Community forestry: Who Benefits?

Community forestry: Who Benefits?

General - 12 July, 2021

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?

Between 30 June and 2 July 2021, these questions were explored at the online LANDac conference, during a session titled ‘Who Benefits? Inclusive governance and equitable benefit sharing in the context of community forestry’, organized by Tropenbos International, together with Forest Foundation Philippines and RECOFTC Nepal. There were three presentations, followed by a general discussion moderated by René Boot of Tropenbos International.

Charlotte Benneker (Tropenbos International) shared her experiences with collective forest tenure models and community forestry in South America and Africa. She stressed that the formalization of collective forest tenure rights often changes the governance system. Before formalization, customary systems are typically adaptable, and involve a distribution of user rights to different individuals or families within the community. This means that people’s benefits are determined by their individual efforts. After formalization, access to forest resources is (at least partly) organized through collective productive activities, requiring some kind of benefit distribution system, and a high level of organization. This is not always in line with customary systems. Moreover, it may result in elite capture. When the formalization of collective forest tenure rights leads to the obligatory collective organization of forest based productive activities, it may result in the exclusion of a part of the population, decreasing their access to forest resources. This is a risk that needs to be considered more, in efforts aimed at strengthening community forest rights.

Heidi Mendoza (Forest Foundation Philippines) explained that in 2018, 11% of the forest lands in the Philippines were managed by 1,884 Peoples’ Organizations (POs) under Community-Based Forest Management Agreements (CBFMAs). She shared experiences from Davao, Cebu and Isabela, among others, where communities with collective user rights came up with their own systems for benefit sharing. She also stressed that benefit sharing can be a conflict resolution mechanism, within communities, as well as between communities, for example when there are overlapping tenurial claims between local and indigenous groups. However, Mendoza stressed that benefit sharing in the context of community-based forest management has not yet been expounded in the Philippines, neither in terms of what benefit sharing means for the CBFMA holders, nor how it could effectively be implemented.

The third presenter, Shambhu Dangal (RECOFTC), focussed on community forestry in Nepal, which was introduced in the late 1970s to rehabilitate degraded forest lands. Since then, the government has been handing over forests to local communities, who form forest user groups, for an indefinite time, for the development, management and utilization of forest resources. The process implies the identification of different stakeholder groups in the community, and the formation of an executive committee that consists of 50% women, and includes indigenous people and members of marginalized groups. The government provides user groups with guidelines to develop their own benefit-sharing mechanisms. In this, priority needs to be given to poor and marginalized people. Also, poor families may be allocated parts of the forest land for agroforestry practices. According to Dangal, collective decision-making processes create an environment for contextual and equitable benefit sharing.

During the final discussion, the focus shifted to the role of CSOs in supporting community-level governance and benefit sharing. CSOs can play an incremental role in helping communities to access and manage their community forests, as has been the case in Nepal. At the same time, CSOs need to be careful not to impose concepts and systems that may have negative effects on the poor and marginalized. Experiences from Bolivia show that the introduction of formalized collective rights may override traditional governance mechanisms that allowed households to use forest resources for their own livelihoods. In efforts to strengthen community forest tenure rights, CSOs thus have to be aware of the relation between collective rights and individual use. They should have a profound understanding of existing customary governance systems, and how these may be impacted by formalization.

There was consensus that the formalization of community forest tenure rights should not be seen as an end in itself. Instead, the key objective is to ensure that all community members can benefit from the sustainable management of forests, in line with their local customs and needs. This means that CSOs will need to find a delicate balance between providing support and guidance, addressing elite capture and corruption, while leaving sufficient room for communities to develop their own models, building on what is already there. Clearly, CSOs can help unleash the potential of community forestry to contribute to sustainable livelihoods in an equitable manner. To play this role optimally, they will need to explore, and reflect upon, facilitation approaches and ways to support benefit sharing within communities.