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Cut Emissions and Poverty, Not Trees, by Letting Locals Manage Forests, Scientists say

FILE - Trekkers hike through a densely forested area near Ghorepani, Nepal, Oct. 23, 2014.
FILE - Trekkers hike through a densely forested area near Ghorepani, Nepal, Oct. 23, 2014.

Giving local communities the responsibility to manage forests — which are shrinking worldwide — could help ease poverty and deforestation, scientists said Monday in what they described as one of the largest studies of its kind.

Researchers examined more than 18,000 community-led forest initiatives in Nepal, using satellite images and census data from the South Asian country, where more than a third of forests are managed by a quarter of the population.

Giving Nepalese communities the chance to look after their own forests led to a 37 percent drop in deforestation and a 4.3 percent decline in poverty levels between 2000 and 2012, they said in a paper published by the journal Nature Sustainability.

"Community forest management has achieved a clear win-win for people and the environment across an entire country," said lead author Johan Oldekop, an environment lecturer at Britain's University of Manchester.

Deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change after fossil fuels, accounting for almost a fifth of planet-warming emissions, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in a 2018 report.

Trees soak up carbon dioxide from the air as they grow, and release back stored carbon when they burn or rot.

Cutting down forests can also harm livelihoods and cause tensions, as people compete for fewer resources.

"Nepal proves that with secure rights to land, local communities can conserve resources and prevent environmental degradation," Oldekop said in a statement.

Worldwide numbers

Yet indigenous peoples and local communities legally own only about 15 percent of forests worldwide, according to a 2018 analysis by the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global land rights coalition.

The world lost 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of tropical tree cover in 2018 — the equivalent of 30 football pitches a minute, said an April report by Global Forest Watch, run by the U.S.-based World Resources Institute.

The researchers who studied Nepal said other countries should try to follow its example by allowing local communities to manage forests as a way to cut emissions, while lifting people out of poverty.

The study said Mexico, Madagascar and Tanzania had similar community-led forest initiatives.

"Identifying a mechanism — community forestry — that can credibly reduce carbon emissions at the same time as improving wellbeing of the poor is an important step forward in global efforts to combat climate change and protect the vulnerable," said co-author Arun Agrawal from the University of Michigan.

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