One of the best current paths to reduce the globe’s carbon emissions goes through tropical forests. They serve as a sink to sequester human emissions, but deforestation risks sending those assets up in smoke. A recent report argues that to avoid that outcome, indigenous communities should be involved in forest management.

Currently deforestation and land use change accounts for 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. That’s nearly equivalent to the emissions from the entire European Union.

A new report from World Resources Institute (WRI) shows that rates of deforestation could be reduced even further and tropical forests' capacity to sequester carbon could become even more pronounced with a seemingly simple fix: preserving rights of local and indigenous communities.

Indigenous communities currently have legal rights to about 1.3 billion acres of forest. That might sound large, but it only accounts for about an eighth of the globe’s total forests. Yet there are compelling reasons for that number to increase.

For one, tropical forests are more than just rods of carbon. They also provide food, shelter and jobs for people who live in them. But their ability to better store carbon could make them even more valuable.

The WRI report analyzed data from 14 tropical countries. Brazil offers the most compelling case study for what can happen when indigenous land rights are protected. The country contains the most carbon-rich forests in the world. At the same time, the Amazon faces threats from climate change and the possibility of increased drought, making proper management all the more important. The country also has a relatively strong record of providing and enforcing indigenous land rights.

Over the period of 2000-2012, WRI found that deforestation on indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon took place at a rate of only 0.6 percent annually. In comparison, other forests in Brazil saw deforestation continue at a rate of 7 percent. Indigenous lands also saw 36 percent more carbon taken up and sequestered.

Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico also had notable examples of the benefits of protecting community rights. In comparison, Indonesia’s relatively weak protections for indigenous forests has contributed to its rise as the globe’s top deforester. There, 104 million acres of forest have been set aside for community uses but rights are only enforced on 2.5 million of those acres.

“It looks like the Indonesian government is trying to do the right thing but with one arm tied behind its back,” said Andrew Steer, president of WRI, in a conference call with reporters.

Andy White, president of the Resources Renewal Institute that co-published the report, said that the findings have a central role to play in future international climate negotiations. With a new international climate agreement being hashed out in the next year, forests in developing countries will be an important piece of determining what that agreement looks like.

There are already international agreements in place that provide cash in exchange for forest conservation projects in developing countries. However, those agreements don’t outline specific avenues for engaging indigenous communities. White said the new report could help make the case for including those pathways and how to allocate funds for those projects.

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This article is reproduced with permission from Climate Central. The article was first published on August 5, 2014.