(Jul 16, 2007)

The key to saving remaining forests: small communities

By Michael Astor
From AP

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) - Supporting communities who earn their livelihoods from forests, rather than creating national parks, may represent the best hope for preserving the world's remaining wilderness.

That's according to Andy White, a coordinator of the Washington D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative, who on Monday presented a review of forest-based businesses from around the world to a conference in the Amazon.

Some 110 million people around the world are involved in forest enterprises harvesting wood, bamboo, rattan, fibers, nuts, resins, medicinal herbs, honey and other natural products, White said, and granting land rights to these small communities working in sustainable forest industries is especially urgent now as a boom in biofuels drives land speculation.

''The evidence from around the world, not only here in the Amazon, is that once their rights are recognized, forest communities are more effective at protecting forests than national parks,'' White said.

White spoke by telephone from Rio Branco, capital of the western Amazon state of Acre, which is hosting a weeklong conference uniting 250 community forest entrepreneurs and policy makers from Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

''The action of these communities have global repercussions,'' said Brazil's environment minister Marina Silva, the daughter of an Acre rubber tapper.

Biofuels such as ethanol, derived from sugarcane and corn, and biodiesel, derived from oily plants like soy beans and palm fruits, have been touted as eco-friendly alternative to carbon fuels. But many environmentalists worry that growing demand for land will cause more deforestation.

Biofuel ''is both a tremendous opportunity and tremendous threat,'' White said. ''If land is worth more as sugarcane fields than as forest, the forests are going to disappear unless you empower local groups like rubber tappers.''

Brazil is trying to empower local communities but complex land use regulation and lack of clear ownership in many areas still creates barriers to community control, he said.

''If you don't have property rights to the forest, you don't have any clear incentive to preserve,'' he said. ''Where property rights are unclear or contested, whoever has access slicks whatever is there off as quickly as possible.''

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