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Can formalizing smallholder land rights slow tropical deforestation? Insights from projects around Amazonian reserves in Ecuador and Peru
Lisa Naughton, Professor, Department of Geography, UW Madison
Land ownership is often uncertain in the world’s most biodiverse and carbon-heavy forests. Many Latin American countries are promoting formal titling programs not only to aid the rural poor, but to slow deforestation. Providing land titles stops individuals from clearing forest just to defend their informal land claim. Newly formalized landholders may also be more likely to heed environmental regulations due to a sense of reciprocal obligation. I address these assumptions and examine project outcomes first at an Ecuadorian Amazon reserve (Cuyabeno). There a project allocated formal land titles to hundreds of individual households. Deforestation rates dropped among participants and many enrolled in conservation programs. Yet most recipients complained that they’d received incomplete property rights. Some resented having to commit to conserve forest on their land as a requisite for title. Even more complained about the prohibition on subdividing newly titled land, even though they were free to sell the entire parcel. Turning next to Peru, I offer insights from efforts around another Amazonian reserve (Tambopata) to formalize small scale mining concessions. Preliminary evidence shows no decline in deforestation or greater regulatory compliance associated with formalizing mining rights. The two cases show how the forest outcomes of formalization projects vary by type of resource use and institutional context. More generally, they expose the trade-offs that arise between meeting environmental goals and granting individuals full rights to land and resources.