Research shows that around the world, the best way to curb forest destruction is to strengthen community land rights. For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation rates in forests guarded by local and traditional communities are 11 times lower than surrounding areas.

These communities play a key role in saving forests from destruction, and thus a key role in fighting climate change, because they manage up to a quarter of the world’s forest-based carbon. Local communities’ stewardship of their forests also result in the conservation of other key environmental services such as biodiversity and fresh water cycles. These cultures have developed a deep knowledge of the forests, such as in the use of medicinal plants.

Through our Communities Initiative (CI), Forest Trends partners with indigenous and traditional communities in their efforts to secure their rights, conserve their forests, and improve their livelihoods and territorial governance. The Communities Initiative focuses on Latin America, home to over half of the world’s tropical forests, where 25% of forests remain inhabited and guarded by indigenous and traditional communities.

In Africa and Asia, our Forest Policy, Trade, and Finance (FPTF) initiative looks at how management and mismanagement of natural resources fuels conflict, often involving indigenous communities that already face legal and social marginalization. We suggest policy recommendations to address this historical blind spot through conservation and economic development efforts that are conflict-sensitive.

Markets and Communities

Forest Trends works closely with Latin American indigenous peoples and other traditional communities who are choosing to use outside markets as a vehicle to help conserve their forests, support their cultures and improve their livelihoods. We support these communities with technical resources, guidance, and connections that can help them secure these new economic opportunities, reaffirm their rights, and honor their cultural heritage.

Forest Trends assumes a supporting role in this process, forming long-term collaborative relationships with communities as they articulate their vision a life that has a minimal footprint on their environment and make use of markets to realize that vision.

  • We partner with organizations like the IKEA Foundation, USAID, and Good Energies, among others to support sustainable economic opportunities in the Amazon In Brazil, the Yawanawa and Surui tribes are empowering women and young people through artisan cooperatives and other entrepreneurial enterprises.
  • We provide technical assistance for sustainable forest management and conservation at the community level that promotes health care, food security, and economic self-reliance. One example are indigenous “Living Pharmacies” for cultivating medicinal plants. These efforts offer communities a powerful tool to bolster food security, nutrition, climate resilience, family income, and skills training for youth.
  • Our capacity-building work not only helps indigenous communities strengthen their ability to secure and manage their lands; it also puts them in a position to effectively participate in and benefit from conservation mechanisms like the UN program REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and other forest and climate conservation mechanisms.
  • Our Cultural Mediators, Territorial Governance, and Indigenous Territories with zero/minimal Deforestation programs are additional ways in which we are working with indigenous and traditional communities to support their rights and assist in the conservation of their forests and improved livelihoods.

Capacity Building for Communities

Forest conservation is a powerful tool for delivering various benefits to communities – from food security to sustainable livelihoods to climate resilience – and also for safeguarding traditional cultures and knowledge. For this to happen, it is essential that the rights and cultures of indigenous and other forest-dependent communities are being respected and these communities are given the opportunity to take the lead in shaping these conservation efforts to best reflect their values.

Capacity building is at the foundation of Forest Trends’ work with communities because it provides them with the tools to conserve their forests on their own terms and to secure their rights and reaffirm their cultural identity.

Forest Trends enhances technical capacity across a broad spectrum of topics, from practicing sustainable agriculture and agroforestry, implementing local economic alternatives and territorial governance strategies, accessing climate finance and global consumer markets, to finding ways to preserve their traditional knowledge:

Community Enterprises and Agroforestry

Forest Trends’ Communities Initiative is working with indigenous communities in the Amazon on agroforestry projects to bring traditional knowledge of medicinal plants back from the brink of extinction, provide food security, and alternative sources of income. We are providing business development and marketing strategies for agroforestry-based products, while also promoting cultural heritage through “living pharmacies.”

In two separate ethnobotany initiatives the Yawanawa and Surui tribes are working with Forest Trends to expand this project by building new medicinal plant gardens in their villages, cultivating these plants in agroforestry systems throughout the surrounding tropical forest, and, most importantly, training younger generations to identify and use these medicinal plants. We are also promoting non-timber forest community based enterprises and workshops for cooperative entrepreneurship and exchanges.

Yawanawa and Surui women are also creating new economic opportunities by reclaiming their artisan roots, promoting traditions like making jewelry and pottery decorated with patterns that communicate their tribe’s values and history.

By helping these artisans access the tools and materials they need, enhance their commercial capacity, and reach consumers far beyond the Amazon, these women will be able to ensure that their families and communities can remain on their land.

Livelihoods and Territorial Governance

While forest protection helps the planet and all of its inhabitants by mitigating climate change and preserving biodiversity, we strive to ensure that local communities are the primary beneficiaries and that these efforts always respect community interests. The Communities Initiative works with regional governments, communities, donors, and markets to promote policies, capacity, and financial flows that strengthen tenure and cultural rights and conservation. The program supports natural resource management practices that are aligned with each community’s vision for their social wellbeing as laid out in their Life Plans. We focus on territorial governance and financial administrative training programs, drawing on local and national expertise to develop life plans that express the cultural identity, priorities, aspirations, and self-governance of these communities.

Governance and Policy for Communities

An ever-growing body of evidence shows that secure land rights are key to successful conservation efforts – and to battling climate change. But by official counts, there’s a huge gap between who holds the land and who owns the land: indigenous and traditional communities claim customary rights to as much as two-thirds of land area worldwide, but governments recognize only 10 percent of land as formally belonging to them.

Weakening the rights of communities – particularly indigenous groups – to occupy their ancestral homes jeopardizes the local ecosystems they protect. It also puts at risk the success of forest protection programs like Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) for which land rights are a prerequisite.

In addition, the presence – or absence – of sound forest and land policies in general directly impacts communities’ ability to improve their livelihoods. Without secure rights, communities and small enterprises are often unable to conduct business “legally,” and are otherwise ineligible for participation in forest certification schemes or subsidy programs that target smallholders. Even worse, laws and policies that preference large-scale production without recognizing the economic potential of small producers may serve to legitimize human rights abuses such as land grabs, leaving communities with little to no recourse when their rights are systematically violated.

  • Our Forest Policy, Trade, and Finance Initiative works to support community livelihoods in the Mekong region. In Vietnam, where secure land rights have created a more enabling environment for responsible investment, we are working with industry and government stakeholders to incentivize small timber producers and to link these enterprises to export markets for legal, sustainable wood products such as furniture. And in Myanmar, where there has been little progress on recognition of customary tenure, we are building the capacity of political actors in ethnic territories to create their own forest policies that are based on community rights, self-determination, and gender justice.

Recent years have seen environmental defenders and indigenous leaders around the world killed in record numbers, from Honduras to the Democratic Republic of Congo to India to Cambodia. Nowhere has this pattern been more pronounced than in Latin America, particularly Brazil. Against that backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the country’s deforestation rate climbed nearly 30 percent in the same year amid a widespread rollback of indigenous land rights.

Forest Trends tackles pressing governance challenges in key countries through direct community engagement and data-driven policy recommendations:

  • Our Communities Initiative works with Amazonian indigenous groups facing acute pressures from illegal logging and other activities that fuel deforestation. For example, we support Brazil’s Yawawana tribe as they strive to secure their forest territory and pursue their vision for a life in harmony with the forest that surrounds them while advocating for indigenous protections abroad; we have told their story in the US press and at events like at TEDWomen.
  • Our Forest Policy, Trade, and Finance Initiative also studies the impact of conflict on communities in resource-rich areas. This work encompasses large-scale armed conflict and civil unrest, conflict between communities and governments or companies, as well as intra- and inter-community conflicts, all of which have been exacerbated in recent years by growing demand for forest and agricultural commodities. In multiple countries recovering from armed conflict, peace processes often prioritize large-scale industrial resource extraction to deliver on promises of a revitalized national economy – but do so without ensuring good governance or safeguarding against corruption, which risks returning to the unsustainable and inequitable practices that fuel conflict in the first place and undermining poverty reduction goals.