Restoring the World’s Forests Requires Partnering with Local Communities



HANOVER, N.H. – Aug. 25, 2020 – Global forest restoration is a critical strategy for removing carbon from the atmosphere but its success depends on empowering local communities, according to a new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Focusing on tropical forest restoration, the study highlights the critical importance of partnering with indigenous people and local communities to ensure the success of forest restoration for sequestering carbon, conserving biodiversity and contributing to local livelihoods. Previous studies have often sought to quantify where forest restoration might occur, without considering who lives there and what their lives might be like.

This research is one of the most comprehensive to examine opportunities for tropical forest restoration in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania (the “Global South) in relation to country-level populations and development. Based on estimates, the findings demonstrate that 294.5 million people live within areas with good potential for tropical forest restoration, and that over one billion people live nearby such land. In low income countries, nearly 12 percent of the population in this study live in areas considered important for forest restoration.

Countries which have often been understudied in past forest restoration research such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Zambia, have a relatively high proportion of people living in forest restoration areas.

“Providing local communities with the right to manage forests where they live is critical to forest restoration efforts,” said lead author James (J.T.) Erbaugh, a post-doctoral research fellow in environmental studies at Dartmouth College. “There are countless examples of how conservation projects— though often well intentioned— have excluded and disenfranchised indigenous peoples and local communities. Employing an inclusive approach to forest restoration is a just and sustainable way to address climate change, which can also help ensure the long-term viability of such initiatives,” he added.

The Dartmouth-led study includes researchers from the Indian School of Business, the University of Manchester, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Michigan. The team drew on data from the Earth Innovation Institute, NASA, the Rights and Resources Initiative, the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute. The researchers examined: where tropical forest restoration opportunities exist in the tropics and the extent to which carbon can be removed from the atmosphere; the location and density of populations by country; nighttime light emittance; national income categories; and legal foundations for community forest managements rights, including whether a country recognized such rights.

“Our findings provide a path for further action on climate change, by identifying countries where investments in forest landscape restoration will create the highest synergies between mitigation and human development. Global efforts to accelerate forest regeneration must include local communities as equal partners,” said co-author Ashwini Chhatre, a professor of public policy from the Indian School of Business.

As part of the Bonn Challenge by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, countries around the world are striving to meet their pledges to collectively restore 350 million hectares of forest area by 2030. The results of this study demonstrate that countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, have great potential to remove atmospheric carbon through forest restoration while also containing some of the most people living in areas important for forest restoration. “This challenge cannot be met effectively unless local communities are prioritized,” added Erbaugh.

J.T. Erbaugh is available for comment at: