Economics serving society

Can supporting traditional land rights reduce forest loss?

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Liam Wren-Lewis*, Luis Becerra-Valbuena** and Kenneth Houngbedji

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Rising demand for agricultural land is a major driver of deforestation, contributing to biodiversity loss and climate change. A range of actors have long argued that securing the property rights of local populations and improving commons management may help protect forests. Conservationists have typically concentrated on tenure interventions focused on forests, such as the creation of protected areas. However, the ability of protected areas to preserve forests is limited, and there can be important trade-offs between conserving ecosystems in this way and increasing economic activity. While many low-income countries have undertaken programs to improve rural land governance, they have often focused on improving the security of agricultural land. The impact on forests of such an approach is, however, uncertain.

In this article, Liam Wren-Lewis, Luis Becerra-Valbuena and Kenneth Houngbedji study a large-scale experiment implemented by the Government of Benin with the objective of increasing agricultural productivity and protecting natural resources. The country has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, having lost approximately a quarter of its forested area between 1990 and 2015. The Plans Fonciers Ruraux (PFR) program formalized customary land rights held by households and created local land management committees in 300 villages randomly selected from around 600 voluntary villages. As part of this intervention, 70,000 landholdings representing around 300,000 ha of rural land were demarcated and registered in the treated villages.

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The authors used high-resolution satellite imageries to measure tree cover loss before and after the intervention in treated and control villages and found that the program reduced the area of forest loss in the PFR villages by around 20%. This represents around 600 ha of extra tree cover loss prevented in the treated villages over 8 years. For comparison, a football pitch covers an area of 0.714ha. The authors find no evidence that farmers cut down trees in anticipation of the program, nor that tree-cutting increased in villages nearby those which were part of the program.

Evidence from the pattern of tree cover loss and survey data suggests three likely mechanisms through which the PFR program reduced tree cover loss. First, the program may have increased farmers’ investment in existing plots, increasing productivity and, hence, reducing the need to clear further land. Second, the program may have guaranteed farmers that they had enough land for future production, and hence reduced the incentive to claim land through clearing. Third, the delimitation of landholdings and the creation of local land committees are likely to have facilitated community forest management.

Overall, considering previous studies of the PFR that found that land registration encouraged household to invest more on their parcels, these new results suggest that formalizing customary land rights in rural areas can be an effective way to reduce forest loss while improving agricultural investments.



Original title of the article : Formalizing land rights can reduce forest loss: Experimental evidence from Benin

Published in : Science Advances. 26 Jun 2020:Vol. 6, no. 26, eabb6914

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* PSE Member
** PSE PhD student

Credits : Bing - Digitalglobe 2020