Community forest management (CFM) is a decades-old concept that is intended to deliver mutually reinforcing benefits to the environment, rural incomes and natural resource rights of local people by formally recognizing the advantages of on-the-ground knowledge over centralized governance.
About 14 percent of forests worldwide, and around 28 percent of forests in low- and middle-income countries, are formally owned or managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Indigenous Peoples, in particular, live on territories that contain over 20 percent of the carbon stored in tropical forests, making them vital stakeholders in the fight against climate change. Deforestation and other human activities are major contributors to the release of sequestered carbon from forest ecosystems, thus exacerbating global warming.
However, while environmental and income-related results from CFM interventions are typically positive, government policies formalizing this approach have often had unintended consequences for rights to forest access and resources. As a result, part of the rationale for implementing CFM initiatives has been undermined, while the failure to fully engage local and Indigenous communities is hampering international efforts to mitigate climate change through the Bonn Challenge, the Paris Agreement and the U.N. Sustainable Development Agenda.
These were among the findings of a recent study sponsored by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the former UK Department for International Development, which is now part of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
The six authors built on a 2016 study by reanalyzing data to produce a global assessment of the social and environmental outcomes of community forest management. Based on 643 cases from 267 peer-reviewed articles focused on 51 countries in Latin America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, the report found that CFM interventions rarely produced positive results for all three dimensions – the environment, incomes and rights – and usually involved trade-offs. These findings negate the common assumption that CFM initiatives automatically boost the livelihoods and rights of forest dwellers.
“With CFM, we know from case studies that sometimes environmental gains happen at social costs, or social gains happen at environmental costs,” said Reem Hajjar, an assistant professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University in the United States and one of the report’s lead authors. “This study helps us see these trade-offs happening at a global scale, which forces us to rethink how policies and projects are designed and implemented.”
CFM has been promoted as a pro-climate, pro-development strategy in recent years. However, the authors found that in more than half of the cases (134 out of 249) reporting on forest tenure outcomes, rights were compromised during CFM interventions.
“While formalization of forest tenure is fundamental for securing access rights for communities, it is important to examine how such regulations are designed to understand who benefits, who is excluded and how reforms change pre-existing rights,” said Peter Cronkleton, a CIFOR senior scientist and one of the report’s authors.
Such disenfranchisement often increased the incomes of village elites while denying forest access to marginalized groups, such as women and minorities. Conversely, an inclusive approach that enhanced entitlement often led to improved environmental conditions and higher incomes, particularly if land management rights existed informally before a CFM intervention.
“Community-centered policies should have rights as their main tenet,” said Johan Oldekop, associate professor in the Global Development Institute at Britain’s University of Manchester and a lead author of the study. “Rights can be mechanisms through which greater economic wellbeing and natural resource conservation can occur.”
Besides tenure rights, two other factors were considered particularly important in predicting multi-dimensional progress: biophysical conditions and national context. The categories of biophysical conditions that were most likely to be associated with CFM success included forest type and elevation.
Mangroves were often linked to positive outcomes across the board, while lower-lying forests performed better than those at higher altitudes, perhaps due to difficulties harvesting and transporting forest products. CFM projects in countries with weak development and governance scores were also positive outliers, most likely due to improvements from a low baseline, according to the authors.
“Specific contexts will need to be considered in designing any type of intervention, including thinking about local biophysical conditions, existing community institutions, and user group characteristics,” Hajjar said. “It seems clear, though, that a rights-based agenda should be at the core of CFM interventions.”
There have been attempts in recent decades to draw lessons across contexts using comparative case studies on CFM, Hajjar says. For example, the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) research network and other institutions have standardized methodologies across several countries. However, this study is the first to gather all of the literature on the topic from around the world, to synthesize outcomes across multiple dimensions from hundreds of case studies and to provide a snapshot of how CFM has performed globally.
While the study is a significant contribution to public knowledge on the topic, more research is still needed to understand the social and environmental trade-offs that may occur when a government or an organization implements a new forest policy or community development project. It is also worth further investigation, with more rigorous study designs to establish a cause-and-effect relationship, whether rights enhancement does indeed lead to other improved outcomes, according to Hajjar.
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