Much of the debate on forest protection focuses on the clearing of relatively pristine forests, such as those in the Amazon basin, central Africa and south-east Asia. Although these are important, we must not neglect the large areas of wooded lands present in human-dominated landscapes too, explained team member Ashwini Chhatre of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US.

Such "forest islands" – also called forest commons – are often closely tied to rural livelihoods and the local economy relies heavily on the land, especially in the poorest regions of the world. In fact, 1.2 billion people around the globe depend directly on this kind of forest for firewood, timber, fodder and occasionally wild honey, medicinal herbs and tree nuts.

Quite often these forests may be formally owned by governments but local people have unwritten rights to them, said Chhatre. Many countries have recently introduced policies that make these rights more formal, for example so that the local population can now assist forest departments in enforcing laws that address forest protection and sustainability.

"Our analysis suggests that national policies need to provide greater recognition to effect local enforcement of forest laws," Chhatre told environmentalresearchweb. "This is likely to improve forest cover, reduce deforestation and forest degradation."

Chhatre and colleague Arun Agrawal of Michigan University, US, came to their conclusions by studying multi-country data collected over 15 years by a network of dedicated researchers in the International Forestry Resources and Institutions Research Program. The dataset is unique and the analysis was based on robust statistical modelling. "It allowed us to estimate the importance of local enforcement after taking into account a number of other causal factors that affect forest conditions – such as population and market pressures," explained Chhatre. "It turns out that local enforcement is critical, even in the presence of these other factors."

"The researchers also found that having good national laws is not enough – they need to be enforced at the local level. Indeed, forests with higher levels of local enforcement were more likely to have regenerated and less likely to degrade."

The results could have implications for climate mitigation policies, stressed Chhatre. A case in point: more than a billion dollars have been earmarked for new schemes under the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) umbrella and the World Bank is facilitating this process through its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. "If these funds were to have any impact, our finding suggests that much greater emphasis needs to be put on mechanisms for improving local enforcement," said the researcher.

The team has taken its work a step further by analysing data from 123 forests across 10 countries to investigate how local enforcement and other factors benefit forest commons. Such benefits include carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and rural life.

The work was published in PNAS.