Shares
0

Related stories

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.

FINANCIAL FAILURES

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.

   Underpinning community forestry is the proven belief that local people are best placed to manage the resources on which they rely. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

A QUESTION OF OWNERSHIP

This new research underlines finance as a major obstacle to the success of community forestry in DRC: the lack of ownership by local populations.

In most cases, community forestry emerges as a top-down initiative, argue the researchers. Because of expensive administrative costs, the creation of community forests is out of reach for local communities, making them dependent on external actors. These days, many initiatives in the DRC are thus subsidized by international funds and run by local or international NGOs. “One of the problems with this situation is that the intervening agencies tend to impose their normative values and sophisticated management tools,” explains Lescuyer. “A bottom-up approach that takes into consideration local realities of communities would be more appropriate. It could lead to more functional systems than those brought in from outside.”

A REGIONAL PROBLEM

Community forestry became a booming trend among political and technical circles across Central Africa in the 1990s. Cameroon rose as the early-adopter, being the first country in the region to enshrine it in law. The government created formal community forests as early as 1998, which allowed village associations to legally harvest, process, and trade forest resources within an area of up to 5,000 hectares.

However, the limited financial impact on rural livelihoods, as well as the complicated administrative procedures, have hindered any extensions. At present, only about one percent of Cameroon’s forests is managed by the communities.

“In Cameroon, engagement in community forestry has also been very low, mainly because of the lack of belief that it will raise their standard of living,” explains Lescuyer. “Likewise, in this case the costs of setting up a community forest is too elevated.”

What’s more, previous research unearthed multiple cases where community forests in Cameroon were exploited through subcontracts with logging companies. Mostly medium-sized and informal, they paid cut-rate rents that did not trickle down to improve collective standards of living; the reality of job creation reflected by very low salaries. Other studies have concluded that revenues from logging are seldom equally distributed- local political, economic and military elites reaping the lion share of profits.

“The failure of community forestry in Cameroon is worrying because the model has been replicated for about 15 years across Central African countries, especially in Gabon, DRC, and Central African Republic,” says Lescuyer.

   Multiple countries with tropical forests have placed community forestry at the heart of their rural development strategies. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

THE ESSENCE OF COMMUNITY FORESTRY

While CIFOR and UNIKIS’ research focuses on the financial returns of community forests and their impact on livelihoods, the authors acknowledge that there are benefits beyond monetary gains.

Community forests protect biodiversity, which in turn supports food security; they both mitigate and facilitate adaptation to climate change, sucking carbon from the air and retaining natural barriers against intense weather events; they are an important tool for recognizing customary rights; they help secure land tenure and facilitate long-term investment by the involved communities.

“Of course there are other long-term benefits,” recognizes Lescuyer, “but so far there aren’t enough examples from Central Africa to say that community forestry can improve the well-being of people without increasing their revenues.”

Lescuyer agrees, believing that the purpose of increasing income should be at the core of community forestry, especially in rural areas where development options are limited. “It is time to ensure that the tens of millions of dollars devoted to supporting this model actually ends to alleviate poverty,” he concludes.

This research was supported by the REFORCO and FORETS projects, funded by the European Union, and by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting forestsnews@cgiar.org.