Youth — the next frontier in forest management

Portrait of children, from the village of minwoho, with their Gnetum (okok) harvest, Lekié, Center Region, Cameroon.   Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Youths display their gnetum harvest in central Cameroon. A recent study of community forest management committees in Cameroon found only one person under 30 years of age among their members. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR photo

BOGOR, Indonesia — Despite sustained interest in agriculture- and forest-based livelihoods among young people in tropical regions, their voice has yet to be heard in land management structures, scientists and youth representatives say.

“The development agenda of African countries is to put youth at the center, including in agriculture,” said Denis Sonwa, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Yet a recent study of community forest management committees in six villages of southeastern Cameroon found only one person under 30 years of age among their members.

This contrasts sharply with opinions expressed by the local youth surveyed in the study, who all said they engaged in agriculture and forest activities such as the collection of firewood or non-timber products for food or income. “Close to 90 percent of … male and female respondents believed that youth should be included in decision-making positions in the communities,” noted a paper based on the research and published in FAO West Africa’s Nature & Faune journal.

The findings are striking, because an objective of Cameroon’s 1994 legislation establishing community forests was intended precisely to offer young people forest-based livelihoods. “An important aspect of the forest law in Cameroon was to alleviate poverty and stymie rural migration,” said Carolyn Peach Brown, director of environmental studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada and co-author of the study.

Her student Catherine MacNeil, who conducted the field research and is the lead author of the paper, remarked: “A lot of existing research has to do with rural out-migration of youth, but looking at those who stay there shows that they are very dependent on forests. Yet they are — and feel — under-represented.” Young women had even fewer opportunities to have their voices heard than young males, the research showed.

MacNeil added that including youth in decision-making on forest management was crucial to plan for sustainable activities essential to their livelihoods, such as cocoa-growing and other agro-forestry businesses.

As for barriers to stronger youth participation in local decision-making, MacNeil pointed to bureaucracy, respect for the traditional leading role of elders, and entrenched perceptions and behaviors among young people themselves. “A lot of adults think that they would make better decisions for youths than youths themselves,” MacNeil added.

Better representation in forest management bodies could address issues such as land tenure, a key concern voiced by young people from tropical countries at last November’s Global Landscapes Forum. “The youth are almost always landless,” Karen Tuason of the Philipines-based Task Force Mapalad advocacy group told the forum. “I’ve witnessed how transformation of socio-economic roles from being a landless farm worker to being a land manager has enabled young farmers to collectively address the food security of their communities, to raise their household income, to gain access to education and healthcare,” she said.

One avenue to empower rural youth could be better use of technology, as suggested by Joseph Macharia, a young farmer from Kenya. He told the forum that after completing his education, he conducted some research work with farming communities: “I used to organize meetings and only old men would come. Really old. What is happening to the youth? Why are they not there?”

Last year, he took the debate to Facebook, where he created a space to discuss best farming practices. The “Mkulima Young” page now has nearly 30,000 followers. The experience emboldened him to create an online marketplace for farm produce and to look into microfinance.

Some 200 participants attended the youth segment of the Global Landscapes Forum, yet it struck Sonwa and Brown that almost no research had been published on young people’s engagement with forest management before they launched the Cameroon study.

“This is a very promising area,” said Sonwa, also a co-author of the FAO paper. “Rural governance structures could foster inter-generation exchanges between older people, who have good empirical knowledge of the area, and youths who have developed their education at school and by travelling and mixing with other people outside the community.”

For more information about the topics of this research, please contact Denis Sonwa at d.sonwa@cgiar.org.

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.