Are community forests actually benefiting the communities that manage them?

BOGOR, Indonesia (23 September, 2011)_Community forests are helping to ease rural poverty in Cameroon by giving local populations more power to sustainably manage natural resources, but complex legislation and a weak support process are hindering progress, says a recent study by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
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Photo by Carol Colfer/CIFOR.

BOGOR, Indonesia (23 September, 2011)_Community forests are helping to ease rural poverty in Cameroon by giving local populations more power to sustainably manage natural resources, but complex legislation and a weak support process are hindering progress, says a recent study by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Our study found that community forests resulted in net benefits that enhance rural livelihoods,” said Verina Ingram, CIFOR scientist and co-author of Impacts of community forests on livelihoods in Cameroon: Lessons from two case studies, “however fundamental flaws mean that not all of the community is represented or active in running and benefiting from a community forest, and there are insufficient controls or checks to make sure this happens.”

Community forests use local decision-making to generate revenue from legal sales of timber, non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and agricultural products. Establishing a community forest also allows locals to control deforestation, maintain land fertility and provide mechanisms to fairly distribute benefits among residents.

However, the system is not without controversy. Cameroonian community forests, unlike other countries, do not allow transfer of forest ownership to the community while the process of simply obtaining control of the forest, which many communities traditionally regard as their own, involves negotiating the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife’s heavy bureaucratic procedures and paying expensive administrative costs.  In addition, external support is often needed to set up the Community Forest structure and harvest timber, often resulting in exploitation of labour costs.

Using community forests to decentralize power, reduce bureaucracy and empower communities has not been as effective as was hoped. As such, substantial decision-making power and distribution of benefits remain centralised, with local actors co-opted so that they are often neither representative nor accountable to the local people. Abuse at every level means when faced with injustices, community forests lack the strength and sufficient safeguards when competing for forest resources.

“The framework is not responsive and accountable to citizen views, and participation nor representation, and other forms of inclusion are neither common practice or effective,” said the study.

The study analysed two Cameroonian community forests — Common Initiative Group Doh (GIC Doh) and the Community of the Villages of Melombo, Okekat and Faekele (COVIMOF) – and concluded that while community-managed forests proved slightly more economically and environmentally profitable for the communities than simply continuing with business-as-usual, a lack of legislative and institutional reform, technical skills and legal know-how, mean that community forests struggle to compete against less regulated commercial companies.

Scientists found that while COVIMOF, one of the country’s first community forests, produces twice as much timber as GIC Doh, profits are four times lower. This is because timber harvesting is done entirely by outsiders with only minimal labour costs paid to members of the community.

In addition, degradation of COVIMOF’s ecosystem means that harvesting NTFP’s, its second most important source of income, generates less than half the return seen in GIC Doh, and agricultural activities produce 60 percent less economic revenue. The study concluded that the absence of a community forest in the area meant only marginally higher profits (less than one percent), but even these were being undermined by illegal logging and loss of land fertility.

In eastern Cameroon, GIC Doh community forest covers over 4,700 hectares, divided into primary forest and agricultural zones. The study warned that if the scheme was removed, future revenue would suffer. Without tight restrictions and volume quotas for forest exploitation, profits would likely drop sharply after 19 years, due to an anticipated heavy clearing of popular tree species.

“Despite lower annual incomes, a more regulated [community managed forest] is predicted to provide constant returns up to and beyond the 25 [year] period,” said the report.

The study concluded that profitability of community forests is highly dependent on a number of factors, including the community’s technical and managerial capacities, the quality of natural resources as well as access to finance and legal resources.

As the benefits of community forests have become less clear, their popularity has declined among communities, non-government organisations and many of the international organisations which initially supported the process. Nevertheless, Ingram hopes that by providing hard figures, the study will, for the first time, give a clear indication of the benefits of community forests.

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