Protecting forest peoples’ rights

Note: this article is also available as a pdf.

Evidence shows that community-based forest monitoring can help safeguard forest peoples’ rights and access to land and resources, and promote their participation in decision-making. It offers a powerful way to ensure that communities are affected positively, and not negatively, by large-scale international forest agendas. It also enables these agendas to benefit from the knowledge and practices of forest communities, because with more secure rights, ownership and management authority, forest peoples manage resources more sustainably, and forests retain greater biodiversity and carbon.

REDD+, FLEGT and the CBD have the potential to promote the rights of forest communities by protecting the lands and resources they depend upon. However, without effective efforts to involve and protect communities in their design, implementation and monitoring, such large-scale, top-down agendas could have the opposite effect by encouraging more centralised control and elite capture of forest land and resources, reducing community decision-making powers and alienating them from their lands. There are particular concerns that this could occur due to the financial incentives and standardised planning and monitoring associated with REDD+. If forest communities’ rights are compromised, this may not only be detrimental to their cultures and wellbeing, but may also seriously undermine the objectives of the forest agendas.

To mitigate these risks and ensure that the potential benefits are realised, REDD+, FLEGT and CBD agreements include measures to protect local communities’ rights, for example:

  • The REDD+ safeguards aim inter alia to promote transparency in forest governance and to protect and promote the participation and rights* of forest communities, including (whether directly or implicitly) the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples to land, resources, decision-making powers, and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).
  • Bilateral agreements under FLEGT contain provisions for civil society participation in monitoring the implementation of the agreements.
  • The Aichi Targets of the CBD require, by 2020, governments to ensure that ‘the traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and their customary use of biological resources, are respected’.

These measures will need to be carefully designed and monitored, in partnership with and in many cases led by communities, to ensure that they achieve their intended results. An important reason for this is that, while external actors may be able to establish and monitor actions taken to promote forest peoples’ rights (e.g. by disseminating information or holding meetings), it will be far harder for them to understand the impact of these actions (e.g. communities’ experience of consultation, understanding of information disseminated, or sense of participation), without the close involvement of the communities themselves in data gathering and analysis.

Community involvement is important not only for monitoring the measures explicitly designed to protect their rights, but also for monitoring the forests themselves. Forest communities often observe the forest as part of their everyday lives, tracking changes in the resources they use throughout the seasons and from year to year. In many cases local rules and customs may define who can access resources, and who has information about them. Although these informal systems differ from formal monitoring, and can be difficult for external actors to identify, they may be highly effective and valuable at the local level. By building on existing skills, knowledge and practices, community-based forest monitoring recognises and protects the local culture and residents' rights to manage their resources, rather than imposing a completely alien system that could compromise existing management regimes.

To help avoid the potential negative impacts of externally influenced monitoring initiatives, FPIC principles should be applied to their establishment and operation. Effective ways to do this have already been demonstrated: for example, communities and external partners defined a data sharing protocol as part of a monitoring project in Guyana.

Where monitoring schemes are initiated in truly participatory ways, evidence shows that communities can effectively manage and expand such schemes in ways that help them to assert their rights and claims to territory and resources. Community-based forest monitoring methods also offer communities new tools and channels to respond to external pressures. For example, forest communities have found that ‘maps do the talking’, strengthening their voice in negotiations with government officials and timber companies.

Overall, monitoring systems in which communities have significant influence and ownership can provide far greater assurance that their views, decisions and rights will be heard and respected in a way that is meaningful to them. Indeed, having the opportunity to participate in monitoring of these forest agendas is, in itself, a key way in which communities’ right to participate in the agendas can be realised – and the denial of this opportunity would constitute a denial of their right to participate.


* These include the rights defined other international agreements and conventions, which implicitly include the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 169. Many signatories to REDD+, the CBD and Voluntary Partnership Agreements under FLEGT are also signatories to UNDRIP and/or ILO Convention 169.



Brack, D. and Léger, C., 2013. Exploring credibility gaps in Voluntary Partnership Agreements, a review of independent monitoring initiatives and lessons to learn. London, UK: Global Witness. 

Danielsen, F. et al., 2010. Environmental monitoring: the scale and speed of implementation varies according to the degree of people’s involvement. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47, pp. 1166-1168. 

Funder, M. et al., 2014. Reshaping conservation: the social dynamics of participatory monitoring in Tanzania’s community-managed forests. Conservation and Society 11(3), pp. 218-232. 

Garcia, C.A., and Lescuyer, G., 2008. Monitoring, indicators and community based forest management in the tropics: pretexts or red herrings? Biodiversity Conservation 17 (6), pp. 1303-1317.

Global Canopy Programme (GCP), 2015a. RuaiSMS: an initiative that links text messaging and local media to report forest incursions in Borneo. Forest COMPASS platform, GCP: Oxford. 

Global Canopy Programme (GCP), 2015b. Balancing data transfer with local rights: lessons from a data sharing protocol in Guyana. Forest COMPASS platform, GCP: Oxford. 

International Labour Organization (ILO), 1991. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) 

ITTO and RRI, 2011. Tropical forest tenure assessment: trends, challenges and opportunities. Rights and Resources Initiative: Washington D.C. and International Tropical Timber Organization: Yokohama, Japan. 

Lewis, J. 2012, Technological leap-frogging in the Congo Basin, Pygmies and Global Positioning Systems in Central Africa: what has happened and where is it going? African Study Monographs, Suppl. 43, pp. 15-44.  

MacFarquhar, C. and Goodman, L., 2015. Demonstrating ‘Respect’ for the UNFCCC REDD+ Safeguards: The Importance of Community Collected Information. Oxford: Global Canopy Programme.

Phelps et al., 2010. Does REDD+ threaten to recentralize forest governance? Science 328, pp. 312-313.

Sandbrook, C. et al., 2010. Carbon, forests and the REDD paradox. Onyx 44(3), pp. 330-334.

United Nations, 2007. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), 2010. Target 18.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), 2010. UNFCCC Decision 1/CP.16 Appendix I, paragraph 2. 

Additional recommended reading

Feiring, B., 2013. “Indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources”. International Land Coalition: Rome.

Forest Peoples Programme, Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Accessed August 2015.