Can farmers be forest custodians in the Amazon?

Non-indigenous farmers are gradually being recognized in the Amazon.
Jorge Rios Pacaya, a smallholder from Ucayali, Peru. A CIFOR study shows that small producers in the Peruvian Amazon are barely considered in forest policies. Aoife Bennett-Curry / CIFOR

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Agricultural activity and forest conservation have often had an antagonistic relationship and are usually discussed in terms of how the former damages the latter.

Forest and development policy, and indeed society itself, often separates and divides the vast ‘wilderness’ of ‘primary’ forest and the indigenous communities that live within them, from the ‘degraded’ agricultural areas inhabited by farmers.

However, Amazonian landscapes cannot be so simply defined: agricultural areas often host a great deal of forest at different stages of maturity.

Recently at a conference in Ucayali, Peru, I spoke about a two-year-long study I am doing with Peter Cronkleton and Ashwin Ravikumar looking at these issues surrounding the land rights of non-indigenous smallholders.

Our survey shows that  Peruvian smallholder farmers claim a lot of forest on land as theirs, but in reality, they have little or no formal rights to those forests.

These non-indigenous smallholders are a poorly understood group, often left out of deliberations over forest policy.

And they generally understand their position of being ‘left out’: many believe that the government only wants native communities to have forest title, on the assumption that they look after the forest better than farmers do.


As in many forested countries in Latin America, in Peru the way to demonstrate and defend property claims and achieve formal rights is to clear forest.

Smallholders must ‘demonstrate economic exploitation of the land’ (Decree 1089), and this could ‘include labors that demonstrate the preparation of the land for planting’ — that is, clearing forest.

Smallholders cannot simply gain title to forest as part of a standard land application, and the bureaucratic system for them to use or title forest is often beyond their administrative and financial reach.

It didn’t seem like a good idea to me so I sold the potted trees. It’s better to have food on the plate today and keep my freedom

Peruvian Farmer

The perversity of land tenure laws that force smallholders to engage in deforestation in order to access land rights has not gone unnoticed.

It is not just smallholders that are underrepresented in forest policy.

According to a recent study, non-indigenous peoples are by far the most numerous group in Peru’s rural Amazon; however, they very rarely feature in the research agenda in general, and forest policy in particular, representing what the authors call a ‘forgotten majority’.

And it is often those people who live in secondary and regenerating forests — the forests that make up a vast part of any tropical landscape — but the value of both the forest and those people is often overlooked.

A growing community of academics, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations and grassroots groups are highlighting the need to expand the forest conservation remit to include ‘degraded’ landscapes such as forest/farm frontiers, the site of numerous fragmented and selectively used forests.


To undertake our research on non-indigenous landholders, we surveyed 252 households, and did two years of participant ethnographic work.

More than 90 percent of the people interviewed knew that they could not get formal title for the forest they lived and worked in, yet they laid claim to land — 32 percent of which was old growth forest. A further 25 percent was fallow (regenerating) forests.

Surprisingly, only 42 percent of the land claimed was used for crops and pasture, which shows that forests are an important part of personal land inventory for these people, even though they cannot gain formal rights to it.

Some farmers indicated that they wanted to keep forest so that they could later convert it into crops, but there were also repeated sentiments of preference to maintain forest for a range of benefits: intrinsic value (recreation), ecosystem services (microclimate and maintaining water in streams), and provision of timber for housing and non-timber forest products (such as bushmeat).

One smallholder who had laid claim to 15 hectares of old growth as part of her land inventory told us: “I conserve old growth forest over there to keep the little animals nearby; those big plantations make the animals run away, and they all come to my forest.”

Furthermore, many of the smallholders we spoke to had knowledge about Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) projects. We were often asked whether it was really possible to get money for conserving the forest.


Clarifying land rights is heralded as key to better forest governance, and it is often posited that if people had rights for forests, they would be more likely to care for it.

Formal land rights are also critical for accessing PES projects and provisions.

However, only traditional groups defined by the state as ‘communities’ have any real rights to forest-land, and the law in Peru is explicit about what is and what is not a ‘community’; smallholder villages are not defined as ‘communities’ and therefore have no rights to forest lands.

Such black-and-white definitions underestimate the socio-cultural and historical diversity within the group, which is part of the reason that many development and conservation endeavors fail.

This point is well illustrated by the perspectives of smallholders from different parts of the Peruvian Amazon who spoke to us about oil palm projects.

“They offered me young potted oil palm trees, and yes I accepted them,” the first farmer said. “But later I thought ‘What are my children going to eat today? And what if I need to leave this place? What would happen with that huge debt I had signed up for?’ It didn’t seem like a good idea to me so I sold the potted trees. It’s better to have food on the plate today and keep my freedom.”

But in a different part of the country, another smallholder saw opportunities for ‘a savings account’.

“Look at my oil palm: right now I have 10 hectares and soon I will have 15. When I look at it, I see my retirement fund, my future. I know that with that I can have a tranquil retirement. “


 The 57 percent forest cover (old growth and fallows) on the 252 smallholder farms we surveyed is encouraging; however, the missing policy to enable smallholders to own and benefit from these forests, and indeed the lack of understanding of how these people actually operate on a daily basis, pose barriers to forest conservation objectives.

How can we avoid developing a highly bureaucratic process that could make it difficult for the state to allocate all these rights, or monitor management of newly titled forests?

Aoife Bennett-Curry

Furthermore, a recent study shows  that land rights alone are not enough to safeguard forests, and that strong governance mechanisms supporting new mandates are critical for their success.

In light of this, Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), with the support of the National Forest Conservation Program for Mitigation against Climate Change and the Ministry of Environment, is proposing a ‘cession of use’ clause, in which smallholders would have usufruct rights to title forest lands on their farms, albeit within specific management parameters.

This is a welcome proposal.

However, the question remains: how can we avoid developing a highly bureaucratic process that could make it difficult for the state to allocate all these rights, or monitor management of newly titled forests?

One suggestion has been to increase the use of simple geographic and remote sensing activities, establishing a small team of land cover change experts in the SERFOR office that would systematically review forest land use in villages.

For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is facilitating a similar endeavor with the Governments’ State Attorney, which could link to the smallholder level, by providing high-resolution images to SERFOR.

The debate is incipient and ongoing, but what is encouraging in this case is the dynamic process of science informing policy, which is currently taking place around these issues.

Aoife Bennett-Curry is a doctoral student working with CIFOR in Peru. Contact her at

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation Community forestry Rights