Several Latin American countries have recently given local governments greater rights and responsibilities related to forest management and conservation. In Nicaragua, for example, municipal governments now receive 25% of all revenues from timber royalties and taxes and have a major voice in determining whether to approve new forest concessions. The Honduran government has reinstated municipal ownership of forests on municipal (’ejidal’) lands, which until recently were considered the property of the national government. Costa Rica has been experimenting with giving municipal governments a greater role in protected area management.
Nowhere, however, has the regional trend towards greater local government involvement in forest – related issues been more pronounced than in Bolivia. In 1994, the Bolivian Congress passed a ’Popular Participation’ law that guaranteed 20% of the national budget to municipal governments and greatly increased local officials’ influence in almost all matters affecting their municipalities. Two years later, the Congress passed a new Forestry Law that allocated 25% of forest – related royalties to local governments, allows the to administer up to 20% of public forests as municipal forest reserves to be used by local community groups, and empowers them to help ensure that timber concessions and sawmills comply with forestry regulations.
To assess the initial impact of these reforms, CIFOR, along with the Center for Research on Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA), the Bolivian Sustainable Forest Management project (BOLFOR), and several independent consultants, interviewed key stakeholders and did case studies of seven municipalities in the Bolivian lowland in late 1997. Some of the initial conclusions from that research can be found in ’Local Government and Biodiversity Conservation in the Bolivian Tropics’ by David Kaimowitz, Gonzalo Flores, James Johnson, Pablo Pacheco, Iciar Pavez, J. Montgomery Roper, Cristian Vallejos, and Roger Velez.
The study found that several lowland municipalities have established municipal forestry units and that local governments have become involved in a wide variety of activities related to forest management and agroforestry, protected areas, and land use planning. Most of these initiatives, however, are still incipient and limited in scale. It remains to be seen whether local governments will ever command sufficient resources and have the technical capacity necessary to carry out their forest – related responsibilities effectively.
The decentralization process in Bolivia has offered new opportunities for poor rural people in heavily forested municipalities to obtain greater access to forest resources, restrict encroachment by large timber companies and ranchers, and influence policies affecting forests, although this has by no means occurred in all cases. The possibility that municipal government will be able to administer up to 20% of public forests for use by local community groups could significantly improve those groups’ access to forest resources. Nevertheless, major obstacles remain, including difficulties with identifying appropriate public forests, municipal governments’ weak technical capacity, limited support from the national and departmental governments, organizational problems among small scale loggers who could potentially benefit, and the loggers’ limited managerial skills and access to capital.
Given the experience to-date, it is still unclear whether decentralization in Bolivia will lead to greater conservation of natural habitats and reduced threats to biodiversity. Most local groups are still more concerned with their access to existing resources and immediate incomes than with long-term sustainable development. Compared to the powerful forces that favor increased forest clearing and degradation in the Bolivian lowlands, the efforts to reverse these trends have yet to go much beyond the level of good intentions and symbolic actions.
The issue of protected areas is especially delicate, since these areas restrict the utilization of natural resources by certain constituencies represented by the local governments. On the other hand, factors such as NGO support for municipal governments, the potential for eco-toursim, the desire to keep outside logging companies from exploiting local resources, and genuine concerns for resource conservation have led some municipalities to support protected areas. There are even a few cases where municipal governments have been in the forefront of efforts to create protected areas.
Finally, the study also concludes that local governments require substantial external assistance both to bolster their support for sustainable forest management and to strengthen their capacity to promote such management. They also need an overall policy context favorable to local initiatives and clear mechanisms for exercising their legal rights and carrying out their responsibilities. To-date, however, national and departmental government agencies in Bolivia have done little in this regard and in some instances have indirectly undermined the local governments’ efforts. Externally-funded projects and NGOs have played a positive role by providing municipal governments with some technical assistance, training, and funds, but so far this has not been sufficient to consolidate their capacity to manage forest resources.