Q+A: Forest-tenure reform advances, but questions remain

Communities may win tenure rights on paper, but a long and difficult road lies ahead.

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Brazil nut harvesters in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. CIFOR/Gabriela Ramirez Galindo

Brazil nut harvesters in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. CIFOR/Gabriela Ramirez Galindo

LIMA, Peru (10 April, 2013) – In the past three decades, at least 200 million hectares of forest have been legally transferred to local communities or indigenous people. As a result, communities now own or manage slightly more than 11 percent of the world’s forests – and the figure is 22 percent in developing countries.

“There is greater acceptance of the idea that people living in forests could be good forest managers and/or may have legitimate rights to them,” said Anne Larson, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), adding that the revolution in land tenure does not necessarily mean communities enjoy the full benefits of forest resources.

As part of a research project on equity and livelihoods in community forestry, Larson and other researchers compared case studies from Latin America, Asia and Africa.

In some Asian countries, they found that governments or large timber companies had rights to the most valuable forests, communities received degraded land. In several African countries, elite groups reaped the greatest economic rewards, while communities benefited little from their forests.

The largest forest tracts in community hands are in Latin America, where indigenous communities have increasingly gained tenure.

“Communities face a very long and difficult road from winning rights on paper to obtaining their implementation, enjoying rights in practice and improving livelihoods,” says Larson, who coordinated publication of the research in a special issue of the journal “Conservation and Society” in 2012.

Here she answers questions about some of the researchers’ findings.

Q: How much change can forest-tenure reform actually achieve?

A: “What is achieved by reform depends on numerous factors, as evidenced by past reforms that have been disastrous for local people – even those that might have appeared to have good intentions or were supposedly launched to formalize or ensure local rights have often ended up benefiting outsiders or elites and leaving local people with even less than they had previously. There are two key questions: How will rights be secured, and for whom? Even those with good intentions are likely to encounter complex practices that are difficult to manage. At the same time, land reform can help secure the rights of local or indigenous people to their land, which can lay the foundation for greater livelihood security.”

Q: What are the limitations of tenure reform?

A: “Reform alone is not enough. A title or right to land is meaningless if it is not backed up by a state that is willing to enforce the law, as in the case of the invasion of indigenous territories by outsiders, for example. A land title does not necessarily bring security. Far more needs to be done to understand what really ensures security in practice. In addition, secure tenure does not necessarily result in improved livelihoods unless there are additional policies to level the playing field for people who have less power.”

Q: Why is it so difficult for communities to put the rights they have won into practice?

A: “Getting rights on paper is usually a huge battle, but implementing those rights means communities must constantly challenge the status quo and competing interests in their land or forests.”

Q: What are the keys to successful reform?

A: “There are no magic bullets. It is important to put significant effort into understanding each specific case.”

Q: What barriers do communities face in managing their forests?

A: “There are so many it is hard to know where to begin. But fundamentally the legal and regulatory structures for forest management — and many efforts at supporting “community forestry,” especially in Latin America — are based on models of industrial-scale logging that are not appropriate for the needs and the real situation of the vast majority of local people.”

Q: What additional issues should researchers investigate to contribute to better forest-management policy?

A: “We have many pending questions. How do rights get implemented? How do bureaucracies responsible for implementing rights work? That is, what role does the government play in supporting or hindering reforms? How can local people overcome threats to their rights? I’m also interested in the issues of power and authority among local people and within communities. Once rights are granted, how are decisions made and benefits distributed (such as in collective territories)? And how can women’s land rights and role in decision making be strengthened?”

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry  and was supported by the UK Department for International Development, Ford Foundation and in Latin America, Profor/World Bank. Original research was done in collaboration with the Rights and Resources Initiative.

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