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The forgotten majority? Peruvian smallholders at the farm-forest interface

Scientists find lack of existing programs that promote community forestry or benefit local people.
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Midiendo árboles de bolaina en la Amazonia peruana. Ernesto Benavides/CIFOR
Midiendo árboles de bolaina en la Amazonia peruana. Ernesto Benavides/CIFOR

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the blog of Ecoagriculture Partners (Landscapes Blog for People, Food and Nature).

In recent decades, Peru has experimented with policy reforms to promote more sustainable forest management. At the same time, donors and NGOs have introduced community forestry initiatives that have tried to encourage rural people to participate legally in the forestry sector.

However, it’s not clear whether these efforts have had a widespread positive effect on forest use. In a recent review of community forest management in the Peruvian Amazon by CIFOR, we found that even though there has been a great deal of research documenting forest use by rural people in the Peruvian Amazon, there is still a general lack of systematic analysis. We couldn’t find any comprehensive assessments of the effectiveness of existing programs to promote community forestry or benefit local people.

Roughly 60 percent of Peru is covered by forests, primarily in the Amazon. Indigenous groups, riverine people, Brazil-nut gatherers and colonist farmers all depend on these forests to varying degrees and engage with forest value chains and markets in different ways.

Our review found that efforts to promote sustainable forest management with rural people have been narrower than this variability might imply, typically centered on communities and communal governance, including everything from studies of common-pool resource management by indigenous peoples to NGO supported community forest management (CFM) projects attempting to commercialize timber and non-timber forest products (NTFPs). While all of these initiatives are highly relevant to improving local livelihoods and enhancing our understanding of the dynamics of local peoples’ use and management of their resources, a significant gap emerges: the forgotten majority of smallholder households that work independently and outside of communal/cooperative structures.

In this vein, CIFOR has been working on a myriad of research initiatives to enhance our understanding of these dynamic systems. Our review emphasized that rural people, who make up about half of Peru’s Amazonian population, currently live in rural settlements that fall outside of Peru’s legal definition of community. According to 2007 census data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática, this means about 1.86 million Peruvians out of a total regional population of 3.7 million. As a result, they are often excluded from CFM research and initiatives. These people receive little attention even though they actively manage the farm-forest interface (for better or worse) and are dependent upon forest resources for a significant portion of their livelihoods.  As such, our report highlights the need to consider these smallholder systems under the wider umbrella of CFM and expand the definition to include both externally supported projects and endogenous forest use and management practices.

In prior work by CIFOR and partners comparing NGO-led CFM projects and informal logging negotiated between individual community members and logging companies in Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, Medina and colleagues found that 96% of the families had worked independently and informally with companies, while less than 2 percent had worked collectively in “CFM projects,” which tried to comply with legal frameworks. In the majority of cases, the stocks of ‘commercial’ timber (i.e. slow-growing hardwoods) were quickly depleted after a few years, and the smallholders negotiating with loggers were receiving a relatively low economic return. However, the management of hardwoods does not encompass the full spectrum of smallholder use of forests.

Often smallholders also work with alternative species that are outside the mainstream markets and are not prioritized by policy makers and development planners. For example, current research (funded by USAID) with smallholders in Ucayali, Peru, has found that planks from the fast-growing pioneer species bolaina (Guazuma crinita) not only provide a major source of building materials, but the production and processing system supports thousands of households in the region. Similarly, in the Ecuadorean Amazon, low value species like pigüe (Piptocoma discolor) — used to make crates for fruit and vegetables — can play an important role filling gaps in household income streams. As farmers are frequently managing the natural regeneration of these species in fallows associated with their agricultural production, they are likely more sustainable than the extraction of slow-growing hardwoods described above.

These studies indicate that smallholders can be active players in local markets for forest goods. While the production activities of individual households may seem relatively insignificant, smallholders as a group are significant contributors to the forestry sector. Given their importance together with their relative marginalization from access to credit and the current lack of policy initiatives to support their inclusion, smallholder management systems merit further study.

For more information about the topics of this article, please contact Peter Cronkleton at p.cronkleton@cgiar.org

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Topic(s) :   Peruvian Amazon Lessons from the Amazon