Healthy forests are indispensable to a healthy planet. Forests regulate the water cycle and protect the soil. By absorbing and trapping large quantities of carbon dioxide and recycling the oxygen in the atmosphere, they contribute to climate balance. They offer a habitat for flora and fauna and supply wood, food, and medicinal products for human use. Attempts have been made to evaluate these “environmental services” in economic terms, not in order to exploit or profit from them, but to ensure that our economic activities do not destroy these natural and free infrastructures. According to Pavan Sukhdev, an Indian economist and principal author of a study on the economics of natural ecosystems and biodiversity, each year the destruction of forest ecosystems alone and the loss of their services to humanity would cost 6% of global Gross National Product (GNP), which is equivalent to 2 trillion euros or 2 trillion US dollars.
All these environmental services are compelling reasons to protect our forests, but to whom should we entrust the task? This question is inextricably linked with the question of ownership.
Across the globe, 84% of all forests are the property of individual states or public organizations, and 16% are in private ownership. Governments shoulder a huge responsibility in the matter, therefore. But the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest and the forests of the Congo Basin and South and Southeast Asia—role in safeguarding them— have had their right to own, or even use, the land repeatedly ignored.
The situation is changing gradually and more and more indigenous communities are gaining the right to their lands, often with the help of non-governmental organizations. The population of the Amazon rainforest has increased from 5 million to 33 million inhabitants in forty years. And yet, despite demographic and economic pressures, the total area of forest managed by indigenous communities—which doubled between 1985 and 2000—now represents 22% of the forests in developing countries.