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Achieving sustainable forest management often requires participation by local and indigenous peoples of the forest area, but there are many obstacles to achieving this. That’s why Agence Française de Développement provides support for programs that encourage participation – to improve forest protection.

Few deny the need to involve indigenous and local people in forest management plans. Yet, until about 20 years ago, the commonly held belief was that private operators in the forest sector owed them nothing more than access to the forest and its services. 

A turning point came at the end of the 1960s, when the American ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized the concept of the “tragedy of the commons,” which argued that exploitation of a common resource (such as water, forests or historical monuments) leads inexorably to its degradation and loss. One way to preserve that resource is to nationalize it, to establish rules of access. Hardin, however, advocated privatization as a way of “rationalizing” the use and management of natural resources – even if this led to unequal access. 

Paradigm shift

In the early 1990s, the American political economist Elinor Ostrom argued that neither government nor private operators should manage natural resources. Instead, they should be entrusted to local populations. Ostrom’s research on this new form of governance earned her the Nobel Prize in Economics. 

See also: Empowering Indigenous Communities in the Amazon

Governments and international organizations began to realize the need to include the people often most affected by forests. Principle 22 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states, there recognizes that “Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices.” 

At the turn of the 21st century, participation by local populations became enshrined in the forestry codes of some fifteen countries: the Philippines, Cameroon, Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, Zambia, Guinea, and Cambodia, among others.

Joint forest management

This skills transfer takes several forms from one region to another. First, there is Joint Forest Management (JFM). It has been adopted in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, and India, this latter country having pioneered this type of governance. Management of this type is now led by representatives of the village communities and by members of the forestry administration of central governments. 

Next is “community forestry”, where communities can obtain right of disposal, i.e., the power to sell their land or manage it according to their own development models. In Mexico, a country that has undergone heavy decentralization, 80% of forest areas come under this form of management. The central government simply sees to it that the decisions made by the people comply with the law. 

Lastly, there is village management, which is very common in Cameroon, for example. This system resembles community management, except that it is based on the village (and not the community) and is thereby a legally existing entity.  

From theory to practice

On paper, these new forms of participatory management obviously have serious advantages. On the ground, however, there are many obstacles to their smooth operation. First, State stability is required. The State must also respect the management contract signed with the local populations. There have been problems in Madagascar, for example, where forest dwellers have complained about outsiders coming to their territory with felling permits issued by the forestry administration. 

There is also occasional misuse of such projects, to the detriment of the local people. In the Congo Basin, some community forests are initiatives started not by the local population but by external players that do not necessarily share the same interests, such as NGOs, forestry companies, and donors. In these cases, while local communities have received financial compensation for the resource taken, and some local people have gotten jobs, they have no say in the forest management.

Some recent projects are attempting to strengthen community management capacity so that the hitherto theoretical model of community forests in the Congo Basin leads to a better benefit-sharing mechanisms and community management of their ancestral forest landscapes. 

Paternalism and laxity

However, forest exploitation requires significant financial and material resources that local communities generally still lack. One possible way to develop this community forestry model would be to create sustainable and equitable partnerships with private operators or international organizations.

However, this participatory management can only work if the community is sufficiently structured and truly sticks together. In some communities, the economic benefits come in the form of improved infrastructure and roads or an increase in school enrollment. But, as the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) revealed in a case study in Central Africa, sometimes only the community elites enjoy the benefits of logging. 

“Currently, the participatory mode of governance appears fraught with paternalism, laxity, abuse of power and corruption,” reads a 2014 Revue d’Ethnologie article on participatory forest management in Central Africa. The authors of the study singled out the top-down approach left over from the colonial period. 

Community forestry entrepreneurship

Is participatory governance an illusion? “Community forestry is not doomed to failure, but it must be run carefully. There are examples that have turned out well, such as in Benin for wood energy,” says Christophe du Castel, AFD’s advisor on biodiversity. 

To make up for the projects for which management was taken away from the community, several NGOs are encouraging entrepreneurship among local populations in Central Africa, Panama, Bolivia, and Papua New Guinea. In this way, the inhabitants can reacquire project ownership thanks to training aimed at increasing their technical, organizational, and managerial capacities.

In Central Africa, the African Model Forest Network (AMFN) has been striving since 2009 to put women back at the center of projects, and thus of economic life, by creating training and guidance sessions for them. For example, in two forests in Cameroon where communities have joined the network, women have started to produce and market non-timber forest products such as mushrooms, honey, oils and cosmetics made from tropical plants. 

AFD alongside local populations

In Cameroon, 3% of forestland is currently recognized as community or communal forests. At first glance, the figure may seem very low. But it should be kept in mind that only 10% of Cameroonian forest has been ceded back to local people.

See also: Northern Congo: Protecting forests with the help of local residents

AFD has provided technical and financial support for setting up programs to improve the management skills of local populations. It also supports multi-stakeholder platforms, so that the voice of these people can be heard. 

For example, in the Republic of Congo the Northern Congo Forest Landscape project, financed by AFD, is designed to help indigenous populations and communities living in and around forests to develop commercial outlets for the forests that have been allocated to them by law. Despite the political and structural difficulties, participatory management is undoubtedly a solution for the future.