Locals collecting resin from a damar tree (Shorea Javanica) in Pahmongan village, Pesisir Barat regency, Lampung province, Indonesia. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/CIFOR/Flickr

Empowered local forest governance supports forest restoration: Study 

Compared with external actors and government agencies, locals have detailed place and time-specific knowledge of socio-ecological dynamics and can devise more locally appropriate use and monitoring rules, says the study

According to a study on forest restoration, the presence of a formal community management association and local participation in rule-making have consistently been predictors of multiple positive outcomes. 

The double crises of climate change and biodiversity loss have led to global calls for policy action to protect and restore forests around the world. Supporting the well-being of rural and indigenous communities remains a central forest policy objective as a large proportion of the world’s population depends on forest resources for basic livelihood benefits. Therefore, forest landscape restoration has emerged as a key strategy to sequester atmospheric carbon and conserve biodiversity while providing livelihood co-benefits for indigenous peoples and local communities. 

The study used a dataset of 314 forest commons in human-dominated landscapes in 15 tropical countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The researchers analysed three key factors that are predictors of outcomes and which represent direct avenues for policy intervention in forest commons: formal inclusion, participation and tree plantations.

Community governance holds the most weight

The analysis, spanning forest commons in 15 countries globally, affirmed that forests used and managed by indigenous and rural communities often support global environmental objectives such as carbon and biodiversity alongside rural livelihood needs. 

The report suggested that governance conditions may be more important to encourage multiple desired outcomes from forests. Institutional reforms that facilitate better local resource management may prove to be a crucial policy tactic in promoting the various benefits that forest restoration provides for the environment and people.

Empowered local governance—in the form of formal community forest management organisations and local participation in rule-making—is a key predictor of multiple positive outcomes. Compared with external actors and government agencies, local actors have detailed place and time-specific knowledge of socio-ecological dynamics and can devise more locally appropriate use and monitoring rules.

The paper clarified that in the analysis, a community management association implies formal legal recognition of local management authority by the state, while participation in rule-making reflects the substantive ability of local stakeholders to influence management decisions in accordance with time- and place-specific knowledge. Formalised institutions can promote more effective local forest governance in several ways by helping to ensure a measure of local autonomy, by providing channels to access technical support from the state and by establishing a clear procedural basis for the selection and replacement of authority— thus improving accountability of power-holders to rural interests. 

Excessive focus on tree planting 

The analysis also raised questions about some general forest policy prescriptions. Tree planting has been advocated as a key carbon mitigation priority globally and while it may be valuable to achieve mitigation goals, it is necessary also to attend to its social-environmental risks. Risks stem in part from the incentive structures of many forest bureaucracies that prioritise measurable targets for aggregate trees planted and from unintended social consequences of displacement of lives and livelihoods.

While tree plantations were found to be positively associated with subsistence and sustainable forests, they have been found to be negatively associated with carbon and conservation forests. Tree plantations have no obvious relationship with sustainable or subsistence forests and reduce the relative chances of being either a conservation or a carbon forest as compared to degraded forests. These inconsistent relationships imply that current tree-planting methods would not be adequate in many global situations to rebuild damaged forests to fulfil various environmental and human goals.

The report emphasised the need to ensure that tree planting is implemented in a locally responsive manner and with specific attention to the needs of local forest users.

Need for formalised institutions and interdependence

The study pointed out that there is a need to move beyond structured stakeholder consultations and project-based participatory forums to build more durable and empowered local institutions that can enable socio-ecological benefits over the long term.

Importantly, formalised local forest institutions come in many different forms, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be applied globally. Even in the context of policies for decentralised forest governance, communities’ ability to achieve meaningful influence is highly variable and that the success of local forest management also depends on support from professional forest administrators.

In light of the growing worldwide calls for nature-based solutions to climate change and the expansion of protected areas for the preservation of biodiversity, it is crucial to acknowledge that forests have significant human presence in many parts of the world. In many human-dominated landscapes, it is neither feasible nor ethically desirable to ignore the needs of rural populations, who have also played an important role in helping to support broader environmental objectives in many contexts.

The analysis concluded that giving rural and indigenous communities formal, legally recognised opportunities to engage in local management practices is not just normatively desirable but may serve as an important step to advance multiple human and environmental benefits in forested landscapes around the world. 

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