Nature and Biodiversity

5 principles for partnering with communities on forest restoration

WEA Leader Fatuma Arima stands amongst trees she planted on her land in Kenya.

WEA Leader Fatuma Arima stands amongst trees she planted on her land in Kenya. Image: Anthony Wanjiku.

Kahea Pacheco
Co-Executive Director, Women's Earth Alliance
Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Ian Gunderson
Impact Specialist,, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Nature and Biodiversity

  • Indigenous peoples and local communities must be central to developing equitable benefit-sharing systems for forest stewardship and restoration.
  • As more investment goes into forest conservation and restoration, social justice and equity approaches can secure long-term prosperity for forests and people.
  • We outline five guiding principles to ensure implementers develop effective partnerships with communities.

The leadership of Indigenous peoples and local communities is central to the success of any forest conservation and restoration efforts. They have rich traditional ecological knowledge – stemming from generations of living alongside and stewarding forests – which offer unparalleled solutions and vision to projects seeking to restore and sustainably steward forest landscapes.

When the rights, interests and knowledge of local communities are prioritized and respected, initiatives generate improved long-term environmental and socioeconomic outcomes. In Sumatra, for example, advocacy by Women's Earth Alliance grassroots leaders prevented the destruction of 10,000 acres of forest and protected the Indigenous lifeways of 250,000 people. The scale of such programmes is also growing. The Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative is led by Indigenous communities that have come together to protect 86 million acres of rainforest containing 3.8 billion metric tons of carbon in indigenous territories by harnessing local forest stewardship models.

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Community partnerships are becoming an increasing priority, as the world focuses on carbon capture and storage. The land legally or traditionally held by communities in tropical forests stores close to 55 million tons of carbon – 24% of all above-ground carbon in tropical forests. In recognition of their pivotal role, five countries committed $1.7 billion for Indigenous peoples and local communities, at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 last year. Further, the draft Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under discussion at the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 places more emphasis than ever on the role of these groups in achieving urgently needed results for nature.

As countries and companies step-up their forest commitments, the following principles help turn good intentions into inclusive impact at the local level:

1. Understanding the local context

Knowing which communities are present within and around the intervention landscape helps to determine the most suitable local partners. This is particularly important when capacity levels differ, or where land disputes are present.

An analysis of local challenges that hamper effective partnerships helps avoid unforeseen pitfalls. For example, communities may not be able to prioritize conservation or restoration on their lands due to economic or external pressures. Recognizing these dynamics early on, allows a project developer to address underlying constraints that would otherwise hamper progress.

In some cases, there are significant levels of suspicion from communities towards external stakeholders due to historic injustices, including experiences that led to the privatization and subsequent loss of their lands. Trust is key and requires time to establish approaches of working together given differing cultural contexts. For instance, defining the process by which agreement is reached that accounts for different cultural norms helps ensure all actors are on the same page when decisions are made.

2. Obtaining free prior and informed consent

Free prior and informed consent (FPIC) is a system of decision-making designed to build trust across intercultural groups. What is considered “free, prior, informed and consent” differs across cultures, so defining culturally appropriate processes for communities is needed.

The consultation and participation of communities should be implemented in good faith, responding to their contributions and considering power imbalances between parties. Notably, “free” and “prior” imply no coercion, intimidation or manipulation throughout the consultation process, which is established far enough in advance for a consensus to be achieved before the launch of a programme of work.

“Informed” implies that relevant information of the proposed activity is presented accurately in a way that is accessible to communities, namely in terms of materials and languages used. “Consent” requires local communities to have agreed to the proposed activity, with or without conditions, and to have the opportunity to withhold consent.

3. Co-designing initiatives

Partnering with communities at the start of the project design process allows them to help shape objectives and increases local ownership of the solution developed. Good practices include identifying community partners at the start of the project design process, and holding regular and inclusive community stakeholder meetings, where all parties affected by operations can contribute and express concerns.

Co-design of decision-making processes, stakeholder responsibilities and compensation models ensure a non-extractive design process. Incorporating Indigenous and local knowledge – particularly from Indigenous women – passed down through generations of living on the land offers wisdom comparable to scientific evidence and technology – and should be remunerated appropriately.

4. Implementing collaboratively

Engaging local partners in the implementation and ongoing management of forest restoration and stewardship efforts helps align community interests with those of the initiative. This requires compensation for labour and, if desired by the community, the creation of short and long-term income generating activities, including infrastructure investments that would facilitate sustainable livelihoods. Collectively identifying channels for dispute settlement, helps avoid unforeseen roadblocks as activities are undertaken.

5. Recognizing land rights

Government recognition of community rights and titleship to land is one of the best ways to reduce deforestation and forest degradation in the long term. For instance, deforestation rates in the Amazon on securely held Indigenous lands is 50% lower than deforestation rates on similar land without security. Conversely, the costs of securing Indigenous lands in the Amazon as a percentage of total benefits derived from these lands is just 1%.

Indigenous peoples and local communities legally own just 10% of the lands they customarily claim. The gap between recognized and unrecognized areas highlights the opportunity to scale-up the protection of customary rights.

The future of forest leadership

As social justice and equity become an increasing priority, so adoption of these five principles will enable sustained results for the global forest restoration and stewardship movement. Although this work takes longer to implement, as it requires building trust, the results are longer term too. Community partnerships governed by these principles have the potential to create a mutually reinforcing virtuous cycle of prosperity, both for forests and their peoples.

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