Putting communities back in charge of their forests

| 29th June 2010
Sunlight through the trees
What can western countries learn from their less industrialised counterparts about returning woodlands and forests to productive, profitable, local control?

Most post-colonial governments have kept forests under their own guardianship. 'Colonial systems were modelled on forest management in Britain and Germany where departments were set up to serve national interests,' says Tom Blomley, a community forestry expert in East Africa. 'These ideas were transferred to Africa - lock, stock and barrel.'

Many post-colonial governments have also failed to manage their natural resources effectively. Typically, the few capture the benefits of forest resources and the many lose out. Politicians may access logging permits through 'influence' (at the expense of local people). Revenues from forestry sales may be remitted to central government while local people bear the burden of living next to forests they cannot use - losing their crops to forest wildlife.

To tackle rural poverty and reduce encroachment, some countries have looked to devolution. Tanzania is a leader in the move from centralised forest management. 'The country has unique circumstances,' Blomley says. 'Former president Julius Nyerere's socialism (Ujamaa) was based on the agrarian reforms of Chairman Mao. As a spin-off, Ujamaa created village governments with authority over local land and resources.'

Tanzania recognised the need to rationalise. There was, for example, little value in central government trying to manage low-value woodland when partnerships with village governments could be more efficient. Tanzania started shifting responsibilities in the 1990s, as forestry leaders shepherded through reforms.

A tale of two systems

Tanzania set up two community systems. The first allows villagers to actively manage their own forests. The second is for larger forests (run by national or local government) and allows communities living close-by to become joint managers and share benefits.

The seeds were planted, and now policy is being put into practice. 'Across Tanzania communities are slowly claiming back their forests,' says Blomley. 'Around 4.1 million hectares are now under (or transferring to) community management. This includes high value montane forests, coastal forests and mangroves, and miombo woodlands.'

'We have a vision for community forestry in Tanzania,' says Blomley. 'We aren’t there yet, but the potential is incredible. By giving back these rights, community forestry can provide local people with a source of firewood and herbs, income from timber and poles, and payments for environmental services (like maintaining water catchments).' 

'Communities are raising questions about the legitimacy of the state owning large tracts of forest,' Blomley continues, 'and community forestry can also be an engine to address land grabs and build accountability.' Tanzania has a strong tenure system. Customary tenure was accepted, legitimised and formalised. 'Africa is corrupt; but community forestry builds on tenurial rights and can help build accountability upwards – addressing the more macro issues around corruption. There are signs that this is beginning to happen. Villagers can decide what they want to do with revenues; they can hold elders to account.'

Making use of wood left to rot

So where is forestry on the evolutionary scale in the UK? Jon Hollingdale, Chief Executive of the Community Woodlands Association, says: 'forest management in Britain has multiple objectives but operational considerations are still driven by the multinational-downstream timber operations' - in other words, the process of providing timber for mills outweighs local needs.   

On a typical plantation 'contractors cut timber and ship logs (and poor grade material) across the country'. There is no value to local people, and Forestry Commissions effectively operate at a loss - underpinning contractors. 'It’s a mad situation,' says Hollingdale, 'the only way to break out of it is to re-localise (and reduce spending on diesel). It’s best to ship just valuable bits to mills, and process the low-grade material locally. In Scotland there is chronic underemployment. Fundamental economic issues contrast with the national interest in centralising.'

Each hectare felled may produce 20 to 25 lorry loads of wood. Perhaps five loads worth is left on the hill to rot. Shifting the rest typically involves a round-trip of 200 to 300 kms. There’s not a lot of labour in this system: it’s mostly cutting and haulage (and the return trip is empty). Hollingdale figures that if only half of the quality timber is shipped, a useful volume is left for local work. Halve the diesel; and create a job. He estimates that two hectares could give one person employment for half the year - processing and distributing firewood during winter. That’s realistic in a typical village of 50 to 100 homes.

Skewed funding

There are big differences between community-owned forests and community involvement in government-owned forest. 'We have a major difficulty in the way support to the private sector is structured,' says Hollingdale. 'Policy is supportive, but at a practical level the systems are not particularly effective.'

The reason for this is that forestry is funded together with support for agriculture. 'The money comes out of one pot, the system doesn’t really support public ownership, and it concentrates on new woodland instead of managing of existing forest. Anyone trying to do sustainable forestry is struggling because of slow release of payments and a bias towards farmers'.

Things are changing. Poor values and low trade are increasing the emphasis on diversification. More and more projects are in the early stages of promoting and supporting social enterprise businesses. 

Anna Craigen is Community Liaison and Education Officer with the Borders Forest Trust. She says: 'The potential for increasing local firewood supply, timber enterprises and maximising community benefits is huge! We have a long way to go, but we are getting there!'

Community forestry is a growing movement in Scotland, but many factors have slowed progress. Large blocks of private land are still controlled by hierarchical figures that have no desire to hand over ownership or management. But without secure tenure, users have little incentive to invest.

Other areas are controlled by Forestry Commission Scotland. 'A large proportion of our forests are managed by the state on behalf of/for the general public’s enjoyment,' Anna said. 'Here [community forestry] is all about recreation and biodiversity rather than handing the land back to communities. There’s not much economic activity in our projects yet.'

Learning from Nepal

When Anna Craigen went to a Nepalese symposium last year she tapped in to a huge amount of community forestry experience. There were 200 or so participants from 32 countries at the meeting.  She described the pitfalls for Scottish projects and was surprised to hear comments along the lines of, 'that sounds just like Nepal 20 years ago'. 

Nepalese legislation allows user-groups to benefit from forest products and other businesses like tourism and trekking. 'Income also goes back into forest management and to livelihood and community projects,' Anna says. 'But in the 1970s Nepal was a very different place. Timber export, industrial use and fuelwood harvesting was causing degradation, landslides, poverty and disease.'

Initial schemes re-forested steep valleys and supported forest-farming. Second generation projects (in the 90s) started handing state land back to communities. About 15,000 groups (1.66 million families) now manage 1.3 million hectares of Nepal’s forest.

Anna explains: 'It’s important to adopt a 'bottom up' approach so communities "buy-in" to projects wholeheartedly'. The initiative must come from the people not the support agency, she says, and local people must be trained in forest management and business. Some projects also support lobbying for further community rights over minerals and higher quality forest. 

Horses for courses

But not everything is the same. Jon Hollingdale thinks there are important differences between Scotland and those less industrialised countries pioneering community development: 'A lot of great things are happening but I am hesitant to copy all of them. Livelihood issues are different. People’s engagement with forests is different. And we have a very centralised government system. Here, local government is not particularly effective and the notion of local governance is not very strong.'

But there is a vision in Scotland: 'We want greater diversity, more species, different patterns of ownership and management, a range of forest products, lots of different businesses and loads of opportunities for recreation,' Craigen says. She believes this will lead to a more robust forest landscape and a better economic and social environment. 'Every community should have woodland - with jobs, orchards, firewood supplies, outdoor classrooms, craft businesses, venues for art, and opportunities for cultural and heritage events. Public bodies need to be more community minded. If they trust and support local people, our forests can flourish.'

Can people be interested in forestry if the forests don’t seem to belong to them? Are we still stuck with our own colonial systems? Is British community forestry just a walk in the woods? Hollingdale says the Forestry Commissions are good at doing things for communities, especially recreational work, but says that 'this isn’t real community forestry where local people take over and manage forests themselves'. Increasingly, people want more control.

North Sutherland Community Forestry Trust wants to take over 566 hectares of plantation near Forsinain. The trust is one of half a dozen or so local initiatives in Scotland acquiring sites. Forestry Commission Scotland has approved these purchases, but forest land is expensive and, like other communities at Aigas and at Clauchrie, the Sutherland trust is struggling to raise funds.

'These communities want to take over big conifer plantations for local economic objectives to create local businesses and jobs based on timber, woodfuel and recreation,' says Hollingdale. 'It’s easy to say community forestry is just access and recreation, but there is far more to it than that.'

Christopher Davey is a freelance journalist

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