Preventing partnerships: Timber companies & indigenous groups grapple over land

New report highlights the importance of Free, Prior and Informed consent in recognizing community rights to land.

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Some communities in Indonesia have clashed with timber concession holders over rights to the same plots of land. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Some communities in Indonesia have clashed with timber concession holders over rights to the same plots of land. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (14 February 2013)_Scientists have been sifting through stacks of case studies trying to understand why — despite all good intentions — some partnerships between indigenous groups and private timber companies in Indonesia fail, while others flourish.

Krister Andersson, co-author of a Center for International Forestry Research report Towards more equitable terms of cooperation: Local people’s contribution to commercial timber concessions, said many factors come into play, including whether concessionaires are serious about incorporating local knowledge (what species are most likely to thrive in a given climate, for instance, or who the real players are in decision-making) and the challenges of hammering out agreements that are mutually beneficial.

But when it comes to failed collaborations in this archipelagic nation of 240 million, the biggest culprit continues to been overlapping land claims, which in the worst cases have led to violence, he said.

“Property rights are critical … [and] a necessary condition for effective partnerships,” Andersson added, emphasising that these rights need to be clear and secure.

At the turn of this century, democratisation in Indonesia prompted the central government to shift more powers to the regional, district and local level, giving them, for the first time, the ability to directly issue logging permits to timber companies. But the legal framework on which to manage these new policies was unclear. As result, some communities have clashed with concession holders over rights to the same plots of land.

“In the worst case, historical customary community rights are not recognized by either timber concessions or local authorities,” said Manuel Guariguata, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research and one of the authors of the report.

“Then, rural communities may feel they have no choice but to resort to obstruction or even sabotage of the concession.”

“At other times, for whatever reason, the local government does little to enforce customary land laws,” he said, “or timber concessions and community-claimed property overlap.”

That’s not to say decentralisation and “good forest governance” don’t go hand-in-hand.

When strong and downwardly accountable local governments are in place to help enforce existing contracts, decentralisation can have a positive influence, according to the authors, who analysed around 200 empirical studies in a wide variety of contexts across Asia, Latin America, North America and Africa to try to unravel the puzzle as to why outcomes have been so mixed.

Andersson, who is an associate professor at the University of Colorado, pointed to Bolivia.

Rural communities may feel they have no choice but to resort to obstruction or even sabotage of [timber] concessions.

Though one of the most decentralised countries in Latin America, funding from the central government as well as monitoring and pressure from the electorate has helped motivate municipal officials to work efficiently, sustainably and with a goal of equitable distribution of benefits.

Ashwin Ravikumar, another of the report’s authors, adds that when central governments pass regulations and standards that boost the bargaining power of indigenous communities, the chance of success improves.

That said, he added, the challenge typically is not in creating such standards, but enforcing them.

It helps when timber companies obtain free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) from communities before operating, through clearly defined and inclusive processes that are mediated by disinterested third parties, the authors write.

But it’s important, too, that all members of a community actively participate.

Often self-interested local leaders have been known to make decisions that exclude the interests of other parts of their communities, a report by the Forests Dialogue says, adding that the intra-community tensions that result create their own negative chain of events.

“If only some members of the community are involved in negotiating the terms of a partnership, not only does this disenfranchise other members in an unjust fashion, but it also disincentives them from playing by the rules,” said Ravikumar.

“They have no ‘buy-in’ to the deal,” he said. “Outcomes like illegal logging, civil unrest, or even violence could conceivably result in the worst case scenarios.”

In Indonesia, the benefits of negotiating deals with the benefit of free, prior and informed consent has worked well, the report said. It pointed to several victories for communities, thanks in part to NGO support, including getting oil palm companies to restore lands to communities and compensating them for damages. They’ve also managed to persuade local governments, in some cases, to recognise community livelihoods in protected forests.

Despite all that, Ravikumar argues good governance remains fundamental to successful partnerships _ begging the question of what would happen in times of weak governance.

Frustratingly, here, a definitive answer has yet to be found.

While the scientists say they may have discovered a few “tricks” that seem to lead to more desirable forestry outcomes, Andersson says too little on the subject is known.

“It’s only by continuing to do more research and understanding the systems comprehensively that we’ll be able to develop policies and plans for community-company partnerships that are consistently effective, efficient, and equitable.”

Nevertheless, he adds, for now, groups should be implementing actions that build good governance. More pragmatically, forestry sectors should prioritise supporting partnerships in areas that already have institutions capable of enforcing contracts effectively.

While not a permanent solution, Andersson emphasises that the forestry industry is currently littered with cases like this, which could benefit from effective community-company partnerships.

This research was carried out as part of the CGIAR Research Programme, ‘Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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