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a new model for community forests

part 1, by Ian Montgomery

Ian Montgomery

WorldChanging Senior Analyst

Editor’s Note: This is the first dip into a broader exploration of how community forests are beginning to thrive in many areas by leveraging the social enterprise model in conjunction with micro-financing. First, this article looks at community forests in terms of protection and conservations efforts by governments and NGOs. To paraphrase Garrett Hardin’s 1968 work on The Tragedy of the Commons: If a natural resource is made freely available to the public, self-interest and the drive to build wealth will ultimately decimate that natural resource. But while the Tragedy of the Commons explored the fear perspective, a rising public interest in natural resource conservation for the sake of protection was already in force. And the global movement to protect forests through national park and forestry systems has continued to grow in recent decades. While the developed world can be quick to applaud conservation efforts, more often than not they create overwhelming strife for indigenous peoples. After being cut-off from the forests the indiginous relied on for survival, many watched helplessly as corporations, ranchers, foresters and farmers commandeered these forests; at times destroying the ecosystems in the process.

In 2016, 200 environmental and indigenous rights activists were killed (or 4 per week). 40% of those murdered were indigenous people. These activists were fighting for their cultures’ ways of life and the protection of “the commons.” In 2017, that number jumped to over 300 killings and in only 12% of reported cases were arrests made. In some cases forests become militarized protected areas, where guards indiscriminately fire on indigenous people; such as in India’s Kaziranga National Park where 106 people (including children and the elderly) have been killed in the last 20 years. So we’ve learned that truly open public lands (free-for-all) are not sustainable, especially as population density increases.

We can agree that more often than not, government protected land (aka “Fortress Conservation”) deprives indigenous people of access to resources. And militarized enforcement of protected lands allows those with ways and means to clearcut the forests and kill obstructors.

An Inclusive Model for Forest Conservation

The idea for Community Forestry has been kicking around since the late 1970’s. In a nutshell, it’s like a decentralized national Forestry Service, where active forest management takes place at the local level. Resource extraction permits are granted to community members by a local community council (with federal or state representation) according to a forestry management plan. The resources may include timber, firewood, indigenous medicine, food, grazing fodder and other non-timber forest products. Non-community members are not eligible for permits. Communities own nearly half of the world’s land but traditionally only have secure legal access to 10% of it. Many indigenous communities already manage their forests far better than government agencies; according to the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum, indigenous peoples and local communities conserve lands and forests for a quarter of the cost of public and private investments in protected areas. However, they cannot defend against encroachment by those seeking to exploit the forest’s resources.

By transferring the power of management to communities, the new model engages nearly all of the community’s members in the management and protection of their Community Forest. Of course, the governments should provide enforcement support but the involvement of the entire community (rather than isolated activists) will make the existing government support more effective. It’s a lot easier for a hired hitman to take out an activist than a whole community. Conversely, it’s a lot easier for an entire community to take on a multinational palm-oil producer than a few activists. Countries that have implemented large-scale community forestry initiatives include: Nepal, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Malawi.

Community Forests In Nepal

Nepal has a long history of community forests, dating back to the 1980’s. 850,000 hectares (2.1 million acres) have been handed over to 11,000 forest user groups. This history has provided a wide perspective on the effectiveness of the community forestry model but also brings to light a significant issue. The community forest’s poorest members suffer the same burdens as the most well-off members (membership dues and work obligations) but now must pay for resources that they previously acquired for free. Their ability to graze small numbers of livestock is tied to income-earning potential, so progressive community forestry initiatives  incorporate scholarship programs and offer preference to poorer community members when hiring. Grass and tree fodder collection are prioritized to poorer households. While governments and international NGOs are beginning to recognize the benefits to this inclusive forest model, there is much to be done. In 2017, 67.9% of all human rights activists killed were in Latin America, yet most community forestry initiatives focus on Southeast Asia and Africa.

Big words can overwhelm the conversation

We think there is a powerful model emerging that develops community-owned, micro-scale community forests that operate as self-sustaining social enterprise or nonprofit organizations. In our next article, we’ll explore how communities around the world are finding the balance and leading the way.

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