Access to state-owned forests critical for rural smallholders, study finds

State-owned forests could be yielding more income both per hectare and per household than than private or community forests.
The Poverty & Environment Network analyzes data gathered from some 8,000 households in 24 developing countries.

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Editor’s Note: Land tenure in forested areas was a key theme of discussion at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia. At the Summit, a discussion session explored issues related to the securing of traditional lands, social forestry initiatives and tenurial dynamics in Southeast Asia. Read more here.

BOGOR, Indonesia — A global study on the relationship between forest income and tenure has found that state-owned forests generate more income for rural smallholders than private or community forests.

“The findings are unexpected because there is a lot of literature emphasizing that community forests are most important, especially for poor people,” said Pam Jagger, principal author and a scientist at the University of North Carolina. “Many people are surprised that state-owned forests could be yielding more income both per hectare and per household, but we have confidence in our results, even in highly divergent settings.”

The study considered the influence of formal forest ownership, level of enforcement, and the extent of overlapping rights on forest income. Other key findings show that enforcement of rules tends to restrict access to community forests lowering income, and that overlapping systems of rights in state-owned forests may alleviate poverty in some settings.

“The results will surprise a lot of people,” said co-author Marty Luckert, a scientist at the University of Alberta. “But the stories emerged in a coherent way from all that variability.”

The global study is the product of the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN), a collaborative effort led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The largest quantitative global-comparative research project to date on forests and rural livelihoods, it analyzes data gathered from some 8,000 households in 24 developing countries.

“Tenure and Forest Income: Observations from a Global Study on Forests and Poverty” is one of five initial papers to emerge from the global study. The others tackle the themes of income generation and rural livelihoods, forests as safety nets, forest clearing and livelihoods, and gender and forest use. The papers appear in a special issue of World Development alongside one PEN case study and six non-PEN studies ranging from micro-level cases to national-level analyses.

Trade-offs versus synergies

Citing work dating back to 2002, the researchers point out that tenure issues have long fueled debates about the best ways to enhance livelihoods and promote sustainable forest management. Critical issues include who should own forests, the effect of contested claims, and the degree of monitoring and enforcement of property rights.

This study explored how forest tenure influences the ability of rural households to generate income from forests. “If your objective is to have forests act as a safety net for poor smallholders, then arrangements for them to access forest wealth is important,” Luckert said. “In systems with highly developed rights that are meant to exclude people, they won’t have access.

“By the same token, when you have less enforcement and less exclusion, the incentives to invest are different. If you’re not investing, and only extracting, the sustainability implications — depending on the ecosystem and use — can be severe.”

Subsistence versus cash income

In their study sites, researchers found that state-owned forests accounted for 69 percent of forest areas accessed by rural smallholders. Moreover, on a per-household basis, state forests generated more cash from forest income than either private or community forests. Indeed, in community forests, 80 percent of household forest income on a per-hectare basis was for subsistence.

“Community forests are often established in marginal or highly degraded areas compared with state forests, which may be semi- or fully protected due to higher timber, biodiversity, and other values,” Jagger said. “So it makes sense that state forests would generate more income. With the push in the policy community to devolve forest management to communities and individuals, it is important to consider the implications of people losing access to forest products from state forests.”

Tenure reforms that seek to eliminate overlapping rights will likely have negative implications for some

Pam Jagger

The study produced a few surprises related to enforcement. The researchers expected to find that communities and private forest owners would enforce rules to combat forest degradation and protect livelihoods. In fact, enforcement measures in community forests appeared to restrict access, thereby reducing incomes here and now.

“Enforcement is generally bad for forest income in the short run,” Jagger said. “It makes sense that incomes will rise when more people are allowed to take what they want and no one stops them. But this is at odds with the literature that says forest management is better with higher enforcement. It’s a trade-off: a higher level of sustainable management may constrain access and thus limit income.” Finding a balance that yields both favorable livelihood and sustainable management outcomes is a critical challenge for policy makers.

The study, Jagger noted, only measures incomes in the short term. It’s possible that some communities had enforced rules to allow the forests to regenerate, suggesting they take a medium-term perspective of forest management.

Overlapping rights

Researchers also found that overlapping rights — for example, where local resource users had at least partial access to state forests — was important to maintain the forest income of smallholders. While this finding was expected, it takes on added weight given the surprising importance of state-owned forests for cash income.

“Resolving contested claims is obviously important, but overlapping systems of forest rights may work in favour of smallholders in some settings, helping alleviate poverty,” Jagger said. “Tenure reforms that seek to eliminate overlapping rights will likely have negative implications for some.”

While this paper looks at forest income and tenure at the village level, a follow-up study examines how tenure affects subgroups of households, including ethnic minorities, women and the poor. The researchers propose several other areas for future work: comparative research that focuses on settings where state, community and private forests exist in tandem; and longitudinal studies on the trade-offs and synergies between forest sustainability and income.

They are also primed to hear from detractors.

“There is a pretty vocal set of advocacy organizations that are pushing hard for forest sector devolution, increased enforcement, and clear property rights,” Jagger said.

Luckert added, “while such directions may contribute toward long-run sustainability, perhaps providing enhanced livelihoods to those with access, such measures could have serious repercussions for the livelihoods of the rural poor in the short run.”

For more information about the issues in this article, please contact Pam Jagger at

Financial support for the global study was provided by ESRC-DFID, DANIDA, USAID (BASIS-CRSP), IFS and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP-FTA)

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Topic(s) :   Community forestry Rights