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Communities are not companies: New approach needed for community managed forests

Research from Brazil illustrates the disconnect between policy and reality.

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (26 June 2012) — Models for smallholder and community forest management need to be rethought if certification – a key tool for ensuring sustainable forest management – is to succeed, according to scientists from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Presenting on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil at an event organised by Forest Stewardship Council, CIFOR scientist Amy Duchelle said the current forest management frameworks and models often do not reflect realities on the ground.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a body that oversees the certification of forest products so that consumers can be sure they are responsibly managed. The growing demand for certified products creates an incentive for forest owners and managers to follow best social and environmental practices.

FSC has well-developed systems in place for commercially managed forests – but formalising the ways communities have managed forests for hundreds of years has proven more complex.

“FSC has made some important efforts in terms of trying to engage smallholders – there have been many pilot initiatives, and some useful lessons have been gleaned,” Duchelle said.

“These achievements can’t be thrown out because of some frustrating cases – but there is a need to recognise that formal systems, including forestry policies, are often totally out of sync with local realities.”

“We can’t force communities to act like companies.”

Bothersome Bolivian Brazil nuts

One frustrating case researched by CIFOR – a community-managed Brazil nut forest in the northern Bolivian Amazon – demonstrates why formalising customary tenure, let alone full certification, can be a difficult task.

This forest is not FSC certified – but it highlights some of the reasons why certification is still far off for many community-managed forests.

Traditionally each family in the community harvested from a particular group of Brazil nut trees – but when control over the forest was officially devolved from the Bolivian government to the community, the formal title map cut off many families from their trees.

The Government’s calculation for the community title was based on 500 hectares of forest to each family, which created the erroneous expectation that individual parcels would be delineated, and the fear that families might lose access to their customary areas.

“Reported Brazil nut thefts between members of the same community in this region were quite high, which we attributed – at least in part – to some of the insecurity associated with the formalisation of customary property rights,” Duchelle said.

In addition, if the Brazil nuts in this forest were to be FSC certified, under Bolivian law the community would require a forest management plan that mandates rotating ‘no-take’ zones, or leaving 6% of the area untouched for conservation purposes.

However, CIFOR research has shown that this has nothing to do with Brazil nut ecology or local management practices, and would cause more conflict as one family would necessarily lose out if their trees were declared part of the no-take zone.

“It just doesn’t work – the law and the local reality don’t really come together and FSC certification for Brazil nuts in Bolivia has not gotten off the ground,” Duchelle said.

New paradigm

Duchelle says examples like these reinforce the need to change our approach.

“We need to build something more genuine, based on what is actually happening on the ground,” she said.

“We are just disenchanted with seeing the existing model for community forestry management failing time and time again – families drop out of programs, tens of millions of dollars are being spent on small areas, and what is the real impact of all of that money and work?”

“While these many initiatives have been fundamentally important for learning, we all would like to see something better,” she said.

This new paradigm is a work in progress, but led by senior scientist Peter Cronkleton, CIFOR has embarked on an effort to start rethinking the model for smallholder and community forest management.

“It’s really important to look back over several decades of community forest management work, and it’s time to consolidate lessons learned from across the globe of these different examples,” Duchelle said.

“Peter is getting a creative group of thinkers together to try to move forward and set up some new ways of thinking about these problems.”

A key element is recognising the diversity of local groups managing forests and forest resources.

“These people are timber harvesters, they’re collectors of non-timber forest products, they’re charcoal producers, they’re farmers, they’re fishermen, they’re agro-foresters, and many of them are all of these things at the same time, because most of these activities are seasonal,” Duchelle said.

“These are millions of people, and it’s very hard to actually categorise this group.”

Duchelle says this means our assumptions need to be challenged.

“The types of forest products used by smallholders, their local engagement in markets, the kinds of decision-making these people are doing, may not fall into the boxes that we’ve tried to create – for example people may not actually be doing collective decision-making even though we want them to,” she said.

“We’re trying to rethink some of these assumptions and paradigms and try to move forward from here so that we can actually engage local people in forestry in a way that works.”

The case of Brazil nut thefts is discussed in a paper published by Amy Duchelle and colleagues in the journal Ecology and Society in 2011.

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