“FOR the Wapichan, our forests are our life.” Nicholas Fredericks, a local leader of these indigenous South American people, peers out from his village into the bush. “Outsiders have a financial view of the land,” he says. “They see our forests as money. We see them as life. We have to protect them for the future of our people.”
The Wapichan, who live in southern Guyana, have just completed a high-resolution map of their traditional lands to justify their claim for legal title. They want 14,000 square kilometres to be protected as a community forest. Guyana’s government has so far ignored their proposal.
But the Wapichan are facing more than just an intransigent government. Many environmentalists are not convinced that handing control of land to local communities is a good idea. They fear that, given legal custodianship, most poor rural people would take machetes to their forests rather than protect them.
New research shows this fear is mostly misplaced. Community control, it turns out, conserves forests and possibly wildlife, too (see “Stop extinctions, stop slavery“). What’s more, by keeping carbon trapped in those forests, it may help stop climate change.
A report from the World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative, both in Washington DC, reviews over 130 earlier studies in 14 countries. Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change concludes that most communities are better forest custodians than governments.
These communities are made up of indigenous people with the legal right to control what happens in their ancestral lands. Like the Wapichan, they want to protect the natural resources they depend on.