Over the last two decades, a number of Asian countries have made widely celebrated reforms designed to give local people greater rights and responsibilities over forests. David Edmunds and Eva Wollenberg from CIFOR edited a special issue of Environmental History that looks at Joint Forest Management in India, community forestry in Nepal, the household responsibility system in China and community based natural resource management in the Philippines. Their introductory essay concludes the reforms have been good for forests but poor people have gained less than originally hoped.
Government forestry departments have retained control over key decisions and kept the best forest for themselves. High taxes, market controls, and licensing requirements have limited poor people’s earnings. Local elites have captured many of the benefits and poor households often don’t dare to object.
Many forestry officials defend their actions by arguing that villagers do not take good care of forests. Admittedly, many traditional institutions for managing forests never worked well or have weakened or broken down. Some traditional institutions are un-democratic and discriminate against women, ethnic minorities, and the landless. A lot of local knowledge about forests no longer applies in the current context. Still, forestry officials often use these arguments as an excuse to protect their privileges and sources of income, rather than looking for creative ways to strengthen local capacity. Poor forest users have fared better when they have mobilized to pressure forestry departments and built alliances with NGOs and sympathetic government officials and donors. National and regional organizations of forests users and smallholders in India, Nepal, and the Philippines obtained significant benefits for their members by protesting, lobbying, and taking their case to the courts and the media. Sometimes grassroots organizations and NGOs get co-opted and lose touch with the people they mean to serve. Many of them lack the technical and marketing skills needed to giver forest users practical alternatives. But experience suggests that government bureaucracies will only meet the needs of poor rural households if pushed to do so. It is time to push a little harder.
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