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Last updated on 13 February 2024

Forest in Seychelles, photo by Karin Guzy, 2022

Photo: Forest in Seychelles, by Karin Guzy, all rights reserved 2022

By Anne Hennings, reviewed by Maartje de Graaf, Program Coordinator at Tropenbos International

Forests and woodlands provide livelihoods for many communities who rely on timber, firewood, building materials, non-wood forest products, fodder, food, medical plants, and water. According to FAO, more than 1.5 million people depend on forests and their products and services which are mostly used informally. Over decades, unspecified or overlapping property rights over forest areas, large-scale land acquisitions by governments and (international) investors, uncontrolled logging, and the conversion of forest land to other uses have led to massive deforestation.1 Responsible forest governance and forest tenure security are crucial in helping to reduce deforestation, combat climate change, and sustain the planet. In addition to contributing to human wellbeing and livelihoods, forests are important for people’s spiritual and cultural traditions. Despite the importance of forest tenure reform, it has not received enough attention. Forest tenure and property rights determine who owns and manages forest resources. Forest tenure tends to be complex, as there is an array of stakeholders with different interests to forests, ranging from national and local state officials to local communities and (seasonal) users, and Indigenous Peoples. Part of this complexity can be traced back to colonial times, when in many countries natural resources were governed by state or colonial authorities while the rights of local resource users were left unrecognized.

As a result, forest tenure has remained under state control and management in many areas until today.That said, these very resources are claimed, managed, and protected by indigenous and local communities who base their tenure claims on community-based customary rights that are not oftentimes unacknowledged by governments. The presence of multiple groups with overlapping tenure claims contributes to conflicts or environmental destruction. The participation of smallholders, local communities, and Indigenous Peoples is key to sustainable forest management, dealing with climate, and landscape restoration. WRI estimates that about half of the world’s land is community land. Indigenous Peoples alone hold one quarter of the world’s land.More recently, the potential of community managed and protected forests for maintaining biodiversity, and climate change adaptation and mitigation has come to the fore. In this vein, various programs have been initiated and implemented ranging from restoration, REDD+, and ecosystem service initiatives. However, REDD+ and other carbon off-setting schemes alter community forest rights and relations and have been criticized to exclude forest-dependent communities or aggravate conflict trajectories.

Key concepts and terminology

Formal or customary forest tenure determines who can use, manage, control, or transfer forest land. Forest tenure also specifies for how long and under what conditions individuals or groups hold these rights. The lack of legal recognition and low levels of tenure security may lead to unsustainable use of forests and promote conflict. In addition, tenure security is pivotal for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Communities or households are only willing (and able) to invest their time and savings for improving agricultural, forest, and water management practices or conserving forests, if they do not fear their land will be taken tomorrow. In turn, tenure insecurity may contribute to poor adaptive capacity and resilience in the face of climate variability.

Many communities hold or practice formal or customary collective tenure in which a community has the right to manage and control land and resources. While some communities allocate some or most of the land to individuals or households, others use the land collectively.

Indigenous and community lands are under community-based governance. Indigenous Peoples are descendants of populations who inhabited a certain area before colonization or the establishment of national state boundaries. The livelihoods of local communities depend on their land and natural resources and often have a strong connection to these. Customary governance is common among both groups.2

In recent decades, several governments have attempted promoting forest tenure security by diversifying forest governance and tenure rights. From the 1970s, governments increasingly initiated reforms in response to increasing criticism of highly centralized tenure approaches to forest management and conservation. Known as forest rights devolution3 or global forest tenure transition4, forest tenure rights were transferred to local actors. In contrast to agrarian reforms, forest reforms have aimed to formalize the resource rights of people who live in and near those forests, often in the form of collective rights.5 Yet despite decades of effort, collective forest tenure reforms with only moderate success in the recognition of customary rights of local communities.6

International legal framework and policies

Over the last decade, Indigenous Peoples worldwide have pushed for the recognition of their rights, governance decentralization, and raised demands for sustainable inclusive conservation measures. Forest tenure reforms entails complex shifts in rights, responsibilities, and relationships between manifold actors. While changes in regulatory frameworks have been emphasized, the gaps between law and practice and questions of coordination have received less attention.7 Furthermore, researchers started exploring how forest tenure security is actually perceived only recently. Drawing on findings from Uganda, Peru, and Indonesia, Larson highlights the multidimensional aspects of tenure security perception, how it is shaped by context, and experienced by different actors.8

Internationally, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT), the New York Declaration on Forests, and the action plan of the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) contributed to increased political commitment, policy revisions, and the development of new legal frameworks that provide for more inclusive, protected, and accessible forest tenure.

In 2022, 190 countries signed the 10-year Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework to combat the loss of biodiversity at the COP15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The framework’s targets specifically aim to meet people’s needs through sustainable (natural resource) use and benefit sharing.

A recently published Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) study shows that 39 governments out of 73 countries which cover 85% of the global terrestrial area have increased the area under indigenous, Afro-descent, and local community ownership between 2015-2020. This resulted in the legal recognition of more than 100 Mio ha of community lands. In 2020, Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Descendent Peoples, and local communities owned 12% of the land in 73 countries in 2020, with an additional 7% dedicated to them. By contrast, governments, private individuals, and firms own 82%. The global increase in customary and community ownership is a result of new legislative developments and the ongoing implementation of reforms.

Pace and scope of these reforms have differed significantly across regions. African countries reported the biggest increase in legal recognition by 12%. Worldwide, the Democratic Republic Congo, Republic Congo, India, and Indonesia made the most significant progress. In Latin America, which has historically strong and vocal Indigenous movements9, the progress has slowed down but is likely to pick up again with the new progressive government in Brazil as one example. In Asia, the vast majority of forest area under legal community ownership or control is located in China.10

In 2022, The Rights and Resource Initiative (RRI) launched the Tenure Tool, the largest and most comprehensive dataset on collective forest tenure rights. The tool shows who owns and manages 92% of the global forest area.

Related Sustainable Development Goal indicators include SDG 15.1.1 [a]that measures the percentage of forest areas and SDG 15.2.1 [b]on the progress towards sustainable forest management. Together they aim to strengthen forest governance, and balance conservation and the sustainable use of forest resources. Most data is provided by the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) that is carried out every five years. FRA 2020 is the latest assessment covering 236 countries. However, the indicators have not yet fully addressed social and economic aspects and do not take questions of tenure into account.

Mapping challenges and risks

Tenure security is a key factor for sustainable use and investments, combatting deforestation, and conflict mediation.11 Climate change adaptation and mitigation, as well as commercial community forestry activities and payment for environmental schemes require reliable and secure tenure. Research has demonstrated that recognizing practices and tenure rights of forest-dependent communities are important for their well-being and conservation efforts.12 In most cases, however, lacking government support and protection, patronage, corruption undermine tenure security. Top-down or inflexible legal regulations are one of the major challenges for smallholders and forest communities for achieving formal recognition or usage rights of forest products.13

At the same time, land titles are not the same as tenure security for many customary or Indigenous communities. In some countries, such as Tanzania or Cambodia, constitutional and legislative provisions safeguard customary rights to forest and land which however remain inadequately protected in negotiations of large-scale land acquisitions. Lack of policy enforcement and monitoring result in community rights formalization processes that are highly uneven and contingent.14 Furthermore, Kusters et al. show that in addition to tenure security several other conditions need to be met to establish sustainable community forest management, such as existing organizational structures beyond community level, inclusive community governance and benefit sharing, a supportive local government, or access to finance and markets, amongst others.

In comparison to statutory law, customary tenure tends to be more flexible, dynamic, and adaptive, and can accommodate a broad spectrum of resource users. Yet, customary tenure systems can also be rigid, biased in favor of elites, discriminatory against women and/or youths, or lack accountability mechanisms.15 That said, tenure rights do not only need to be secure but also provide inclusive and equal access and control over forest resources.16

Climate change and forest tenure

Forests are considered an essential part of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Their role is highlighted by various international initiatives, such as FLEGT that addresses illegal logging to reduce deforestation. Here, the major challenge lies with discrepancies between statutory and customary law in the definition of illegal logging.

As a result of global warming and forest degradation, (tropical) forests lose their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Accordingly, ecosystem restoration and afforestation can make a significant contribution to preserving biodiversity, as well as social and cultural ser vices of ecosystems. Nonetheless, the Land Gap report emphasizes the importance of keeping existing forest ecosystems intact, as opposed to setting up carbon removal through tree planting.17 Maintaining existing carbon stocks is key in meeting climate goals and minimizes negative repercussions on land scarcity. Both afforestation and tree planting have negative effects on food sovereignty, facilitate expropriation, and undermine the livelihoods and tenure of Indigenous and forest-dependent communities.18

Perhaps one of the most known forest-related climate mitigation initiatives is the REDD+ programs. Carbon offsetting schemes value and commodify forest resources including their environmental and carbon mitigation functions. As such, forests turn into stores of carbon whereas their protection ensures reduced carbon emissions. However, REDD+ is not always inclusive or protects customary, Indigenous, or community rights.19 To the contrary, the growing interest in purchasing forest land in developing countries for compensatory schemes creates pressure and often leads to exclude forest users and dismiss tenure arrangements.20 Moreover, REDD+ changes the relationship between communities and forests and the value of forests.

Women and forest tenure

Women are agents of change in sustainable community forest management and key stakeholders in environmental conservation. They bring a deep understanding of local ecosystems and natural resources and know how to prevent overuse and degradation. In addition, in many communities women are at the forefront of community advocacy and organize grassroot movement, lead protests or engage in lobbying.

Yet, women face limited opportunities to participate in natural resource or forest management worldwide, which is often perceived as a male domain. Men are commonly responsible for hunting as well as harvesting and selling timber, while collecting forest products for food and medical purposes are seen as female activities.21 Women’s participation in decision-making may be perceived as dismissive as women are usually not expected or allowed to participate in community-level decision making. Sometimes, women are not even considered as members of the community which is a prerequisite for taking part in community governance and sharing benefits.22 In addition, women obtain less assistance and have limited opportunities to participate in capacity building training.

Exclusive tenure rights, gender-based discrimination, and social realities considering women’s lower literacy rates or time constraints also limit their participation in product value chains, such as the processing and transportation of goods to markets.23 Oftentimes, land registration and titling are complex and time intense bureaucratic processes and are thus more likely to be dealt with by men.24 In addition to patriarchal cultures, statutory and customary laws and regulations often create barriers for women’s tenure rights by favoring male heirs or paying inadequate attention to imbalanced power relations between spouses e.g., in terms of requirements for selling jointly managed family land.25

The Gender, Tenure and Customary Practices report showcases how legal frameworks and customary practices limit indigenous women’s rights to access and manage forest resources in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Viet Nam, and Thailand. Not only are indigenous and local women disadvantaged by law and customs, but they often do also not feel safe to access protected areas due to militarization, harassment, and violence.26 However, findings indicate that smaller community forest user groups potentially enable women to overcome barriers to take active part in forest management.27

Efforts aiming to create opportunities for women to participate in decisions about community forestry are not always successful. For instance, quotas for female representation in forest committees do not necessarily result in higher levels of participation. Female representatives have reported that men in the community often overlook their demands and opinions. Moreover, gender responsive measures can be succumbed to biased local institutions or norms.28 Much work is yet to be done to safeguard the governance rights of indigenous and local women.

Land governance innovations

In line with the VGGT, FAO supports various countries in diversifying and strengthening forest tenure, i.e. by conducting assessments on forest tenure systems in place; data collection of forest tenure data; awareness raising and trainings on forest tenure related issues; and providing support to countries in the process of tenure reforms and policy development.

In addition, a multitude of civil society organizations and global networks support Indigenous peoples and forest communities. Forest Peoples provides training manuals and community guides to natural resource management, free prior and informed consent (FPIC), communities in control, or participatory mapping, or on the Convention on Biological Diversity. CGIAR published a practitioner’s guide to gender equality in forest tenure addressing government institutions, civil society organizations, donor agencies, women’s organizations, and gender experts who work on the integration of gender equality.

Urban forestry has attracted increasing attention in addressing challenges linked to urbanization and climate change. To unlock the potential of urban forests U Forest developed guidelines to an Urban Forestry Action Plan in Europe. Urban forests not only benefit the health and wellbeing of urban residents, they are as much key to European policies, such as the New Green Deal or the EU Biodiversity Strategy, and help cities build resilience to climate change. Yet, it remains to be seen how tenure-related and infrastructure questions will be addressed.


[1] See for example the case of setting up a FIFA training Facility in a Protected Forest in Bangladesh: Al Hasnat, Mahadi. 2023. How much of Bangladesh’s protected forests are really protected? Mongabay.

[2] Oxfam/ ILC/ RRI. 2016. Common Ground: Securing land rights and safeguarding the Earth. Oxford: Oxfam. URL: and Kusters, Koen/ de Graaf, Maartje. 2019. Formalizing community rights to forests: Expectations, outcomes and conditions for success. Tropenbos. URL:

[3] Ribot, J.C. 2003. Democratic decentralization of natural resources. In: Van de Walle, N. Ball, V. Ramachandran (Eds.), Beyond Structural Adjustment, The Institutional Context of African Development. Springer, New York, 159-182. [4] Sunderlin, William D. 2011. The global forest tenure transition: Background, Substance &Prospects. In Sikor & Stahl: Forests and People: Property, Governance, and Human Rights. URL:

[5] Kusters, Koen et al. 2022. Formalizing community forest tenure rights: A theory of change and conditions for success. Forest policy and Economic 141. URL:

[6] Aggarwal, Safia. 2021. Tenure reform for better forestry: An unfinished policy agenda. Forest Policy and Economics 123. URL:

[7] Myers, Rodd. 2022. Coordinating forest tenure reform: Objectives, resources and relations in Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal, Peru, and Uganda. Forest Policy and Economics 139. URL:

[8] Larson, Anne M. 2023. What is forest tenure insecurity? Insights from participatory perspective analysis. Forest Policy and Economics 147. URL:

[9] Sunderlin 2011. The global forest tenure transition: Background, Substance &Prospects. In Sikor & Stahl: Forests and People: Property, Governance, and Human Rights.

[10] RRI. 2023. Who owns the worlds land? Second edition. URL:

[11] Yuge Wang et al. 2022. Evaluating the Impact of Forest Tenure Reform on Farmers’ Investment in Public Welfare Forest Areas: A Case Study of Gansu Province, China. Land 11:5. URL: FAO. 2011. Reforming Forest Tenure: Issues, Principles and Process. FAO Paper 165. Rome. URL: Robinson, Holland & Naughton-Treves 2014. Does secure land tenure save forests? A meta-analysis of the relationship between land tenure and tropical deforestation. Global Environmental Change 29, 281-293.

[12] Diepart, Jean-Christophe and Oeur Il (2023). Communities at the Core of Protected Area Management: Learning from customary tenure documentation experiences in Cambodia. MRLG Case Study Series #8. Phnom Penh: MRLG, WCS, HA. URL:

[13] Larson, Anne M. & Pulhin, J.M. 2012. Enhancing Forest Tenure Reforms Through More Responsive Regulations. CGIAR. URL:

[14] Diepart, Jean-Christophe et al. 2022. The recognition and formalization of customary tenure in the forest landscapes of the Mekong region: a Polanyian perspective. Journal of land Use Science 18:1, 211-226. URL:

[15] Laumonier and Sasaoka. 2012. Suitability of local resource management practices based on supernatural enforcement mechanisms in the local social-cultural context. CIFOR. URL:

[16] Baynes, Jack et al 2016. Key factors which influence the success of community forestry in developing countries. Global Environmental Change 35, 226-238.

[17] Mackey, Brendan et al. 2020. Understanding the importance of primary tropical forest protection as a mitigation strategy. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 25, 763–787. URL:

[18] Dooley, Kate et al. 2022. Land Gap Report 2022. URL: Almeida, Bernardo/ Jacobs, Carolien. 2022. Land expropriation – The hidden danger of climate change response in Mozambique. Land Use Policy 123. URL:

[19] Sunderlin, William D. 2015. Why Tenure is Key to Fulfilling Climate and Ethical Goals in REDD+?. CIFOR, CGIAR. URL: [20] Quan, Julian/ Dyer, Nat. 2022. Climate change and land tenure. The implications of climate change for land tenure and land policy. Land Tenure Working Paper 2, FAO. URL:

[21] Sunderland et al 2014. Challenging Perceptions about Men, Women, and Forest Product Use: A Global Comparative Study. World Development 64, 556–566. URL:

[22] World Bank. 2022. Gender Equity in Land and Forest Tenure in REDD+ Programming: Synthesis Report. URL:

[23] Ingram et al 2016. Gender and forest, tree and agroforestry value chain. In: Gender and Forests: Climate change, tenure, value chains and emerging issues. In: Colfer C., Sijapati Basnett B & Elias M. (eds). Earthscan Routledge.

[24] World Bank. 2022. Gender Equity in Land and Forest Tenure in REDD+ Programming: Synthesis Report. URL: -forest-tenure-redd-programming

[25] Larson, Anne M. et al. 2023. What is forest tenure (in)security? Insights from participatory perspective analysis. Forest Policy and Economics 147. URL: Ngefor, Silvian & Van Damme, Patrick. 2022. An Analysis of the Evolution of Forestry Reforms and Women’s Rights to Forest Use, Ownership and Management in Cameroon. Africa Focus 35:1, 152-172.

[26] RECOFTC. 2022. Gender, tenure and customary practices. Report. MRLG/ RECOFTC. URL:

[27] World Bank. 2022. Gender Equity in Land and Forest Tenure in REDD+ Programming: Synthesis Report. URL:

[28] Anugrah, Dadang et al. 2022. Injustice against Women in a Social Forestry Program: Case Studies from Two Indonesian Villages. Forest and Society 6:2, 723-741. URL:

[a]Land Portals SDG 15.1.1. page

[b]Land Portals SDG 15.2.1. page

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