In the quest to reduce poverty, community forestry is an attractive endeavor. So much so that multiple countries with tropical forests have placed it at the heart of their rural development strategies, giving local communities the rights to directly manage forests and decide how land will be used.
Underpinning community forestry is the proven belief that local people are best placed to manage the resources on which they rely. And by it being done sustainably, poverty can be alleviated, social mobility enhanced, and the ecological protection of the forest achieved.
But between theory and practice, lies a disconnect.
A new study shows that sadly the benefits don’t always necessarily materialize. Community elites are most likely to reap the rewards from such models, risking disillusionment among rural communities. Such is the case of multiple community forest initiatives across Central Africa, researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS) found.
In their research, the scientists found that two community forest pilot sites in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), failed to produce an increase in people’s real income. “Our research shows that the business case for community forests in DRC remains weak,” says Guillaume Lescuyer, lead author of the study. “In both of our pilot sites, we saw a negative financial turnover over five years. All the productive activities that we analyzed -including logging, hunting and firewood collection- either result in losses or a very low profit.” The researchers therefore advise that community forestry is unlikely to develop into a profitable model in DRC, unless people are convinced that it will increase their financial and physical capital.
Though financial impact is just one factor to consider when assessing community forests, it is arguably the biggest deciding factor for communities to maintain or discard the model.
The findings from DRC come at a crucial moment when the Congolese authorities are backing community forestry, implementing several legal and administrative entities. “In 2002 the national forestry law adopted the concept of ‘local community forest’, but it lacked detail until 2016,” explains Ignace Muganguzi, co-author of the study.
“Recently this law has been complimented by a series of decrees that are opening a legal pathway to formalize community forests of up to 50,000 hectares.”
The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development has also created a sub-department devoted to community forestry, while there is a new government-wide National Strategy for Community Forestry aimed at promoting this model.
Despite the recent rise of community forestry in DRC, one of the barriers that persists is the exorbitant costs required to set up a community forest. In the selected case studies, USD 100,000 to USD 160,000 is needed to comply with regulations. These fees cover necessary coordination meetings and committees, the creation of boundary lines and maps, baseline studies, and other formal procedures. “The start-up cost is just too high to make this model viable,” states Lescuyer.
Beyond these expenses, lies high costs of formalizing local economic activities to comply with regulatory requirements. “The payment of all the approvals, taxes and permits that are required to carry out activities such as hunting, chain-sawing, or gathering non-timber forest products, in a legal manner, often prevents small producers from making a profit,” adds Lescuyer.
To address these issues, the researchers make two consequential recommendations.
First, new community forest projects should focus on the productive uses of forest resources, creating a business case with financial forecasts. “Short and medium-term livelihood outcomes need to be quantitatively measured, and to continue supporting these projects there should be strong evidence of a significant economic impact,” says Lescuyer. To date, no community forest in DRC has conducted such analyses, shows the study.
Second, legal constraints should be simplified to reduce the cost of creating and managing community forests. Furthermore, local institutional processes should be streamlined to facilitate operations. “If national regulations continue the same, people might even favor illegal practices to cover these costs,” warns Muganguzi.