NGOs that support community-based forest conservation often focus on communities that have formal titles to their forest, as this is considered a main condition for success. According to Marieke van der Zon, PhD student at Wageningen University, the importance of having formal titles is overstated. Instead, she stresses that the key to conservation success lies in community-based monitoring and enforcement
For many years, Marieke van der Zon worked for NGOs in Africa, Asia and Latin America on projects to promote rural development and community-based forest conservation. In these projects, having a formal title to the forest was often considered a priority, based on the assumption that this would provide communities with the security they need to invest in long-term sustainable management. She was sold on the idea – it was so simple and powerful. But over the years she realized that these projects seldom had the desired outcomes, and started wondering why.
Hoping to find an answer to this question, Van der Zon then began reading scientific literature on the relationships between tenure formalization, tenure security and forest conservation. She read everything she could get her hands on. Most of it confirmed what she had witnessed in the field, questioning the assumption that formalization automatically leads to conservation. But she wasn’t quite satisfied yet. She wanted to know: if tenure formalization is not making the difference, then what is?
This question stuck to her, and she secured a position as PhD candidate with Wageningen University, to be able to study it in depth. Between 2016 and 2018 she did extensive research in twelve communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon, trying to understand what made community-based conservation successful, or not. She just published some of the first results in a briefing paper. Here Koen Kusters talks with her about the main insights so far.
To understand the factors that contribute to conservation success, you focussed your research on communities that are engaged in forest conservation initiatives, without the intervention of an NGO. Why did you make that choice?
‘If you remove the factor of external intervention, you get a better picture of what is happening at the community level. It has allowed me to identify the factors and mechanisms within communities themselves, which influence the performance of conservation initiatives. I think this can provide valuable insights, which can eventually be used to improve NGO interventions.’
The twelve communities that you studied all have their own home-grown conservation initiatives. What are their motivations for conserving these forest areas?
‘The reasons vary, but let me give you one example that I know well. I studied a community that consists of migrants from a region in Peru where unstainable agriculture and mining had degraded the environment to such an extent that people had to leave the area. This was in the 1990s. These people travelled to the Amazon region, looking for a place to live. Because of their experience with the devastating impact of environmental degradation, this particular group of migrants was keen on not repeating the same mistakes, and agreed to make sure to conserve the forest upstream of their village. This was motivated by the believe that forests attract rain, which is crucial for coffee production downstream. Next to that, they simply wanted to make sure that animals and plants had a place to live. A well-loved and respected community leader was instrumental in all of this, because he has been a vocal and active advocate of the community’s conservation efforts.’
In the briefing paper, you argue that local monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are essential for conservation success. Can you give an example of such a mechanism?
‘Many villages in northern Peru have a ronda campensina. These rondas were established in the 1990s, during the civil war. At that time, communities were looking for ways to protect themselves, as they couldn’t rely on the government. They then organized themselves in rondas, which are groups of men, and in some cases also women, that go around the village to monitor for dangers, such as militias. They were quite effective. They also served to solve internal conflicts and maintain order in the village. Many villages have been maintaining their rondas after the civil war, and some are now using them to monitor a forest area that they want to conserve. In the community I mentioned before, members of the community’s coffee farmers’ association regularly go to the forest to patrol. They successfully prevented a group of recent migrants from entering the forest and converting it to establish a settlement and agricultural fields, as has happened in many of the surrounding areas.’
How did they manage to prevent these people from settling in the forest?
‘In this part of Peru, a forest that is not visibly occupied by someone is considered free for taking. If you don’t do anything with the forest, you should allow others to use it — that’s the main idea. So it is essential to show that you are claiming that forest, by being physically present. The patrols of the ronda did just that. They also constructed three small guard houses, where they can sleep during patrolling trips, while at the same time providing more physical evidence of their claim. It doesn’t really matter whether this is formal or informal.’
What are the main lessons of your research?
‘NGOs and donors often come into an area with their predetermined approaches and ideas of what should work. In reality, community-led conservation initiatives come in many shapes and forms, which means each community requires different things, in order to strengthen their conservation impact. So you should not go there with fixed ideas of what is needed. You have to spend time to understand how the community works, and to build trust. You first have to take a good look, and then decide together with the community on the way forward, using what already exists, and building on that. Ideally, you focus on communities that already have a functioning system in place for monitoring and enforcement.’
Wouldn’t that mean that communities without existing monitoring and enforcement systems will no longer receive any NGO support, while these may be the areas that are in most dire need of support for community-based conservation?
I am not saying that you should only intervene in places where conservation is already successful. I just mean to highlight that the likelihood of having a successful community-based conservation intervention is higher when a community has a system that allows them to hold each other accountable and to monitor activities. So, you better focus on communities that have basic structures that you can build on. These do not necessarily need to be directly related to forest conservation. At the moment, many NGO projects are preoccupied with the formalization of rights, often imposing new institutions and structures, while I think it makes more sense to focus on existing internal monitoring and enforcement systems.
Is formalization of forest tenure rights still needed?
‘Yes, but it should not be considered the starting point. We should not see formalized tenure as the main incentive for conservation, because it isn’t. You better start with building on conservation motivations that are intrinsic to communities, and strengthening community-level governance systems, with special attention to monitoring and enforcement. After that, you can further improve tenure security through formal titles.’ Ideally, you would do that in combination with strengthening the capacity of the government to make sure formal rights are being respected (i.e. possibilities to get police assistance and access to court etc.) when tenure rights are being threatened.