The potential for forests to contribute to poverty reduction in Kyrgyzstan is limited by the small percentage of forest cover in the country. But, within this small area, there are real possibilities for making a significant contribution.
It is important to remember that forests already contribute to the maintenance of human livelihoods by providing forest products for direct consumption and by playing an important role in livestock raising in the form of hay and pastures in forests and on leshoz land. In some areas the supply for these purposes is adequate; in other areas it is limited.
In terms of a more direct use of forests (where they are available) to actively contribute to poverty reduction, there are a number of major constraints:
Some forest types are slow growing and have little potential for use as commercial timber or generation of income through NTFP harvesting. This is essentially true of juniper forests.
Some forest types (spruce and river-side forests) do have potential for commercial harvesting, but use for these purposes by local people is so far illegal and the SFS has no intention of giving up control. In the current climate of economic reform focusing on privatization, the contracts for harvesting are almost certain to be issued to private contractors. It is only if specific provisions are made to issue contracts to small local companies, and probably to assist these companies with initial investments and training that any major impact on rural poverty is likely.
CFM and other approaches to involve local people in forest use and management (including paid leases) have real potential for generating significant income in some areas such as areas with walnut-fruit forests and other high value, low investment NTFPs (pistachio, almond and some fruits). However CFM leases are very limited in number and distribution tends to be inequitable. Still, for other types of leases the allocation is probably even less transparent and equally difficult to overcome for poor people and to do those who do not belong to the inner circle around the decision-makers.
Although poverty reduction is an expressed priority of the government, this has not translated into poverty reduction becoming an effective priority of the SFS which is heavily focused on forest conservation and reforestation. CFM is essentially seen as a means of sustaining the leshozes and protecting the forest rather than as a means of addressing poverty by foresters. While foresters are aware of the role of forest resources in local peoples livelihoods and, in particular, of the contribution of walnut to raised living standards in villages of the walnut-fruit forests, the more focused issue of poverty reduction does not seem to concern most foresters.
Foresters on all levels understand forestry primarily as a technical-administrative discipline while little attention is paid to social aspects of forest management. From this observation the recommendation to the SFS to consider capacity building within the service itself to deal with the social side of forest management can be made. At the local level, the Ail Okmot is considered to be responsible for social questions whereas the leshoz focuses on the technical side of natural resource management. Foresters often refer to this division of responsibility when social questions come up in discussions.
While working in the field, mainly in southern Kyrgyzstan, we have made little experience which would suggests that there is a strong priority amongst forestry decision makers to empower the rural poor. While there is a readiness to provide poor households with material support, forestry is seen as essentially a technical and sectoral concern.
The distribution of CFM leases is not based on the rights of people to access forest resources.
In addition to these specific constraints, it is worth noting that Kyrgyzstan, like other transitional economies, seems to be jumping from the old notion of the state collective through to aggressive privatization, without considering the possibility of developing new forms of social organization or resource tenure. The absence of established institutions of civil society contributes to this problem as does the absence of systems of checks and balances.
The very individualistic nature of CFM as a form of contract between the state and the individual isolates the individual, because there are no institutions to effectively challenge the state on behalf of the individual. The CFM Boards and Commissions tend to be instruments of the leshozes, not neutral mediators and there are few voluntary organizations.
In the early days of the CFM project there was a lot of discussion about the perceived missed potential for cooperation between tenants. It is likely that the highly individualistic and localised nature of the walnut harvest provides little incentive for establishment of new common property arrangements (and these probably would not be accepted in early post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan), but cooperation in natural resource management is not limited to communal rights or access. The potential for voluntary action in support of rights or in demanding rights is a useful role for voluntary associations. Amongst the longer established CFM tenants awareness of the benefits of group formation is rising. Defending rights in front of forestry officials, soliciting legal advice, supporting new tenants with practical information, joint marketing of forest products and sharing information about (CFM) developments are a few of the topics that people identify. The benefits are not exclusively limited to CFM tenants, but could be extended to the wider category of forest users. Stepping up from a voluntary assembly into a formal group may occur in future years. This would open up more possibilities for supporting in terms of capacity development and providing legal status.
There is also a case of a hamlet, in total about 17 households, who received a long-term, non-CFM lease for a large plot of forest above the hamlet in one of the leshozes in the walnut-fruit forests. These households organized themselves voluntarily and have already conducted some planting work together.
So, what needs to be done? We suggest that there are a number of things which would substantively help:
Making the SFS accountable to the elected government for prioritising poverty reduction in accord with stated government policy. It is possible that providing resources to reduce the pressure on the leshozes to be self-sufficient might enable the leshozes to be more sympathetic towards this policy. The focus on sustainable SFS and leshozes may need to shift to sustainable forest management including social, ecological and economic dimensions.
Establishing the principle that all suitable forest should be made available for CFM and other leases and that selection of CFM tenants and other leaseholders being granted exclusive access rights to forest resources must positively discriminate towards the poor. A principle for focusing on poverty reduction could be developed. One suggestion is that a principle could be framed along the following lines:
CFM should be available to as many tenants as possible within the limits of available and suitable forest area within a leshoz. Priority for allocation of the plots should be given to the poor who are in most need of income. (Recommendation in Fisher 2003)
Even leshozes which do not take up CFM but stick to paid leases (such as 226 leases) or alternative arrangements could make a contribution to poverty reduction if they applied such positive discrimination.
In fact, if something like this is not developed and implemented, CFM leases and other schemes providing exclusive forest access to a few people in a village, far from contributing to poverty reduction, are likely to lead to an increased number of people disempowered in terms of access to resources. In other words, "creeping privatization" may lead to increased poverty, not poverty reduction.
It is important to remember that leshozes often have not only forested areas, but also open land (including pastures and plots for farming). If a pro-poor policy was applied to non-forested plots as well as forested plots, there is potential for leshozes to make a considerable contribution to poverty reduction. This would help poor people to diversify their farming systems and reduce vulnerability. Granting use rights to forest plots will help little to reduce vulnerability substantially, because of the strong fluctuations in walnut yield, unless efforts are also made to increase and diversify production on the plot (see below). So, non-forested areas under leshoz control play an important role to reduce vulnerability and increase food security.
Some people may suggest radical tenure reform in the shape of the permanent distribution of forest plots to people living on or near leshozes. Even if this was politically possible, it really is doubtful that small fragmented private plots would be a sound basis for sustainable management of forests in the future. Furthermore, it is questionable whether poor people could profit from such a radical change, as it is generally acknowledged that poor people have difficulties in making their voices heard in decision making over natural resources - everything depends on the distribution policy and criteria for the distribution. Such a move could in fact deprive many poor from access to forest resources and become a poverty trap. It also raises the question of intergenerational equity.
Further improving the procedures for allocating leases and reviewing CFM decisions and complaints by moving powers away from the leshoz into an independent Board, by increasing the numbers of local non-SFS/leshoz representatives and decreasing the number of SFS/leshoz representatives and making the Board responsible to an outside authority (such as Oblast Governor). It is probable that this would not be politically possible in the near future. Nevertheless, evolution is needed in the direction of increased accountability for decisions beyond the SFS and improved checks and balances.
Encourage the formation of voluntary tenants associations, to provide these with legal status and to support them in terms of capacity development. These should not be formed by the SFS or the leshozes as instruments for implementing their policies, but should be based on self-identified needs and objectives. They would, therefore, not have a standard form, but may differ between different locations and different groups.
In the case of commercial forest operations, there needs to be an explicit policy of directing contracts to local companies and encouraging local employment in order to ensure that income is directed towards the rural poor.
Improved technical forest management practices also have potential to contribute to both improved livelihood security and increase income generation, once measures have been taken to ensure that poor families get access to forested and non-forested areas. The walnut-fruit forests are not a reliable source of income due to considerable fluctuations in yields of fruit, in particular of walnut. This situation can be improved by developing sustainable agroforestry systems, including sylvopastoral systems, on the basis of available agroforestry practices. With this the range of products could be enlarged reducing the dependency of local households on a few forest products and reducing the general production risk. Such systems, in particular improved sylvopastoral systems, could also be developed for the juniper and riverside forests, and maybe also for spruce forests. Research on agroforestry has been started in the walnut-fruit forests (Messerli 2002) and continues in the framework of the joint Kyrgyz-Swiss applied research project "Orech-Les" (ETH Zurich 2001). The experience shows that foresters, researchers and other specialists increasingly open up towards integrated approaches to natural resource use, once the obstacle of a rather strong sectoral thinking is overcome.