combinations of factors to create a variety of different potential future scenarios. They built narratives around those, and in Peru, an artist produced drawings of each. The groups then created action plans to work toward their desired futures.

Examples of the drawing of an optimistic and pessimistic scenario from the Peru sites. Illustrations by Lesky Zamora Rios (watercolor on paper and digitized).

Context and history matter

Communities in the regions chosen for the study have different types of tenure and face various pressures from outside their territories, and the scenarios the workshop participants developed show that local characteristics and history are important.

In Peru’s Loreto and Madre de Dios regions, the government has been granting titles to Indigenous communities, but many communities still lack titles, and overlapping claims abound. Communities do not have rights to subsoil resources, such as oil and minerals, and can use forest resources but cannot own them.

In positive future scenarios, workshop participants stressed coordination between national and local governments and between the government and communities, a central role for Indigenous Peoples, transparency, effective monitoring, and governments with sufficient capacities and resources. Negative scenarios, which represented backsliding in rights, included elements such as a lack of government coordination, lack of interest in Indigenous issues and corruption.

In Indonesia’s biodiversity-rich Maluku region, much of the forest is managed by communities under a customary system, while in the Lampung province of Sumatra, the expansion of commercial plantations led to a tenure reform under which communities manage state forest areas. As in Peru, overlapping claims are a source of conflict in both places.

Positive visions of the future included consistent and transparent policies, government support for communities and respect for customary rights, and a greater role for women in managing forest resources. Negative scenarios included unclear policies, forest degradation, inadequate budgets, poor coordination, and lack of collaborative forest management.

In Uganda, workshops were held in three regions: Lamwo, where forests are managed through customary, clan-based institutions; Masindi, with a mix of private, government-managed, and communal forests; and Kibaale, where most forests are on private land.

Positive scenarios stressed the importance of collaboration between government and communities, trained government staff, adequate funding, available information, and highly participatory policy development. Negative visions of the future were characterized by corruption, lack of government support and funding, unclear policies, political favouritism, and lack of community participation in forest management. The published study includes a model of factors that influence security.

The scenarios clearly show that for forest dwellers, legal rights are only one aspect of tenure security, Larson said. Government officials and others must also listen to communities’ needs and help them bring their visions of the future to fruition, taking into account the different factors that make that possible in each place.

“Our research findings suggest that communities’ visions of a positive future depend on factors besides titles, especially community governance, the role of the state and the relationship between communities and the state,” she added. “A title will only bring security if other conditions are in place, and although those conditions have some general characteristics, such as organized communities, they also are specific to a place’s context and history.”

What does this mean for scholars and practitioners of community and Indigenous land rights? “It means deeper engagement with Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” she said, “as well as the importance of listening to peoples’ needs and visions for the future, supporting their self-determination to act on these and fostering the enabling conditions in each specific context.”

The Global Comparative Study on Forest Tenure Reform, carried out by the Center for International Forestry (CIFOR), was funded by the European Commission and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), with technical support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

This study was part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the CGIAR Research Program on Forest, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which was led by CIFOR.


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Framing up the community-centred future of peatland management | Center for International Forestry Research

Framing up the community-centred future of peatland management

Experts share knowledge from long-term research in Indonesia and beyond
, Friday, 6 Feb 2015
Kubu Raya, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Ricky Martin/CIFOR

Indonesia has the third-largest area of biodiversity-rich tropical forests in the world. The archipelago is considered one of the world’s 17 ‘megadiverse’ countries and houses two of the 25 global biodiversity ‘hotspots’. In 2015, however, the country experienced its worst forest fire disaster in almost two decades. In September and October that year, carbon emissions released by the fires reached 11.3 million tons per day – higher than the emissions of the entire European Union, which released 8.9 million tons daily over the same period.


In response to the disaster – and as part of wider efforts to restore 14 million hectares of degraded land, including two million hectares of peatlands – the Korean and Indonesian governments have developed a peatland restoration project which focuses on the ‘3Rs’: rewetting, revegetation, and revitalization. Activities include rewetting infrastructure, revegetating over 200 hectares with tree planting, and land revitalization in 10 villages surrounding the project site, as well as the creation of a small peatland education centre.


“We believe that this peatland restoration project will help create a sustainable ecosystem and have a productive impact on the community,” said Junkyu Cho, Korean Co-Director of the Korea-Indonesia Forest Cooperation Center (KIFC), during a symposium to share knowledge and experience gained from peatland restoration initiatives in several locations across Indonesia, on 7 December 2022 at CIFOR’s Bogor campus. The international symposium also aimed to enhance the network of researchers involved in peatland restoration and governance.


The research team, which hails from Korea’s National Institute of Forest Science (NIFoS) and the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), will develop a model for restoring peatlands and other degraded lands in Indonesia in ways that make the most of science and technology and improve local livelihoods.


“We hope that various issues, such as climate change adaptation, nature-based solutions, and bioeconomy will be explored under the rubric of peatlands,” said Hyungsoon Choi, the director of NIFoS’ Global Forestry Research Division. The researchers are also helping to develop sustainable community-based reforestation and enterprises, said CIFOR-ICRAF Senior Scientist Himlal Baral.  


During the symposium, Baral also shared information on CIFOR-ICRAF’s long-term Sustainable Community-based Reforestation and Enterprises (SCORE) project, which runs for the same period as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and provides valuable opportunities for research. The study involves identifying areas for restoration, and for planting sustainable timber and non-timber forest products. “We start with small demonstration trials, and we hope to scale up and achieve long-term impacts,” he said, adding that smart agroforestry is one of the options for restoration.


Nisa Novita, from local NGO Yayasan Konservasi Alam Nusantara (YKAN), shared some of her research into the mitigation potential of natural climate solutions for Indonesia. Her team found that the country offers a dramatic opportunity to contribute to tackling climate change by increasing carbon sequestration and storage through the protection, improved management, and restoration of drylands, peatlands, and mangrove ecosystems. “Protecting, managing, and restoring Indonesia’s wetlands is key to achieving the country’s emissions reduction target by 2030,” she said.


Several presenters shared models for cost-effective restoration. A-Ram Yang of NIFoS’ Global Forestry Division discussed a visit to the Perigi peatland landscape in South Sumatra in September 2022. Meanwhile, a team from Korea’s Kookmin University shared their experience assessing ecosystem services in North Korea’s forests with a view to adapting these for use in Indonesia.


Budi Leksono, a senior researcher at the Research Center for Plant Conservation and the Forestry, National Research, and Innovation Agency (BRIN), spoke of the potential of genetic improvement to serve restoration goals. “The use of improved seeds for plantation forests has been proven to increase the productivity and quality of forest products,” he said. “In accordance with the goal of restoration in Indonesia to restore trees and forests to degraded forest landscapes on a large scale, it should also be applied to the landscape restoration program to increase the added value of the land, and will have an impact on increasing ecological resilience and productivity.”


On a similar note, in a research collaboration with CIFOR-ICRAF, scientists at Sriwijaya University (UNSRI) developed a model for landscape restoration to be applied to species with high economic value, which includes using improved seeds for certain species such as Calophyllum inophyllum, and Pongamia pinnata. One of the scientists, Agus Suwignyo, said that “the use of improved seeds for landscape restoration will have an impact on people’s welfare if this is also followed by implementing a planting pattern that is in accordance with the conditions of the land and the needs of the local community.”


Participating farmers also chose their own preferred species, such as jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), avocado (Persea americana), mango (Mangifera indica), nangkadak (a hybrid of Artocarpus heterophillus and Artocarpus integer), sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), oranges (Citrus sp.), soursop (Annona muricata), rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) and betel or areca palm (Areca catechu). From 2018 to 2020, UNSRI helped local farmers to develop smart agrosilvofishery, improved rice cultivation, introduce other economical rice crops, plant trees, and cultivate various local fish species.


The method showed positive results. “During the long dry season in 2018, the surrounding area was burned by other farmers, but our demo plot area was not burned,” said Suwignyo. “This year, we scaled up the area to 10 hectares.” The story echoed a common theme within the symposium: the importance of well-planned, multidisciplinary, evidence-based restoration that puts both people and nature first.

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New maps of global forest carbon flux offer fresh insights for action | Center for International Forestry Research

New maps of global forest carbon flux offer fresh insights for action

Bridging the gap toward the global stocktake
, Tuesday, 9 Feb 2021
Sapelli tree being cut near Imbolo, DRC. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Forests are crucial for global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change. As the global community works out what to prioritize in this quest against catastrophe, figuring out which forests are gaining and losing carbon – and why – is an important piece of the puzzle.

Until now, however, data on carbon gains and losses in global forests has been piecemeal and variable, and that has serious implications for land-use decision making – from local to international scales. “I think a lot of the decisions that are taken within the [U.N.] Paris Agreement [on climate change] depend on incomplete data sets, because they come from national greenhouse-gas inventories, which  are frequently incomplete,” said Rosa Roman-Cuesta, an associate researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in an interview. “Many countries do not report all their forest activities nor all their carbon pools. This leads to  an inconsistency between what countries report and what global modeling and atmospheric observation offer – It is our role as scientists to help to bridge this gap towards the UNFCCC global stocktake in 2023.”

Roman-Cuesta and a team of scientists from CIFOR, NASA Goddard, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, The Sustainability Consortium, University of MarylandWageningen University & Research (WUR), Woodwell Climate Research Center and World Resources Institute (WRI), hope to address that discrepancy with a ground-breaking global set of forest carbon flux maps, which have just been released in the journal Nature Climate Change and made publicly available on the Global Forest Watch website. “We now have eyes everywhere to monitor changes of forest cover and carbon stocks globally,” said Sassan Saatchi, principal scientist for Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and a co-author of the research, in a press release.

The team used a combination of ground measurements and satellite observations to obtain the first globally-consistent data set for forest carbon flux estimation over the years from 2000 to 2019. The data takes into account the full carbon pool provided by each forest, including above- and below-ground biomass, debris and soil carbon. “This paper, with whatever flaws it may have, offers comparable, complete and consistent data across all forest biomes of the planet and I think that provides valuable new insights on where hotspots for action are in forests worldwide,” said Roman-Cuesta.

“[This is] something that we in the forest remote-sensing community have been working towards for many years, but was a big scientific and computational challenge until now,” said Martin Herold, another co-author and a professor of geo-information science and remote sensing at WUR. “It’s the most up-to-date and detailed map of its kind ever produced — in that sense a really important global contribution in terms of better information on the forest carbon cycle, and on the functioning of forests and their interactions with the climate.”

The researchers found that the world’s forests absorbed twice as much carbon as they released each year. Carbon release was caused chiefly by deforestation and degradation. “Forests act as a two-lane highway in the climate system,” said Nancy Harris, co-author and research director at WRI, in the press release. “Standing forests absorb carbon, but clearing forests releases it into the atmosphere. A detailed view of where both sides are occurring – forest emissions and forest removals – adds transparency to monitoring forest-related climate policies.”

For instance, the fact that 27 percent of the world’s net forest carbon sinks sit within protected areas highlights the importance of prioritizing their continued conservation, said Herold. Meanwhile, the finding that tropical forests across Southeast Asia have collectively become a net source of carbon – due to clearing for plantations, uncontrolled fires and peatland drainage – underscores the importance of international attention on degradation in this region, the paper says.

The granular detail provided by the maps offers important opportunities for policy development and decision makers to choose wisely about where and how to take action on forests. “Many countries don’t [currently] have that level of detail,” said Herold. “Now, they can use this information to make things much more targeted, and ask: if we want to reduce deforestation, where should we go? Where are our emissions hot spots? Where should we do what for forest-related climate action?”

The maps paint a picture not only of where carbon loss is occurring, but also what’s driving it: they disaggregate the contributions of commodity production, shifting cultivation, timber harvesting or fire. That additional information will help decision-makers determine what kind of intervention is necessary, said Roman-Cuesta: for instance, nature-based solutions for fire management would be appropriate in areas where emissions come largely from fire, while emissions from deforestation could be addressed through avoided forest conversion and natural regeneration or assisted reforestation practices.

As countries and organizations around the world prepare to expand forest cover in line with initiatives like the United Nations Decade on Restoration and the Bonn Challenge, the research may also help them to decide whether to devote land to plantations, agroforestry, natural or assisted regeneration, given the relative carbon mitigation potentials of each and their potential as such to contribute to the countries’ nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement.

“Many countries say, ‘we don’t really know how much we can quantify for the NDCs, because we’re not sure how much carbon our forests emit or capture’,” said Roman-Cuesta. “Well, now they have a better answer. And that knowledge will contribute both to [climate-change] mitigation and adaptation, because the number of hectares that you end up putting in one category or another will definitely have an effect on biodiversity, water, and other key services.”

There may also be indirect implications for zoonotic pandemic prevention. With a 30m resolution, the maps on forest sinks and emissions help navigate towards landscapes that are more likely to be degraded, damaged and fragmented, and “in those areas, there’s a high chance that fauna-human contacts will be enhanced,” said Roman-Cuesta. “and we are very likely promoting the emergence of more zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic malaria is a good example in Asia”

The maps’ accessibility is also a boon for transparency, said Herold. “People can essentially look in the forests in their own ‘backyard’ – and everybody else’s too – and gather what the forest carbon situation is. It’s very detailed locally: you get that same level of detail if you look at the Congo Basin or somewhere on the Brazilian Amazon or in the Netherlands.”

That means concerned citizens, environmental non-governmental organizations, journalists, investors and other stakeholders can all access the same data as governments and international organizations, and can use that to ask questions and call global leaders and private companies to account.

“We hope that with more information being openly available, all stakeholders that should be involved in making transformational changes that are needed to address climate change and deforestation, help with restoration and nature-based solutions and so on, will all have a common level of understanding,” said Herold. “If we all have the same level of information, people may feel more comfortable to move ahead. And also to trust that anything that is not going in the right direction, given a certain agreement, will be noted since these kind of data will now be regularly updated to help track forest-related actions in high level of spatial and temporal detail.”

Now that the maps are online, the scientists hope to be able to update them regularly – every year, or even more frequently if possible, said Herold. “If we increase the level of temporal detail now, we would make it even more actionable, as we could really track much more quickly what’s occurring where.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Rosa Roman-Cuesta at
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