Land-rights policies in Latin America still fall short, studies show

Scientists present their findings on forest tenure and land use at a major conference in Peru
Indigenous community in Peru. Photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma for CIFOR

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Latin American countries have made progress in granting land rights to communities in recent years. Nevertheless, policies often fail to consider the diversity of those communities and the different ways they use their land.

Some of those differences were highlighted in studies presented by researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) at the recent Latin American Studies Association Conference held in Lima, Peru.

Government regulations often take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to forest tenure, which is out of step with local practices that vary from place to place, and sometimes even from one family to the next, said Peter Cronkleton, a senior scientist at CIFOR.

“One thing we’re finding is that forest use is very heterogeneous,” he said. “The problem is that there is very little detailed information about this heterogeneity.”

Several studies by CIFOR researchers that compare advances in tenure reform and indigenous initiatives in various countries worldwide provide a window into local practices, shedding light on areas of policy and legislation that require more attention, said Cronkleton.


In Peru, indigenous communities have gained title to more than 12 million hectares of forest land, and 5.7 million more are pending.

Progress is slow, however, because of the number of steps involved and because in recent years, different government agencies have been responsible for granting titles, said Iliana Monterroso, a post-doctoral fellow at CIFOR.

Overlapping land claims and a lack of a single national land registry also complicate the process, because a community cannot title its land if overlapping claims exist.

Once an indigenous community does obtain title, it does not automatically have the right to use forest resources commercially. The community can only title land used for agriculture, while the state retains ownership of forests. The community can obtain government-granted usufruct rights and permits for commercializing forest products, but this requires another series of steps that often are too expensive for communities, unless they have outside support.

The problems revealed by her study point to opportunities for improving policies and regulations, said Monterroso, who recommends a stronger role for sub-national governments in the titling process.

Communities need allies in those government agencies, to help them move their applications through the often-confusing titling process, she added.

“Non-governmental groups also have an important role to play in monitoring progress and remaining problems,” said Monterroso. “They have kept records and may have more complete information than government agencies or the communities.”


Just having title does not necessarily enable community members to improve their livelihoods, the researchers say. Other policies are needed to support them, but those policies must take into account the different ways in which people use their forests.

A six-country comparative study of initiatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) is examining those uses and the economic importance of forests for local communities.

The study— conducted in Peru and Brazil in Latin America; Cameroon and Tanzania in Africa; and Vietnam and Indonesia in Asia—surveyed 4,000 households in 150 villages from 2010-2011 and again from 2013-2014, to gauge the impact of REDD+ programs on people’s livelihoods.

Surveys in 2012 and 2014 in eight villages in the Amazonian region of Ucayali, Peru, showed that villagers combined cash-producing activities with subsistence production. It also calculated the economic importance of the subsistence activities.

Family income averaged nearly USD $6,000 in 2012, and USD $3,755 in 2014—a drop researchers are still trying to understand, Cronkleton said.

Nevertheless, the largest proportion of villagers’ income in both years—more than two-thirds in 2012 and nearly half in 2014—came from forest-related activities, with farming and non-farm work making up smaller percentages.

Fish and game from the forest accounted for the largest percentage of villagers’ income. The fish are extracted from riparian forests, where they are an essential part of the ecosystem, spawning during the annual flood season and dispersing the seeds of forest trees.

Villages also reported income from timber and non-timber forest products, in percentages that varied from community to community.

Policymakers must consider not just these variations, but also the different ways in which men and women use forest resources in indigenous and non-indigenous communities, said Anne Larson, a principal scientist at CIFOR.

The Miskitu and Mayangna people in Nicaragua’s Northern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN) also combine subsistence agriculture with the sale of forest products and some wage labor.

Both indigenous and non-indigenous households extract firewood, timber, wild animals, wild fruit, herbs, honey and craft materials from the forest. Except for firewood, however, indigenous people depend on the forest far more than non-indigenous people, according to surveys of indigenous and non-indigenous women and men conducted in that region.


Men and women extract different products in different proportions, studies show.

“The prevailing wisdom on gender and forest products is that men extract timber and women extract firewood and non-timber forest products, however, our data concurs with other studies showing that this does not hold true in Latin America,” said Anne Larson, a principal scientist at CIFOR.

Her study in Nicaragua found that women extract fewer products from the forest than men do. This is true even of firewood and non-timber products in indigenous households, which use a much larger variety and quantity of forest products than non-indigenous families.

When products are sold, however, indigenous women tend to handle sales more than non-indigenous women, and they sell more fruit, herbs and craft materials than the men in their households.

But while women may play a larger role in household decisions about resource use, their voice in community-wide decisions is often muted because leaders limit them to traditional roles, said Larson.

Besides revealing such gender differences, research points to ways of increasing women’s participation in forest-management decisions.

According to Larson, more research into how people use forest products is needed because Latin America lags behind Asia and Africa in data. Across all three regions, there is very little data on gender-differentiated forest use in collective lands.

“We need to take a closer look at differences within populations and cultures.”


Indigenous people are playing an increasing role in shaping policies for preserving their forests and using their resources, according to researchers.

In Peru, where deforestation is the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions, the government has set a goal of preserving 54 million hectares of forest, said Emily Dupuits of the University of Geneva.

She compared two approaches to REDD+ in indigenous communities in the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, an indigenous territory in Peru’s southeastern Madre de Dios region.

A national government program that focuses on carbon storage pays indigenous communities to preserve their forests in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program operates only in communities that have formal land titles.

An alternative program promoted by national and Amazonian indigenous organizations focuses on indigenous rights instead of carbon storage, and includes financing to help communities obtain titles.

The government-managed national program is based on forest management plans and productive projects for the communities, while the alternative program takes a more holistic approach to territory and includes mapping the way the Harakmbut people have traditionally occupied their territory, said Dupuits.

The different models are examples of the evolving process of co-management of forests by governments and indigenous communities, said Cronkleton.

Challenges remain, as tensions arise between national and sub-national government authority, and the value of incentives is not always clear, he said, adding that issues like those point to needs for future research.

“There are challenges and difficulties, but processes are underway that are mitigating the impacts and strengthening the advances,” said Cronkleton. “When we look at the progress that has been made in tenure and rights, there is reason to be optimistic.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Peter Cronkleton at or Anne Larson at or Iliana Monterroso at
This research was supported by European Commission, the Global Environment Facility, The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
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Topic(s) :   Community forestry