In Nepal deforestation rates declined by 37% even as poverty rates also slightly decreased between 2000 and 2012.
Saving forests worldwide could have a simple solution: entrusting them to local communities to protect them. So say scientists behind a new study in which they examined more than 18,000 community-led forest initiatives in Nepal where over a third of forests are managed by locals.
As part of a decentralization effort in the mountainous nation numerous local communities were given the right and responsibility to look after their own forests. Once that happened, deforestation rates declined by 37% even as poverty rates also slightly decreased between 2000 and 2012.
The researchers based their findings on satellite images of deforestation rates in addition to information on more than 18,000 community forests as well as data gathered from Nepal’s national census of 1.36 million households.
“Our results indicate that CFM (community-based forest management) has, on average, contributed to significant net reductions in both poverty and deforestation across Nepal, and that CFM increases the likelihood of win–win outcomes,” the experts note in their study. “We also find that the estimated reduced deforestation impacts of community forests are lower where baseline poverty levels are high, and greater where community forests are larger and have existed longer.”
In other words, people who live in or near forests and whose livelihoods depend on them are more likely to protect them better. That should not come as a surprise. Loggers who decimate forests are rarely from local communities, after all. “Nepal proves that with secure rights to land, local communities can conserve resources and prevent environmental degradation,” stresses lead author Johan Oldekop, an environment lecturer at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
Despite this, however, local communities and indigenous peoples have legal rights to only 15% or so of forests worldwide, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global land rights coalition. Last year alone 12 million hectares of tropical tree cover was cut down, which translates into losing the size of 30 football pitches every minute.
Encouragingly, more and more countries are setting up community-based forest management initiatives from Mexico to Madagascar and from Tanzania to Indonesia. “We sought to learn from Nepal’s experience implementing an innovative conservation policy,” says Katharine Sims, a scientist at Amherst College who was a coauthor of the study.
The way forward for other countries could be to follow Nepal’s example. “Donors, governments and decision-makers often call for science-backed solutions. Our research provides exactly such a path forward,” says Arun Agrawal, an expert in environmental sustainability at the University of Michigan who was another coauthor.
“It’s not easy to balance sustainable management of the environment against the needs, or wants, of mankind,” adds Mark Whittingham of Newcastle University. “[Our] findings highlight one positive solution.”