What are the conditions for successful community forest rights? Insights from the Philippines and Bolivia

What are the conditions for successful community forest rights? Insights from the Philippines and Bolivia

General - 09 July, 2020

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.

This was the main message of an online session on 30 June, titled Community Rights to Forest Lands: What are the conditions for success? The session—facilitated by the Director of Tropenbos International, René Boot—was part of the 2020 LANDac online encounter.

First, Maartje de Graaf (Tropenbos International), introduced a multi-country review of the experiences with community rights, conducted under the umbrella of the Green Livelihoods Alliance. After this general introduction, Heidi Mendoza (Forest Foundation Philippines) and Nataly Ascarrunz (Instituto Boliviano de Investigación Forestal) each presented the key findings of their reviews in the Philippines and Bolivia, respectively.


In 1995, the Filipino government introduced a national Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM) strategy. One of the tenurial instruments under this strategy is the Community Based Forest Management Agreement (CBFMA), which the government can grant to registered people’s organizations (i.e., associations of citizens, with demonstrable leadership, membership and structure). It gives the legal right to use and manage specific portions of the state forest land, and is valid for a period of 25 years, with the possibility of extension upon review. The expectation was that CBFMAs would act as incentives for conservation and livelihood improvement. As of yet, however, the livelihood benefits have not been optimal, said Mendoza.

One of the main outcomes of the Filipino review was that CBFMAs should be better adapted to the local contexts, in order to improve their outcomes. After all, the conditions for forest management vary greatly from place to place. Mendoza explained that in several areas in the south of the Philippines, sustainable community forestry can be an attractive livelihood option. The necessary infrastructure and markets for forest products are in place, and communities usually have access to varying sources of income. In other areas—especially in the northern part of the country—such favourable conditions are lacking. There, rather than spending time on community forestry, people prefer to focus on other activities, such as the cultivation of corn, often as contract farmers. “If policies do not take such local variations into account, CBFMA groups will continue to face difficulty in appreciating the links between community forestry and sustainable livelihoods,” said Mendoza. Communities also have difficulties in securing resource use permits, she added. Which is an important facet of allowing communities to earn from community forestry.

Mendoza also stressed the risk of romanticising local communities. “The reality is that communities have needs, and these needs do not always go well with sustainable forest management,” she said. In areas where people have not been able to make sufficient money from community forestry, they have stepped out of the CBFM groups to pursue other, more viable sources of income. This is especially the case with young people, who tend to move to cities in search of other options. As a result, the average age in CBFM groups is ever increasing. Mendoza found that it can make a huge difference when there are leaders who actively involve and inspire young people to be involved in forest management—a condition for the survival of CBFM groups in the long term. She stressed that inspiration must come from demonstrating to the younger generation that community forestry actually works.


Similar to the Philippines, Bolivia has an extensive legal framework that enables the formal recognition of community forest rights—especially of indigenous peoples. Currently, there are 58 legally recognized indigenous territories in the eastern Bolivian lowlands, covering 12.5 million hectares, of which 50% is forested. Deforestation rates are currently very low compared to those outside of the territories, and there is great potential to improve indigenous people’s livelihoods through sustainable community-based forestry, said Nataly Ascarrunz.

As of yet, however, communities have limited options to benefit from sustainable forestry activities. One of the main reasons for this, is that the forestry law is outdated. It was developed to regulate forest management by large commercial companies, not by indigenous communities. It means, among others, that indigenous communities need to comply with a myriad of complex and expensive requirements, in order to get the necessary permits. Also, the forestry law prohibits the use of chainsaws, which means logs need to be dragged out of the forest using heavy equipment, which is very expensive. The result is that indigenous communities are not able to engage in viable forestry activities on their own and therefore are dependent on third parties, who step in and take advantage of this dependency.

According to Ascarrunz the solution is obvious: “If communities are not able to adapt to the forestry law, the forestry law will need to adapt to communities.” Legalizing the use of chainsaws would already make a huge difference, as it will help people to engage in legal commercial forestry activities, which will be an incentive to protect the forest from outsiders, who are looking to exploit the natural resources for their own benefit. This is something that NGOs will have to lobby for. At the same time, NGOs need to help strengthen the governance of the territories—not just by focusing on indigenous leaders, but also by empowering women and young people. They require assistance with setting up sustainable businesses that are well adapted to the indigenous culture and ensure a fair distribution of benefits.


The formalization of community forest rights is sometimes presented as a silver bullet. As long as people have the legal rights, so the argument goes, they will protect the forest and benefit from its sustainable management. However, examples from the Philippines and Bolivia illustrate that reality is more complicated. They show that having a title to the forest does not automatically mean that a community can actually access the forest resources, and manage them in a way that is feasible and viable. For community forest rights to effectively contribute to conservation and development objectives, they will need to enable locally driven sustainable forest management with real benefits for the community. It requires that rights are adapted to the local context and needs, and that NGOs, together with other stakeholders, provide communities with assistance to build up sustainable businesses.