Across Asia, Forest Tenure Security is a Winning Solution for People and the Planet

In Asia, Forest Tenure Security is a Winning Solution for People and the Planet


By Markus Kukkonen, Sarah Antos and Willem van der Muur


About 3.3 billion people live within one kilometer of forests, and many of them are Indigenous Peoples (IPs). IPs and Local Communities (LCs) manage about 50% of global land mass customarily, but only 10% of their land rights are formally recognized. Often their lands overlap with state designated forest areas that impose legal restrictions on recognition of land rights for the sake of environmental conservation. Global biodiversity initiatives, such as 30x30, and climate commitments are placing new pressures on forest dwellers land tenure security. As an example, governments have pledged about 1 billion hectares, an area larger than China, for land-based carbon removals in their Nationally Determined Contributions, commitments that will impact the rights and livelihoods of those residing on these lands.

At the same time, there is growing evidence that recognizing customary land tenure systems is a highly effective way to enhance forest protection. Case studies from Benin, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru show that formalizing private, communal and/or IPs’ lands reduced deforestation by 10-75 percent. As an outcome, many intergovernmental organizations have acknowledged the essential role of IPs and LCs as stewards of forests. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference (COP26), five governments and 18 philanthropic organizations pledged 1.7 billion USD from 2021-2025 to “support the advancement of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ forest tenure rights and greater recognition and rewards for their role as guardians of forests and nature.”

Only 6.3% of this funding has come to Asia to date, even though the region is home to the largest IP and LC populations globally. Also, overlaps of state forest areas and IPs’ and LCs’ lands are prevalent in Asia. For example, Laos has 24% of its population living in state designated forest areas, while almost 40 million Indonesians live in such areas, but few enjoy secure land rights. This doesn’t only subject them to a higher risk of losing their land, but also limits their access to education, social services, and lending markets, while disincentivizing long-term land investments such as tree planting.

Asian countries now widely acknowledge the challenge and are making increased efforts to address it. It is in this context that the World Bank and PROGREEN are supporting the governments of Indonesia, Philippines, and Lao PDR with technical assistance and preparation of country action plans for recognition and formalization of land rights in state forest areas. In February 2024, delegations from the three countries gathered for a workshop in Coron, the Philippines, to learn from the experiences of Tagbanua Calamian people and to present the statuses of their action plans.

In Lao PDR, about 68% of the land area is designated as state forestlands. Both the 2019 Land Law and Forestry Law recognize the rights of those residing and making their living in state forestlands, and the Government of Lao PDR is currently preparing regulations on how these rights would be recorded and registered. The country action plan, developed jointly by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ministry of Agricultural and Forestry, proposes an approach where land titles are issued for permanent residential and agricultural land and land use certificates with limited duration and restricted transferability for non-permanent individual lands, while village forest management and protection contracts are provided for communal lands within the forest area. The action plan also presents a field work methodology, time frame and budget to complete land use planning and issuance of these tenure documents in over 3,000 forest villages by 2030.

In the Philippines, approximately 52% (or 15.8 million hectares) of the country’s land is classified as forest land. A sizable portion of the forest land overlaps with Ancestral Domain. Recognizing the indispensable role IP’s have in protecting and managing forest, the Government of the Philippines passed the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, paving the way for the establishment of secure Ancestral Domains (Native Titles). Although time consuming to obtain, once Ancestral Domain titles have been issued, IP communities officially and formally own their land in perpetuity. Today, the country’s National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) is supporting thousands of IP communities and coordinating with other national government agencies to delineate and register more Ancestral Domains. To help facilitate this process, their action plan includes the development of a spatial information management system that integrates their data with other national government agencies. The proposed spatial information management system will aid in processing the issuance of Ancestral Domain titles covering approximately 15.7 million hectares and 2.6 million right holders.

In Indonesia, the government has made transformational progress in strengthening land tenure security. Under the Agrarian Reform Program, the number of registered land parcels has more than doubled from 40 million to approximately 100 million in only a few years. The formalization of customary and indigenous land is also progressing. As of early 2024, 30 integrated working units of Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning/National Land Agency (ATR/BPN), local governments and CSOs have been established across three provinces to verify local and customary communities to accelerate the recognition of customary forest in and outside state-designated forest areas. Meanwhile, ATR/BPN has started scaling up customary land registration outside of the forest area, and so far, has granted nine customary land certificates with plans to upscale the registration in the years to come, with support from the World Bank. Additional efforts are needed to address critical gaps, including strengthening incentives to local governments in legally recognizing indigenous communities, gender neutrality in implementation, post-recognition support to improve livelihoods, and the provision of accurate maps and geospatial data.

Lao PDR, Indonesia, and the Philippines will present their progress and action plans at the World Bank Land Conference in May 2024. Furthermore, the World Bank, PROGREEN, and USAID are organizing global session Securing Forest Tenure – Strengthening Multi-Stakeholder Action in the Conference to bring governments, civil society, academia, and development institutions together to discuss the current status and ways forward in forest tenure recognition. Please join us in these discussions to support governments in realizing their aspirations to recognize and formalize forest tenure, and to urge the World Bank and other development partners to provide them sufficient support in doing so as clarifying forest tenure and recognizing the rights of those using the forests is the way for successful forest management and protection.