Community tropical forest management linked to social & environmental benefits- Study
- A study shows that forests in 15 tropical countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities are associated with improved outcomes for carbon storage, biodiversity and forest livelihoods.
- The study finds that the positive outcomes were most likely observed when formal management institutions were in place and Indigenous and local communities had influence in defining their rights and roles in forest use and management.
- The findings suggest that governance reforms, like supporting Indigenous and local community rights or roles to manage forests, can play a role in supporting both human and environmental goals in tropical forested landscapes.
- However, giving local people formal rights is just a starting point, the lead author says; other procedures and support need to be in place to determine whether people actually get those rights and if they are able to use them to good effect.
A recent peer-reviewed study finds that community tropical forest management is a predictor of multiple positive outcomes, both socially and for the environment.
According to the paper, published in Nature Climate Change, forest patches in tropical regions across Africa, Asia and Latin America that are managed by rural and Indigenous communities are associated with improved outcomes for carbon storage, biodiversity and forest livelihoods.
The 314 tropical forests analyzed in the study were forest patches in rural areas surrounded by agricultural lands, pastoral grazing areas and human settlements.
‘It’s these forest patches that we have tried to study because globally when we talk of restoration and conservation, a lot of targets are focused on such forests in mixed-used rural landscapes,’ says Harry Fischer, lead author of the study and senior lecturer at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
The authors used a data set from the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI), a research program with substantial information on local institutions and forestry interventions, to collect data on community-managed forests in these mixed-use landscapes. Using these data, the authors compared the forest patches used and managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities in 15 tropical countries.
The three outcomes analyzed in the study were carbon sequestered in above-ground biomass, biodiversity and livelihood contributions to people.
‘We have measures for above-ground biomass that is a proxy for carbon [sequestration], tree species richness, which is a proxy for biodiversity, and contributions for rural livelihoods, measured through the proportion of rural benefits for fuel, wood and timber,’ adds Fischer.
The study classified the forests into five different clusters, i.e., conditions under which different forests provided the possible benefits- sustainable forests, carbon forests, conservation forests (protected areas), subsistence forests and degraded forests. These clusters presented different levels of the three positive outcomes, which were standardized within each type of forest. For example, a sustainable forest had the highest levels of the three benefits, while degraded forests had below-average levels of the three.
The authors then chose three variables of community management to see if they were predictors of the positive outcomes present within each forest type- The presence of a formal community forest management association, local participation in rule-making, and interventions for tree plantation.
Formal community management associations usually indicate there is some form of legislation in the country that recognizes Indigenous and local community rights or roles to manage forests. They may ensure local autonomy, provide access to technical support from the state and establish a procedural basis in selecting and replacing an authority — thus making power-holders more accountable to rural interests.
Across the data set, the study found that above-ground biomass, tree species richness and forest livelihoods were most likely present where these variables were in place; in other words, where communities have legally recognized rights and roles to use forest resources or manage them.
The presence of a formal forest management institution demonstrated a higher probability that a forest will be a sustainable forest, a carbon forest or a subsistence forest. It was associated with a lower probability that a forest will be either a conservation forest (a protected area, most likely barring the presence of people) or a degraded forest. Meanwhile, local participation in rule-making showed a higher probability that a forest will be either a carbon forest or a subsistence forest and a lower probability that it will be a conservation forest.
However, the authors of the paper stress their work does not prove cause, and that diverse socioeconomic and policy factors matter. Different countries have different kinds of legislation that recognize community rights to forest lands, and, Fischer adds, the implementation of these policies also determines the outcomes. For example, India has legislation in terms of forest rights for rural and Indigenous communities, but legislation is implemented unevenly across the country.
‘We need to know not just what legislation is needed but also what the political factors are that lead people to actually implement them,’ he tells Times of Nation.
The question also remains if the findings apply outside tropical areas.
‘We can’t say to what extent these findings are generalizable outside of our study areas, but we have a reason to believe that they would have relevance for other areas as well,’ he tells Times of Nation.
According to Fischer, such forest patches in tropical regions were targeted for studying possible patterns of conservation and restoration. He says he believes that when local communities are empowered and involved in forest management, they are more likely to take care of the forest. If communities have some measure of control, he says, they are more likely to apply rules that suit the local context, and with the help of their lived knowledge, experience and values, may apply forest management principles that conserve resources in the long run.
‘The tragedy is that the lessons need to be relearnt so often when there is ample evidence that empowering Indigenous peoples must be the first step in the environmental governance of their lands,’ says Stephen Garnett, a professor from Charles Darwin University, Australia, who co-authored another study on community conservation published in the journal Biological Conservation.
According to Garnett, providing a legal title to groups such as Indigenous people is essential not just because ‘it returns to them what was theirs and has usually been removed from them against their will, but also because very often Indigenous peoples choose to conserve the forest’ in ways that are compatible with biodiversity.
‘And this is especially true if they have sufficient resources from elsewhere so they do not have to overexploit the forest to survive.’
According to a study published in the journal Carbon Footprints, subsistence communities can also drive forest loss to meet their basic needs when external pressures, like poverty, changes in lifestyle and demand for natural resources increase. Though the impact of subsistence communities on forest loss has not been quantified to its true extent, their impact is still analyzed to be minimal compared with that of industry.
‘Giving local people formal rights is just a starting point, and there’s all these other things that need to be in place that determines whether people actually get those rights and if they are able to use them to good effect,’ Fisher says.
Adding to the fact that ample studies are available on governance and land rights, Fischer says he believes they tend to miss out on the socioecological aspect of forest restoration and conservation.
‘With scientific research, what you have is studies that rely on large-scale remote sensing satellite imagery, and I think this is a major problem because none of this tells us what interventions are likely to be successful,’ he says, adding further, ‘There is a need for a look at subnational and local governance conditions and if they are going to result in positive outcomes. This is what we aim to look deeper into through this study.’
Banner image- Melquiades, a Brazil nut producer in the Amazon rainforest. Image by Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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Related listening from Times of Nation’s podcast- A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here-
Fischer, H.W., Chhatre, A., Duddu, A. et al. Community forest governance and synergies among carbon, biodiversity and livelihoods. Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 1340–1347 (2023). https-//doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01863-6
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