Latin America’s municipal governments are becoming more involved in forest issues. Bolivia’s 1996 Forestry Law granted local governments 25% of forest concession royalties. It also allowed them to claim up to 20% of all public forests for use by community groups. Honduras restored the municipalities’ right to manage their own forests, which now produce a significant share of the country’s timber. Dozens of municipal forestry units have sprung up in Guatemala.
But are such changes good or bad? According to Anne Larson, the results have been decidedly mixed. Her paper, ’Natural Resources and Decentralization in Nicaragua: Are Local Governments Up to the Job?’, concludes that municipal governments must have sufficient capacity, incentives, and interest in order to manage forests well. In the Nicaraguan context, only the larger, more urban, municipalities and those supported by donor projects and NGOs have sufficient capacity (human and financial resources). The opportunity to increase municipal incomes, prodding from NGOs, projects, or community groups, and / or the need to resolve pressing conflicts or crises provide most of the incentives for municipal governments to get involved in forest issues. Nicaragua’s laws and regulations permit municipal governments to take on these issues, but could go a lot farther towards giving them clear rights and responsibilities. For most local authorities, forest issues are not a high priority. Nevertheless, to address these problems seriously, they must have a real abiding interest in them. That requires a slow process of civic education and cultural change.
Larson bases her conclusions on 21 cases documented by Nicaragua’s Nitlapan Institute. She pays particular attention to four municipalities that have made significant progress. All four have passed environmental or forestry ordinances and have municipal environmental councils with representatives from both government agencies and NGOs. Three have at least one full-time person working on natural resource issues. Chinandega has municipal tree nurseries, fire brigades, and forest inspectors. Achuapa established municipal ecological brigades and is enforcing its municipal ordinance that regulates the use of forest, water, fauna, and fire. Jalapa has sought to control the expansion of bark beetles in its pine forests and has encouraged companies to process their timber locally. Bonanza has developed a municipal land use plan, created a municipal park, regulated the use of chainsaws, and helped to protect indigenous territories from outside incursions.
These cases show some Latin American municipalities are moving forward. Most still have a long way to go.