Shared management rights not so equal: Forest communities still tied up in state red tape

Regulatory burdens associated with co-management arrangements continue to fall on local communities.

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (09 August, 2012)_Despite a multitude of land tenure reforms over the past 20 years opening legal channels for communities to gain rights to their forests, the fair sharing of forest management responsibilities between local people and governments is still a major struggle, says a new CIFOR study.

“Our study illustrates how the transfer of rights has typically been incomplete so reforms that should have facilitated legal participation of communities in the forest sector are being undercut by burdensome regulations and start-up costs that actually create barriers to community participation,” said Peter Cronkleton, scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research and co-author of the study in Conservation and Society.

“If community groups are trying to use forest resources sustainably, governments should support their efforts rather than create obstacles or regulatory burdens.”

The communities studied in Bolivia, the Philippines, India and Guatemala are in various types of co-management systems — where responsibilities and rewards gained from the management of forest resources are shared by the state and other stakeholders, and, in theory, the technical expertise of governmental agencies and the indigenous knowledge of local people are combined to improve management and strengthen forest governance.

If community groups are trying to use forest resources sustainably, governments should support their efforts rather than create obstacles or regulatory burdens.

Cronkleton found that, despite the success of communities in gaining legal rights to forest resources, the regulatory burdens associated with co-management arrangements, such as maintaining permission or demonstrating compliance with rigid technical standards, often fall disproportionately on the residents of forest communities.

The study highlights the struggle of Guarayos people in lowland Bolivia, one of the largest indigenous groups in the country’s Amazon region. After the Bolivia’s 1996 tenure reform law, the government recognized the Guarayo demand for a 1.3 million hectare communal property.  Some Guarayo indigenous communities saw forest management as an opportunity to generate income and also increase their control over their territory. However, because forests still belong to the state, they had to submit management plans to the state for approval.

After making significant investments in time and money demarcating forest management areas, conducting inventories and commercial timber censuses, and registering community organizations to meet the government’s technical requirements, the Guarayo soon faced repeated and prolonged government delays to approve their management plans.  At the same time, responsible government agencies were lax in defending indigenous forests from illegal loggers.  Convincing law enforcement authorities to visit field sites usually required communities to pay the associated costs.

A rice farmer in Guarayos, Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Neil Palmer/CIAT.

Although seven Gurayo communities were able to gain approval for forest management plans, covering a mere 11 per cent of the proposed original community land, most grew discouraged by the process and have abandoned these efforts, and many neighbouring communities decided against trying to implement similar plans.

“When governments place hurdles that, in effect, limit the ability of communities to exercise their rights, and also fails to fulfil responsibilities to facilitate community participation, the burdens of co-management actually outweigh the benefits,” Cronkleton said.

Co-management often emerges as part of a forest tenure reform process in which governments recognize rights of local people to forest resources.  Rather than a single over-arching right, however,  the recognized rights granted to local people should be understood as a collection of different rights, such as the right to manage resources, exclude others from that resource, or even to sell rights to others, Cronkleton explained.

Governments sometimes withhold certain rights, for example, the right to transfer property to others when the government wants to know who is responsible for conserving forests.  Although governments frequently grant community groups and individuals the right to manage forest resources, the state maintains ownership over forests to control how management takes place.

“While co-management can increase benefits for community groups, it usually comes with increased responsibilities and obligations.  In practice, when the state partially allocates management rights, it also creates persistent, significant barriers to the adoption of community forestry and often limits the benefits to local participants.”

“If co-management is ever to reach its potential, governments need to be more flexible, learning from what works and what does not, and adapting technical regulations and policies to support increased community participation in programmes to ensure more equitable and effective management systems,” he added.

Edited by Michelle Kovacevic.

This new publication is part of CIFOR’s research program on Forests and Governance and was supported by: The Program on Forests (PROFOR), The International Development Research Center and the Ford Foundation.

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