The unfolding COVID crisis has laid bare our social, disaster-preparedness, economic and governance vulnerabilities. But 2020 is a plentiful year for crises: in addition to the pandemic, our consumption and unsustainable economic growth are wreaking devastation on people and the planet, global biodiversity is in free-fall and the climate crisis generates discord but little progress. It is increasingly obvious that these problems are intertwined, and the agendas that hope to address them must leave their policy silos and converge. Above all, local and Indigenous communities must be recognised and integrated as a fundamental to solutions that are proposed, and good governance is the bedrock on which all efforts depend.
Bad practices die hard, however. During the pandemic we have seen growing pressures on forests. As expected, illegal logging and timber trade activities across forested countries surged, a direct result of the absence of government checks and of the fact that independent forest monitoring work by civil society was at a standstill. General fear of COVID-19, combined with disruptions in food supply chains, led urban dwellers to rush to the forests in search of genetic resources, miracle remedies and food supplements; scenes that were all too common in Congo Basin countries.
And very worryingly, we have noticed calls for deregulation in some countries, such as Indonesia’s infamous Omnibus Law (Fern’s Forest Governance newsletter) that relaxes legal social and environmental obligations for operators in the forest, agriculture and extractive sectors.
Inevitably and universally, local forest-dependent communities are the ones who are most vulnerable to shocks.
Some hope remains. In some forested countries, lengthy, determined efforts are bearing fruit. A progressive Forest Code that integrates Independent Forest Monitoring and the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples was adopted in the Republic of Congo; the Democratic Republic of Congo is making positive steps towards a ground-breaking law to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights and identity.
These are positive, but more is needed.
Communities must be part and parcel of efforts at all levels. According to a recent RRI report, almost two billion Indigenous Peoples and local communities live in important biodiversity conservation areas, of which 363 million are in protected areas. More than half (56 per cent) of the people living in important areas of biodiversity conservation, including protected areas, live in low- and middle-income countries.
This means that conservation of forests, and biodiversity are effectively managed by these communities, relying on the tools of collective ownership, governance strategies and a vast store of traditional ecological knowledge.
However, many countries, especially in Africa, do not yet have formal mechanisms for recognising customary rights and for transferring management rights and responsibilities to Indigenous populations and local communities. For example, over the past two decades, the record of community forestry in the Congo Basin has been mixed. The initial objective of enabling local communities to benefit directly from the forest management on which they depend is not yet a reality, due to the challenges that are legion in the region: unequal political support, heavy legal and technical constraints, as well as land-grabbing and revenue capture that have a negative impact on communities.
For civil society, formal recognition of communities’ customary land rights is a matter of local livelihoods and social justice, particularly in cases where communities managed the forest long before the state claimed ownership, but it is also a significant tool of forest conservation and therefore of benefitting climate goals.
Using the global momentum to strengthen action and scale up support.
As the EU shapes its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, let’s use the global policy moment for nature and a resilient climate to tackle our insatiable demand for commodities that destroy forests and community livelihoods. Forest protection and restoration can have serious implications – both positive and negative − for people living in and around forests. The Biodiversity Strategy should therefore be designed and implemented with the communities that would be directly affected.
However, without good governance, these efforts will be in vain. Going forward:
We need to enhance forest law enforcement and governance systems, including through strengthening national forest authorities in partner countries and strengthening measures to combat illegal logging and the associated trade. A number of forested tropical countries have signed up to agreements to boost the trade in legal timber and forest products as part of the EU FLEGT Action Plan: these countries should reinforce implementation. EU countries and international donors providing support in the form of recovery assistance should prioritise good governance.
Post COVID-19 recovery programmes to improve the livelihoods and build resilience of forest-dependent people, Indigenous Peoples and local communities should target community-based forest management programmes and maintain civil society engagement so they can play their watchdog and support role.
Countries have a formidable opportunity to take action to halt deforestation, prevent forest degradation and increase forest areas through just and sustainable investments.