Community forest rights in the Philippines and Nigeria: Strong legal foundation is not enough

Community forest rights in the Philippines and Nigeria: Strong legal foundation is not enough

General - 18 June, 2020

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.

To learn from the experiences, Tropenbos International is conducting a review of community forest rights in 11 countries, exploring the conditions for success, and the potential role of civil society organisations (CSOs). As part of the review, experts from different countries get together to consider what they can learn from each other.

Recently, experiences with community forest rights in the Philippines and Nigeria were discussed in a video call with four experts: Heidi Mendoza and Kriselle Samantha Sy of the Forest Foundation Philippines, Godwin Ojo of the Nigerian NGO Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, and Fidelis Allen of the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria.


What’s clear is that the situation in both countries is very different. In the Philippines, community forest rights are well established in laws and regulations. In the 1980s and 90s the government introduced several progressive reforms, including a community forestry programme (through which communities can receive forest management rights for periods of 25 years) and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (through which indigenous peoples can receive the formal rights over their ancestral domains).

Compared to the Philippines, legal reforms in Nigeria are still in their infancy. CSOs are actively lobbying for change, but community forest tenure remains low on the government’s agenda, according to Ojo and Allen. “Experiences from the Philippines help us to look into the far distant future; what may happen with community rights in Nigeria,” said Ojo. “It makes clear that we need the laws to be in place for community rights to work. This is not something you do in two days, or even two years. We realise that there is still a lot of work to be done.”

SUB: Small community in Nigeria


Although the legal foundation for community rights in the Philippines may be relatively strong, the outcomes are far from optimal, stressed Mendoza and Sy. According to them, community-based forest management has mostly been a conservation strategy that is enforced from above, without properly involving local communities, without taking into account existing practices, and without taking local communities’ livelihood needs seriously. As a result, local communities’ commitment and engagement is limited. Often, community-based forest management is simply not attractive enough, and local people look elsewhere for alternatives, including illegal logging. The lack of economic opportunities and local commitment are mutually reinforcing.

Ojo and Allen agreed that community-based forest management is not likely to succeed when it is an outsiders’ project, without intrinsic motivation at the community level. The Nigerian Ekuri initiative is a good example of a case where the community remained committed to forest conservation, despite several failed donor projects.


The four experts agreed that civil society organisations play a key role in empowering communities, so they can shape the way community rights are being implemented in practice, resulting in greater local ownership and commitment. This includes the development of strong leadership, building awareness about short- and long-term values of the forest, as well as the development of livelihood opportunities.

Strong laws and regulations are important, but they are only part of the story, concluded Mendoza and Sy. Existing laws on community-based forest management may be written neatly, but without appropriate involvement of communities, these laws are not going to deliver the expected results. In line with this, Ojo and Allen stressed the need to develop a national strategy for community-based forest management in Nigeria, which should facilitate stronger engagement of civil society. Indeed, the devolution of forest rights to communities is unlikely to achieve its expected development and conservation outcomes, without the active involvement of civil society organisations and the communities themselves.  

SUB: Village between rice fields in the Philippines