Legalizing community forest rights in Africa


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For as long as anyone can remember, the communities of Eastern and Southern Africa have held their forests collectively. Unfortunately, most colonial and post-colonial governments failed to recognize that and to provide communities with formal tenure rights. That allowed governments to appropriate forests and turn them into national Forest Reserves, Forest Parks or Demarcated Forests. Communities had no legal role in managing these forests, or those that remained with them.

Over the last decade, many countries have started to rethink their forest and land policies and have approved new policies and laws or are considering doing so. The process has been slow and uneven, but the trend has been towards greater recognition of community forest ownership and management. Liz Wily and Sue Mbaya’s new book “Land, People, and Forests in Eastern and Southern Africa at the Beginning of the 21st Century”, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), extensively documents that process.

Tanzania, Uganda, Lesotho, Malawi, and Namibia have probably advanced the most. Tanzania’s 1999 land law gives village councils authority to allocate village lands and determine how people can use them. A draft forest law allows for the creation of village forest reserves controlled by local management committees. The country’s villages have already declared over 500 areas as village forest reserves. The government is also involving adjacent communities in the management of some forty national forest reserves. Similarly, in 1998, Uganda gave District Land Boards and Parish Land Committees the right to administer land. Lesotho’s 1999 Forestry Act not only provides for community forests and cooperative forests, it also sets out procedures for returning control over existing government forest reserves to the communities. Malawi’s 1998 Forestry Law recognized Village Forest Areas owned by the communities. Draft forestry bills in Namibia and Uganda also explicitly recognize community forests.

According to Wily and Mbaya, governments in the region should establish democratic village institutions as legal entities, provide then with clear opportunities to register local forests as their own private group property and simplify the processes for resolving property disputes over land and forests. That they say, is the best way to protect the region’s one hundred million hectares of woodlands that national governments never set aside as Forest Reserves or Parks. They also believe that the national governments should devolve control over many national forests to communities, particular those which are degrading rapidly under national or local government management. The region clearly has a long way to go before that happens. As the authors show, many governments are willing to share benefits with local people but not power and authority. The good news, however, is that at least things are moving in the right direction.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of a summary of the book or to send comments or queries to the author, you can write Liz Wily at:

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