“The second wave of decolonization”

A conversation with Andy White

Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). Photo courtesy of RRI
25 April 2019

More and more Indigenous peoples and local communities are having their collective rights to the forest formalized. Between 2002 and 2017, forest areas with formally recognized collective property rights grew by 152 million hectares – three times the size of Spain. This is one of the findings of a recent analysis of global forest tenure data from 58 countries, published by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) in 2018.

The RRI is a global network advocating for the land and forest rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities. As the RRI’s coordinator, Andy White travels the world, meeting with Indigenous and community leaders, governments and civil society organizations to discuss how local communities’ rights to the forest can be advanced. Here, as part of an ongoing review of community rights to forested lands and key conditions for success led by Tropenbos International, he talks about recent progress and challenges and the role that civil society organizations can play to help people claim their rights as a step toward locally-led sustainable development.

An indigenous honey hunter in East Timor, Indonesia, where national community forestry policy allows locals to use manage their native forest lands. Aris Sanjaya, CIFOR

What are the potential benefits of formalizing collective rights to forests?

“You have to look at history. History is pretty clear that property rights for Indigenous peoples and local communities are an essential step toward active citizenship, economic development, stable economies and social democracies. Where community rights are not recognized, you will have conflict and contestation.”

Why is the focus on collective rights and not individual rights?

“In the case of Indigenous peoples and many communities, collective rights are what they want and what is called for in their countries’ legal frameworks. Communities that identify as Indigenous peoples or as part of traditional groups – communities that have a history of managing lands and resources as a group – make the case that they want their collective rights recognized. From a purely financial perspective, the costs of collective property rights are fairly limited, on a per-hectare-per-person basis. That is because these collective spaces are usually large, while population densities are low, so it is a lot cheaper than the titling of individual parcels.”


In many cases, lands that governments have classified as public property have long been inhabited by Indigenous peoples and local communities who have informally owned the lands for ages, depending on the resources therein for their livelihoods. These groups wish to maintain control over their lands and seek to be legitimately and formally recognized as land-holders.

International organizations like the RRI are backing this claim and argue that formalizing local rights is not only a matter of social justice but might also improve livelihood security and enable local communities to prevent deforestation by external actors. Securing property rights is expected to contribute to the objectives of self-determination, sustainable livelihoods and conservation.

Is there a hierarchy among the three objectives?

“I believe that human rights and the rights of citizens take precedence over other instrumentalist outcomes that society wants.”

Are there trade-offs between the three objectives?

“Of course there are sometimes trade-offs. But that’s why governments and intergovernmental bodies like the U.N. exist. They need to respect citizen rights while also figuring out how to protect the public interest, with regulations and subsidies, for example. Indigenous peoples have the additional rights of self-determination and free, prior and informed consent, and governments need to respect and negotiate with them on this basis. There are examples in many places in the world where Indigenous peoples or local communities have the right to the land but do not have the right to deforest it. They are compensated for the benefits their forests are producing for the rest of the world.”

Oil palm smallholders in the Pará state of Brazil. Miguel Pinheiro, CIFOR


The formal recognition of local communities’ rights can be seen as “a second wave of decolonization,” says White. After all, in many countries, the government’s claim to forests was introduced by colonial powers who saw these areas as important sources of timber. After independence, most countries maintained their colonial land tenure systems, denying the customary rights of the people living on public forest lands.

But the situation is changing. As of 2017, at least 54 countries had passed laws or made court decisions that enable local communities to formally claim rights over their forests. Because of this, White believes now to be a time of unprecedented opportunities.

Currently, what are the main challenges for communities to have their land rights formalized?

“There are two. The first is the dramatic increase in criminalization and murders of Indigenous people and community leaders who are trying to protect their lands. The second is the inadequate level of government and donor interest in securing collective rights and the lack of investment in implementing existing laws.”

What about the countries where newly elected governments want to pull back community rights, like in Brazil?

“Historically, there have always been countries where authoritarians are elected, and we are certainly in a phase like that now. The current rollback is devastating to local people, their communities, their forests and societies as a whole. That rollback is especially tragic given the progress that has been made and the progress that could be made if donors would just prioritize this as a legitimate area of effort.”


Indigenous peoples’ organizations and local citizen groups are the key players in rights recognition, says White. It is one of the main lessons he has taken away in his more than 30 years in the land reform sector.

“The old idea was that the work of clarifying property rights on the ground is fundamentally a government task,” he says. “So we would go talk to the government about implementing laws and regulations. But, of course, for the communities and citizens, securing their own property is even more important. When given the chance to implement the law by mapping and registering their lands, local communities can do the work that has been left undone by governments. And I see an increasing number of governments that are actively collaborating with Indigenous peoples and local communities to secure their land rights.”

 What do donors and civil society organizations need to do?

“This is an oversimplification, but you can divide the developing world into two categories. There is a category of countries where legal frameworks, capacity and political support are not adequate. That’s where you need to invest in advocacy and legal reforms and in pilots to develop trust and learn how to do the technical work like mapping, registry, etc.

“Then, there is another category of countries where there are adequate legal frameworks, government will, capacity and trust. That’s where you need to invest in the implementation of existing laws and regulations. Of course, there are some countries where both situations exist at the same time – like Colombia, for example – and you need to continue on both fronts.”

An indigenous craftswoman sells jewelry made from seeds in the Ucayali region of Peru. Juan Carlos Huayllapuma, CIFOR


The RRI has developed the Tenure Facility, which is an independent international financial mechanism that provides grants to Indigenous peoples and community organizations to implement tenure rights under a country’s existing laws and policies. White is enthusiastic about its achievements so far. With the help of the Tenure Facility, Indigenous peoples and local communities have already been able to advance collective property rights to more than 4 million hectares of forested lands since projects began in 2016.

The Tenure Facility’s projects have also caused major shifts to dominant political discourses in the countries and have leveraged additional government and donor investments toward the recognition of local communities’ rights. One of the things that has surprised him most is the active support of local governments for the projects.

Why did this surprise you?

“The Tenure Facility finances Indigenous peoples’ organizations and civil society actors directly, and we were concerned that governments would not support that. But in reality, we have seen the opposite. Local governments are realizing that these projects have concrete results, and that’s ultimately what they want as well.”

Is rights recognition the end goal, or is there more work to be done after this has been achieved?

“It would be a mistake to think that recognizing rights is adequate. It is really only the first step. People do not just want their rights recognized. They want their rights recognized because it is a critical step for ensuring the survival of their culture and their livelihoods and for the sustainable management of their lands.

“A community might suddenly receive formal rights to 100,000 hectares of forest. But if they don’t have them in place already, they might need to develop governance systems and forest management plans. They might need to train people in forestry, monitoring, etc. They will also need to think through whether they want enterprises for economic development. If so, they will have to figure out how to structure a business that is sustainable, doesn’t threaten their forest and is consistent with their culture.

“So, due to the increase in areas being recognized as community-owned, there is a growing need for technical assistance on that front. This growing demand is an indication of progress – and one that we all need to do more to celebrate and support.”

This story also appeared on Tropenbos International, as part of its series on forest tenure. This series will be continue to be co-published on Landscape News in the lead-up to the 2019 Global Landscapes Forum Bonn, 22-23 June, highlighting the forum’s theme of rights.

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