BOGOR, Indonesia (21 March, 2013)_Tenure rights to forests are notoriously complex – a new guide by the Center for International Forestry Research attempts to help students, researchers and practitioners understand why forest tenure matters, who should benefit and how to manage competing interests in land.
“Researchers have been grappling with complex forest tenure issues for 30-40 years now, yet these are still not widely understood and incorporated adequately into a broad range of forestry research,” said Anne Larson, CIFOR scientist and author of Tenure Rights and Access to Forests: A Training Manual for Research.
Opening a dialogue about access to forests is particularly timely, as the world celebrates the first International Day of the Forests – a day declared to raise awareness of the importance of forests for people, said Peter Holmgren, CIFOR’s Director General.
“Understanding forest tenure is fundamental as international and large-scale investments compete with local stakeholders’ interests in forest land and forest services. This is particularly important in the dynamic interface between forests and agriculture, where decisions determine the fate of livelihoods and forest resources,” he said.
The manual hopes to improve tenure research design, as well as forest policy and practice where local rights concerns are relevant.
“It is an enormously useful piece — clearly written and outlines the complexities very well,” said Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester.
Some of the questions the manual explains include:
What is forest tenure and why does it matter?
Forest tenure determines who is allowed to use which resources, in what way, for how long and under what conditions, as well as who is entitled to transfer rights to others and how.
Over 1.6 billion people depend on forest landscapes for their food, energy, water and income. Indigenous territories, extractive reserves, agroforestry settlements and community forest concessions are some of the tenure arrangements recognised by governments around the world.
However, smallholders and communities still have to face institutional and legal constraints to fully benefit from these forests resources.
“Tenure rights to forests are changing, with an apparent trend towards recognising the rights of people living in forests, as well as towards privatisation of forests,” Larson said.
What determines tenure security and how does it affect people and forests?
Secure land rights alone don’t necessarily lead to conservation or improved livelihoods, Larson said, referring to a widely held belief that secure forest tenure is linked to a long-term investment in standing forests.
Researchers have been grappling with complex forest tenure issues for 30-40 years now, yet these are still not widely understood and incorporated adequately into a broad range of forestry research.
However, secure forest access is usually better than insecure access or conflict over forests. Secure access can place local people in a better position to alleviate poverty and guarantee food security.
“While this may be good for people, it’s not necessarily good for forests,” countered Larson, noting it may be hard for landowners to ignore lucrative offers to clear forests for everything from agriculture to biofuels.
“And at times, when rights are formalised, customary systems of dealing with multiple or overlapping claims are undermined.”
How do we ensure equitable distribution of benefits?
At the same time, history demonstrates that land formalization programs have often resulted in the usurpation of local rights. Even in the best cases, some forest users will inevitably be excluded when land rights are doled out, while local authorities and elites, even the state, are likely to find ways to muscle their way in.
For this reason, access theorists argue that the ‘ability to benefit’ – a broader concept that encompasses the idea of having a right to something – outweighs the issue of land tenure.
Simply owning a forest plot does not guarantee an individual or community will be able to benefit from its resources, they say. They may not have permits needed to cut wood, for instance, or to bring it to the market.
They also face risks like resource theft or eviction.
“At the same time, if we only talk about the ‘ability to benefit,’ we are only looking at power relations on the ground and in some sense condoning the possibility or ability to ignore the legal framework,” says Larson.
“That’s precisely why rights are important, as well,” she said.
“We are talking about the legal institutions that should be the foundation of fair and just societies.”
How do we manage competing interests in forests?
For a number of years, CIFOR has been exploring how forest tenure can better recognise the rights of local communities and smallholders, what political conditions are conducive to land rights reform and the role government plays in increasing (or undermining) forest tenure security.
“Local communities need community organisations, knowledge, communication, networks, or at least the support of trusted NGOs or experts before they sign anything,” Larson says.
Further research into land tenure also needs to look at how to prevent states from abusing their power.
Elite interests in forest tenure can involve questionable motives, the manual says. The challenge is to ensure the State is not justifying elite interests such as those of mining, oil palm and logging companies.
Social movements, watchdog organisations, publicity, unbiased courts, researchers who feed them information and state accountability all have important roles to play in preventing this, Larson concluded.
This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.