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Updated 10:00 AM October 19, 2009

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Researcher, colleague link land management,
ownership and climate change in forests

Studying 80 forest "commons" in more than a dozen developing nations, a U-M researcher and his University of Illinois colleague have found links between local ownership and control of those forests and the fight against climate change.

They found that greater local ownership and input into forest management appear to keep these areas, also called forest commons, from being overharvested or otherwise misused, thereby increasing their ability to capture carbon and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Their findings, based on data collected on three continents, appear in a paper published online last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors are Arun Agrawal, a professor and associate dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and Ashwini Chhatre of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"The urgency of the global need to increase carbon storage in forests and local reliance on forests for continuing livelihood benefits through extraction of forest biomass make it especially important that scientists better understand the relationship between carbon storage in forests and their contributions to livelihoods," Agrawal and Chhatre wrote. "We show that larger forest size and greater rule-making autonomy at the local level are associated with high carbon storage and livelihood benefits."

Forest commons are an important class of forests and are defined in part by the relatively large number of people who use them, the researchers wrote. Forest commons also have defined boundaries and legally enforceable property rights.

Community-owned and managed forests comprise less than 10 percent of forests globally. Although individual forest commons are small in area, they are crucial to the livelihoods of the rural poor in the developing world, Agrawal and Chhatre say. In the aggregate, such forests provide livelihood benefits to more than 500 million poor people, according to development agencies.

In part because such forests are essential to rural livelihoods, governments in many developing countries have transferred management and use of rights to rural users through decentralization policy reforms. Evidence is emerging that such a focus may be instrumental in reconciling multiple outcomes from forests in developing countries.

The analysis conducted by Agrawal and his colleagues revealed that the larger the forest commons that are locally managed and owned, the more carbon storage took place and the higher the livelihood benefits.

On the other hand, "When local users perceive insecurity in their rights (because the central government owns the forest land), they extract high levels of livelihood benefits from them, and when their tenure rights are safe, they conserve the biomass and carbon in such forests," they wrote.

"Rule-making autonomy and ownership are distinct and important institutional influences on forest outcomes," Agrawal and Chhatre wrote. "Our results are directly relevant to international climate change mitigation initiatives such as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation."

They conclude that "increasing forest size and greater local autonomy in matching rules to resource characteristics exist in a win-win relationship with carbon storage and livelihood benefits from forest commons."

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