Community Rights to Forested Lands
What are the conditions for success?
In recent years, many governments have been formalizing the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples to use and manage forest resources. This is expected to contribute to both sustainable rural development and forest conservation.
Now, with forest tenure reforms on their way in many parts of the world, it is a good time to reflect on the experiences so far: Do the reforms have the desired outcomes? What are the barriers and conditions? And how can the outcomes be improved?
To address these questions, Tropenbos International is conducting a review of experiences with community forest rights. We dive into the literature, collect stories of communities, and bring together the perspectives of various experts.
On this page you will find links to the publications so far, including a booklet, interviews, articles, and several short videos. In the months to come we will continue our exploration, including a review of specific community forest tenure models in 13 countries. We will share our findings through regular updates on this site. So, come back soon to find out more!
Click here for our booklet on community forest rights, based on a review of the literature
With a forest cover of 93%, Suriname is the most forested country on the globe. Its forests are home to five Indigenous Peoples, who have been living there since long before the country became occupied by Europeans. Next to the Indigenous Peoples, Suriname’s forests are populated by Maroon communities who mostly live along the rivers. They are descendants of enslaved Africans who fled the colonial Dutch plantations and established independent communities deep in the interior rainforests, where they could not be found. Today, there are a total of six Maroon tribes, spread over hundreds of villages, making up almost 14% of the population. Both the Indigenous and Maroon communities depend on the forest for their food, medicines and construction material. Also, they are increasingly involved in commercial timber extraction.
With around 4.3 million hectares of lowland tropical forest, Liberia is the most forested country in West Africa. Liberia’s forestry sector contributes significantly to the national economy. Moreover, about one-third of the population lives in forested areas, many of whom depend on forests for their livelihoods. The government has developed a legal framework, which recognises customary rights of local communities to access and manage forests. Crucial in this has been the Community Rights Law of 2009.
Earlier this year, three communities in the Tshopo province of DR Congo received forest concession titles. The government and NGOs believe that these will help decrease deforestation and poverty, but researchers have casted doubts whether these expectations are realistic. Alphonse Maindo, Director of Tropenbos DRC, is cautiously optimistic.
Indigenous groups control a significant portion of the land in Colombia. This is good news for the forest, as the Indigenous worldview is based on the idea that people are an integrated part of nature. But this does not necessarily mean they reject modernity. There is a need to cherish and pass on Indigenous culture, while at the same time taking local development aspirations seriously, according to Carlos Rodriguez, director of Tropenbos Colombia.
In 2014, the Indonesian government started an ambitious social forestry program, aiming to provide communities with legal permits to manage and use forests located on state lands. As of March 2019, around 2.5 million hectares of land were titled under the program.
In large parts of the tropics, women collect fuelwood, fruits, vegetables and medicines from the forest. Although they depend on these forest resources for their livelihoods, their rights to the forest are often not secure. Esther Mwangi believes that this should change. Mwangi is a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and here she talks about the relationship between gender and forest tenure – two topics she has been researching for many years.
Myrna Cunningham is the first Miskitu woman to study at a university. In 1973, she received a degree in medicine and returned to her home region in the isolated northeast of Nicaragua, where she was born in a small village surrounded by lush forest. Working as a surgeon, she served in more than one hundred remote villages.
Before becoming a scientist and expert on community rights to forests, Anne Larson was an activist – but not a very good one, she says. “To be a good activist, even if you understand the complexity of things, you have to be able to put it in simple terms, and run with ideas that are catchy: things that can be said in a few lines, or a few words, and which can be put in a headline.”
More and more Indigenous peoples and local communities are having their collective rights to the forest formalized. Between 2002 and 2017, forest areas with formally recognized collective property rights grew by 152 million hectares – three times the size of Spain. This is one of the findings of a recent analysis of global forest tenure data from 58 countries, published by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) in 2018.
In Colombia, the government recognises the right of Indigenous groups to use and manage their forests in Indigenous territories, called 'resguardos'. In this video Indigenous people and peasants talk about their perceptions of the forest, and how they can learn from each other.
After having received a village forest permit, the village of Laman Satong in West Kalimantan can earn money from its forest by selling carbon credits. However, the money should not be the prime motivation to protect the forest, according to one of the village’s customary elders.
In Indonesia, local communities can apply for a village forest permit, which gives them the right to use and manage forests that are located on state lands. In theory, this provides an incentive for sustainable forest management, which in turn generates income for the community. In practice, it is not always that easy. In this video Yohanes Dogol, the head of the village forest committee of Laman Satong in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, describes some of the challenges they are facing.
Laman Satong is a small village located on the foot of two forested hills in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. The forests are formally owned by the government, but in 2011 the community successfully applied for a so-called village forest permit, giving them the legal right to sell forest products for a period of 35 years.
In Indonesia, forest tenure has long been a source of conflict. About two thirds of the country's terrestrial area is classified as state-forest land, even though local people have been living there for many generations. When the government allocates these areas for production or conservation purposes, local people face the threat of losing access to their traditional territories. To resolve this, the Indonesian government launched an ambitious social forestry program in 2014, giving communities formal rights to use and manage forests that are located on state land. Significant progress has been made, but many challenges remain. This video introduces the program and highlights some of the conditions for success.
Community forestry has the potential to contribute to sustainable livelihoods for people living in and near forests. However, it is not uncommon that a large part of the benefits of collectively managed forests end up in the pockets of local elites. Civil society organizations (CSOs) therefore support communities to strengthen their internal governance processes and promote equitable benefit sharing. This raises complex questions, such as: Who decides what is fair? And how do new governance structures relate to customary decision making?
In Suriname, income from logging within community forests goes mostly to companies and village leaders, rather than to community members. This was one of the conclusions of a study conducted by Tropenbos Suriname in 2020. It prompted 14 indigenous communities to request training in benefit sharing.
Over the last couple of decades, many governments have formalized the forest rights of local communities and indigenous peoples, with the expectation that this would contribute to both conservation and sustainable development. With forest tenure reforms underway, this is a good time to reflect on the experiences so far: Have these reforms led to the desired outcomes? And, what are the conditions for success?
In recent years, the call for the legal recognition of community rights to forests has been growing stronger. It is put forward as the key to combatting deforestation, climate change and poverty. The formalization of community forest rights has a better chance of achieving those objectives, when the rights are adapted to local needs, and accompanied with support for livelihood development.
Over the last couple of decades, governments all over the world introduced forest tenure reforms. A key element of these reforms is to grant forest rights to local communities and indigenous peoples, which is expected to contribute to local development objectives as well as conservation. So far, however, the outcomes have been mixed.
The 2019 annual event of the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn focusses on rights and rights-based approaches. It will help draw attention to a discrepancy that is still common in many countries: while local communities and Indigenous Peoples depend on forest resources for their livelihoods, they do not have the legal right to use and manage them. However, change is in the air.