- - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Environmentalists have sounded the alarm, warning that the rain forests will soon disappear. These unique ecosystems, which include half of the plant and animal species found on Earth, are on the verge of extinction, they say.

Fortunately, deforestation rates in many of the world’s rain forests are dropping dramatically. It’s not government ownership of the jungle keeping more trees standing but increased private-property rights.

For years, environmental activists have tried to prevent indigenous tribes from owning and managing the rain forests where they live. The August edition of New Scientist magazine highlights a series of studies proving that deforestation rates plummet when governments get out of the way and enable even the poorest, most rural people to be custodians of the places where they live.

It makes sense. The indigenous people in forested areas of Brazil, Guyana and Guatemala want to protect the natural resources they rely on to survive. The people who live there do the best job of protecting rain forests and governments do the worst. Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent of Reason magazine, points out that “government ‘ownership’ almost always ends in mismanagement, especially in poor countries with little or no democratic accountability. In most cases, government ‘ownership’ amounts to creating an open-access commons.”

That is a big problem since, in an open-access commons, no one actually owns the resource — the rain forests, in this case — and “everybody exploits it as much as they can because they know if they leave something behind, the next guy is just going to take it.”

The World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative reviewed 130 studies in 14 countries and concluded that communities do a far better job at protecting forests than government.

In government-owned areas of Guatemala’s Peten region, for example, “the rate of forest loss in government-protected areas is 20 times that in areas under community control,” New Scientist reports. The government is ineffective at preventing forests from being felled and overrun by rogue cattle ranchers, while ranchers are quickly driven from privately held lands.

Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon are dropping across the board, but rates are falling much more dramatically in areas managed by local tribes. Since 2000, deforestation on land controlled by indigenous tribes, such as the Yanomami and Kayapo, has been measured at just 0.6 percent. Deforestation rates on Brazil’s government-managed land is much higher — more than 7 percent.

If environmentalists actually want to do what is most effective in protecting the rain forest, they should change their strategy to reflect what these studies teach. Advocates for the rain forests should eliminate their support of government solutions and aim their focus on putting the forests under the care and ownership of the people who actually live there. These are the people most committed to making sure the rain forests are alive and well for generations to follow them.