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Involving local people in the management and harvesting of non-wood forest products

NWFPS in overall context
Community-based forest management: emerging responses
Recognition strategy
Equitable bargaining
Community forest leases
Information dissemination
Informed consent
Community and legal personalities
Third parties
Negotiations and benefit sharing

Owen J. Lynch
Senior Associate
World Resources Institute, Washington DC, USA


In his opening remarks for this consultation, the FAO's Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative, Mr. Obaidullah Khan, presented the hypothesis that the key to successful development of non-wood forest products often lies in the local people who are directly dependent on these resources. Local people, he observed, must exert some control over development programs in areas they occupy and these programs must be responsive to local priorities and concerns. Most importantly, he said, assurances must be made that the local people will in fact benefit from the exploitation of non-wood forest products.

I agree with Mr. Khan's position, and am encouraged by it. Over the past decade, more people have recognized the importance of involving local people in sustainable resource management. Despite this new emphasis, however, local people still possess few, if any, recognized legal rights to forest resources or any other incentives for sustainable management. National governments throughout Asia generally consider people who have resided in forest areas - including indigenous people-to be squatters, regardless of the length of their occupancy.

The problem is rooted in national legal systems established or inspired by colonial regimes that ignored community-based management systems. According to most current national legal systems, unless people possess documentation from the government, they have no rights to the natural resources in their area. Meanwhile, it is extremely difficult, and in most instances impossible, to acquire the documentation.

Despite their assertions of ownership of forest lands, Asian governments lack the financial and administrative capacity to manage these areas. Rather than officially involve local people in resource management, many Asian governments opt to give commercial concessionaires exclusive rights to exploit forest resources. There are few incentives, however, for managing resources-timber or non-timber -sustainably.

In Pacific Island nations, the situation is the opposite. In Papua New Guinea, for example, local communities own more than 90 percent of that nation's terrestrial resources pursuant to undocumented, private, community-based rights. Anomaly or paradigm, the Pacific region offers valuable insights about local people being key decision-makers and beneficiaries in the management and exploitation of resources.

NWFPS in overall context

It is important to look at all components of the local resource base, including NWFPs, when promoting and implementing strategies for local empowerment. It is wonderful that local people are finally being recognized as having valuable knowledge about medicinal plants and other valuable resources found in forest areas, but to focus on non-timber forest products alone is to miss the point; it is akin to the North's recent interest in biodiversity and intellectual property rights.

Intellectual property rights and NWFPs are just two components of a larger issue concerning natural resource management. The big question is who decides who gets what, when, and how. While it is appropriate to talk about non-wood forest products, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that considering NWFPs alone is going to solve the problem of local resource degradation or provide adequate local-level incentives for sustainable resource use. Rather we need to identify a more integrated approach and talk about community-based resource management in a broader context.

Michael Dove, an anthropologist at the East-West Center in Hawaii recently wrote a provocative article entitled, "A Revisionist View of Tropical Deforestation" (Dove, 1993). In his article, Dove attacks what he calls "the Rainforest Crunch thesis," which refers to the Brazilian experience with extracted reserves. In Brazil, the government allows local communities to extract minor timber or non-timber forest products for commercial purposes - but this is the sole right they are granted. Dove argues that there are two possible scenarios which will result from this approach. In the first scenario, the resource, because it is valuable, will be over-exploited by the local community and therefore depleted. And, as consumers, we will be destroying the very resource which we are trying to conserve. In the second scenario, if this is truly a profitable venture and people's only right is to the non-timber forest products, some economically-powerful person or group will likely be able to usurp the local rights and control the enterprise.

Dove argues, and I agree, that we need a more holistic approach when dealing with property rights and community-based management. It is not practical to simply give one or two isolated resource-rights to the community. Rather, an approach that addresses all aspects of resource management-rights, responsibilities, and revenues-is needed.

What is needed is an equal bargaining process between governments, local people, and business interests that addresses rights to all natural resources in a specific area. In the Pacific region, it is apparent that even though people hold rights, many do not understand how to exercise those rights. Thus, when we promote a process of bargaining, we need to keep in mind that it is not a fair process when some of the people are not aware of their legal options.

An equal bargaining process involves some preparation, and perhaps the most important preparation for bargaining is fully appraising local people of their options. In trying to help a local community gain rights to resources, a Thai organization proposed to establish a monitorable compact wherein the community would acquire a non-timber forest products permit. In return, the community would promise the government that it will manage the resources sustainably. What kind of bargain is that? The organization that proposed this to the government had effectively negotiated away four fifths of the community's resource rights before the community was even involved in the process. As international lawyers, before beginning to negotiate on behalf of others, we need to step back and think, what would I want in the situation of a community? What would I think was fair if I lived in a community and we were going to enter into an agreement with the government?

Community-based forest management: emerging responses

Even though government officials are reluctant to acknowledge the causes and magnitude of deforestation, forest resource degradation is prompting change. Floods, landslides, and other well-publicized natural disasters have heightened both international and domestic awareness of deforestation's toll on the environment and human well being. In Thailand, for example, flash floods (caused partly by deforestation) have killed thousands of rural Asians in recent years. Thailand's increasingly active media, combined with a growing spirit of democracy, allowed for a relatively uninhibited public expression of outrage after the floods. Threatened with widespread social unrest, the government not only met but exceeded protectors' demands and enacted a ban on commercial logging. As a newly industrialized country surrounded by poor neighbors, Thailand could afford this policy. With healthy industrial and tourist sectors (and largely depleted commercial forest reserves), the Thai government has come to rely less upon timber revenues. In similar situations in other areas, the reality of decreasing productivity and loss of environmental services has fueled the development of alternative forest management options.

Many Asian countries are trying to deal with the problems caused by deforestation, and some are beginning to address the root causes. In all cases, equity and human rights concerns have come to play increasingly important roles. No longer merely the province of foreign-sponsored, do-gooder environmentalists, the sustainable management of forest resources by local stakeholders is emerging as a matter of justice, enlightened self-interest, and irrefutable need. In varying degrees, public and governmental awareness of the costs of environmental degradation and its relation to equity and human rights is increasing. Consequentially, more are recognizing the need for innovative and participatory approaches to forest management and conservation (See e.g., Wells and Brandon, 1992; Borrini, 1993; Eaton, 1985). An integral component of these approaches must provide forest-dependent communities appropriate incentives to sustainably manage their resources.

Recognition strategy

Over the past five years, the World Resources Institute has been working with local lawyers in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka to challenge prevailing interpretations of national laws that deny recognition of local rights. The alternative legal perspectives that lawyers are developing and promoting, are designed to support efforts to involve local people in decision-making.

In Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, national laws have been reinterpreted to mean that long-term, original occupation vests ownership rights in local communities and these rights are protected by the constitutions of these nations. According to the reinterpretation, the Indonesian and Philippine governments have constitutional obligations to recognize community-based property rights.

We call this the "recognition strategy" and it is premised on the conviction that legal rights do not only arise from nation-states. Instead, some legal rights emanate from communities whose existence predates establishment of the nation-state where they are located. And in some countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, even national laws mandate recognition of these locally created and observed rights.

The politically feasible, short-term strategy for promoting security of tenure in Asia, however, is to work with government programs that grant rights to local people. Such grants authorize local communities or individuals to use, harvest, protect, and in some instances commercially exploit forest resources. This is the case with non-wood forest products.

Equitable bargaining

In Asia and the Pacific, both forest-dependent communities and national governments have obvious interests in ensuring that forest resources are sustainably managed. This report aims to promote those interests by encouraging equitable bargaining processes. In an effective and fair process, both parties understand their rights and concomitant duties, and negotiate a mutually acceptable, secure, and balanced agreement.

On the spot and knowledgeable forest communities are uniquely positioned to help protect forests. As the guardians of national interests and resource patrimonies, national governments and their forest bureaucracies also have a vital role to play. But for too long, forest-dependent peoples and government forest bureaucracies have communicated poorly, if at all. At the foundation of the discussion must lie a common commitment to balance community and national interests. The final decision about what arrangement is most appropriate should be shared by the community (or communities) concerned and the appropriate government agency or official. A good agreement will provide for the establishment of locally appropriate incentives that are in all parties' best long-term interests.

Community forest leases

Recognition of private, community-based rights is a preferred means to protect and sustainably develop South and Southeast Asia's endangered forest resources. However, national laws and political realities in Asia usually preclude that option. The only alternative available to many forest-dependent communities is to lease their local resource base or lose it.

Community forest leases are contracts between appropriate government agencies and resource-dependent communities that recognize the negotiated and agreed upon rights and duties of both entities. Community forest leases are based on the assumption that government owns the resources and the other has no legal right to use them. Ideally, community forest leases should be simple, straightforward, and reflect local variables.

In Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, and to a limited extent, in Indonesia, governments lease rights to forest land to communities. Such programs give forest-dependent people legal and economic incentives to protect remaining natural forests and to regenerate degraded ones by discouraging migration into forest areas and helping stabilize the populations that are already there. In return for legal permission to use forests and government assistance in keeping out interlopers, communities are often asked to cease certain activities.

Before any specific agreements are reached or any community-based rights recognized or granted, however, communities should first identify the areas that they believe belong to them. Three essential steps follow: government officials must understand how the community perceives its needs; the community must understand the nature and potential impact of the initiative proposed; and both parties must determine if prospects for community-based tenurial rights are realistic.

Establishing a community-based forest management project without informed local consent would likely prove foolhardy, therefore governments should carefully gauge local acceptance of, or opposition to, any such initiative-especially from those who depend on the resources targeted. In the face of persistent, widespread opposition, the project should stop unless a clear scientific case has been made for going ahead and affected communities receive just compensation for losses incurred (On March 10, 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights unanimously passed a resolution that condemned the practice of forced evictions as a "gross violation of human rights" and urged governments to stop removing people from their homes against their will).


Around the world, forest-dwelling communities are beginning to recognize the power maps can have in efforts to protect their lands from intruders. Recently, non-governmental organizations and local communities have collaborated to create precise maps of the areas inhabited by forest-dwellers so forest-dwelling communities can inform outsiders about their occupancy and sustainable resource management systems, thereby enhancing their rights and claims to ownership. By combining locally generated sketch maps with government base maps and using the Global Positioning System (GPS is a relatively inexpensive tool that uses signals from satellites to accurately determine latitude and longitude at any given point) to check positional accuracy, villagers can create ''scientific proof'' of their occupancy.

Forest-dependent people can take aggressive, pro-active steps toward protecting their lands from outside incursion by mapping their lands and their use of its resources. Maps can be used to support community-level education, political unity, and facilitate local participation in government conservation programs. Through coming together to map their lands and discuss regional development, local people can gain a comprehensive view of the amount of destruction that is occurring in the entire area, and how it will effect them. Working with neighboring communities helps foster solidarity among the various groups and thereby makes them politically stronger (Poole, 1995; WWF/Indonesia, 1994).

Information dissemination

Stake-holders must understand their rights, duties, and options before any bargaining process can begin to be equal. Even though private community-based property rights are in effect on over 90 percent of Papua New Guinea's land mass, many villagers and other forest-dependent peoples are generally less informed than government officials and therefore exercise their rights, especially their rights to sell timber, in an information vacuum. They do not understand the implications of their decisions or what their alternative development options are. The Natural Resources Options Network, proposed by the 1992 Conservation Needs Assessment, is one promising model for opening meaningful, informed dialogues, although communication between the government and communities has not been perfect (Beehler, 1993).

Informed consent

Dissemination of information itself is not enough. Those affected must give informed consent before any externally initiated community-based forest management starts. Holding culturally and logistically appropriate public hearings, open to all people dependent on the area-relevant government agencies and officials, and representatives of appropriate non-governmental organizations, is a good step.

Women and other disenfranchised subgroups should not only be heard but also, if necessary, be accorded separate identities and representation in any decision-making (Fortmann and Rocheleau, 1990). The results of the discussions should be written up and publicly disseminated in a timely fashion. Where illiteracy is high, a summary of the discussion should be orally disseminated. Special attention should be given to any commitments made in response to local concerns.


People living where community-based forest management is under consideration should receive notice before any formal initiative begins. At a minimum, the notice should:

· briefly describe the project;

· be in the area's lingua franca;

· contain a map of the affected area;

· describe the proponent's proposed rights and responsibilities;

· define the local people's current rights and responsibilities and show how they would change if the area were designated for community forestry; and,

· inform people where and when meetings will be held locally.

Community and legal personalities

It is more efficient to deal with entire communities than with individuals when working to legitimize local management systems over substantial areas. When negotiating tenurial rights agreements, however, it is essential to define the "community" or "user group." Who defines the community is also key since some communities are ill-defined, overlap with neighboring areas, or combine conflicting factions.

Generally speaking, people should bear primary responsibility for defining their own community or communities, but they are not always able to do so. If there are numerous small communities then, in order to reach a settlement, it may be necessary to consolidate several communities or revert to individual agreements.

Some forest-based communities, such as users' groups or informal organizations, do not have the internal cohesion and capacity to manage, sustainably develop, allocate, and enforce informal customary rights over the entire local resource base. Where they are already protecting remaining areas of natural forest, less comprehensive forest leases would legalize and support their efforts.

Communities that want to take part in commercial extraction enterprises will probably need "legal personalities," particularly if they will receive processed or taxed income. The degree and rigor of requirements for creating and legally recognizing community-based institutions vary, but all cases in which communities are required to register their legal personality with a far-off government agency has serious drawbacks. Sometimes the legal personality, such as non-stock, non-profit corporations in the Philippines, can be unilaterally dissolved when communities fail to comply with procedural requirements, such as filing financial statements or minutes of meetings.

A more informal approach works better. In the Indian state of West Bengal, for example, forest-protection committees register with their local district forest officers before entering into joint forest-management agreements (Roy, 1991). This procedure is an attractive alternative to incorporation - provided that the committees' registration cannot be arbitrarily revoked by forestry officials, as it can in this case.

An even better procedure is to take a census of all community members Of ask all adults or heads of households to sign the title or the lease. The completed census or list of signatories could legally define the community and become an integral part of any title or lease. Either list would ensure that if the corporation were dissolved or registration were revoked, the title or lease would not revert back to the government since there would still be two parties-the minimum requirement for a legally binding agreement.

Third parties

In some areas, outside parties, particularly non-government organizations, have an important role to play in helping communities negotiate agreements with governments. Third-party intermediaries who are knowledgeable of external interests and processes, and are trusted by members of local communities can be profoundly helpful in negotiating equitable community-based tenurial arrangements. Indeed, since forest-dependent communities often lack the experience necessary to navigate diverse cultural, bureaucratic, and organizational demands and expectations, many community forestry and conservation projects probably owe their very existence to the invaluable assistance of third-party intermediaries (Western and Wright, 1994).

A troublesome question, however, is whether a third-party intermediary must be involved in negotiating the terms of community-based forest management agreements. Clearly, no blanket requirement for a third-party intermediary is appropriate since their existence and availability cannot be presumed, nor can their loyalty to local communities be assured. Requiring the involvement of third party intermediaries should depend on a number of factors including the particular community's degree of organization and internal cohesion, community and government preferences. When a community requests that a third party intermediary be involved, however, that decision should be respected.

Negotiations and benefit sharing

Soon after the concerned community and the state reach a preliminary agreement, the negotiations should formally begin. The forest-management agreement might cover-but should not be limited to:

· the conservation area management plans;

· project boundaries (including internal boundaries to be managed or co-managed by various constituencies according to different plans);

· the routes of service roads and construction details;

· employment guarantees;

· hunting, gathering, and farming rights; and

· other provisions for benefit sharing including (as needed) a formula for allocating profits to communities, individuals, or the state.

An array of arrangements are possible and no set formula will succeed in every situation. Each agreement needs to be tailored case-by-case. One recommendation is universal though: once final, all agreements should be summarized in writing, orally explained, and signed by those in agreement or their authorized representatives (Western, 1994).

The division of benefits may require shareholding agreements, representation on the board of directors of the corporation, and allocation of a percentage of profits from annual operations (including the criteria to determine that percentage). Despite an agreed upon revenue sharing formula, the West Bengal community-forest management projects have experienced misunderstandings between local communities and the forest department over how to determine that agreed upon revenue. Forest Protection Committees agreed to receive percent of the net sales of timber grown within the joint management area. Difficulties have arisen over how to determine the net. Other benefits could include the creation of an independently run community trust, or the construction of new facilities such as a school or health clinic to serve the community. The importance of local contributions, whether in-kind or financial, should also be kept in mind.


In many Asian and Pacific countries, tropical forests are the single most important natural resource for rural communities. Unfortunately, few national governments in developing countries recognize forest-dependent peoples' locally-based natural resource rights or their contributions to sustainable forest management. Nor do most countries give local resource users a say in decisions concerning national forest laws and policies. Instead, many adhere to colonially inspired and centralized systems of forest land ownership that are alien to their rural citizens.

National legal systems that benefit political and economic elites marginalize the hundreds of millions of people who depend upon tropical forests for survival. Such systems reinforce the inequitable distribution of the benefits of natural resources. They also undermine local incentives for sustainable development and contribute to the still accelerating rate of tropical deforestation.

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that many forest dwellers actually protect biologically rich areas and sustainably manage their local ecosystems. In particular, many forest dwellers have created elaborate systems of community-based property rights over many generations, systems that often spring from years of experience and a deep sense of obligation to the natural world. At the same time, bilateral and multilateral development assistance institutions tend to accept Asian governments' claims that they own and are managing "public" forest land-a dubious assumption since many laws and policies actually promote the over-exploitation of forest resources and fail to address the inefficiencies of many national forestry bureaucracies.

Forest bureaucracies know, of course, that when conflicts arise many forest-dependent communities can resist or bollix governmental forest management schemes. Forest-dependent populations cannot and will not allow themselves to be legislated or developed out of existence. By building partnerships with forest communities, governments can avoid potential unrest and develop an alternative strategy for sustainably managing fast-disappearing forest resources.

The current plight of forest-dependent communities has evolved over a long period of time, as has the well-documented failure of state-managed systems. Now, the deforestation crises that many Asian countries face can be effectively addressed only by fair and balanced government partnerships with local communities. Power and its rewards must be shared with forest-dependent communities, and community and national interests must be balanced to promote the common good.

National and state authorities need not and should not be eliminated from resource management schemes-empowering local communities does not mean disempowering governments. Only by sharing authority can overburdened national forest departments truly help communities sustainably develop and equitably share in the forest patrimony. In turn, by accepting their share of responsibility and cooperating with reasonable state regulations, local communities will be better able to promote the common good, as well as their own.


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Borrini, G. 1993. Enhancing people's participation in the Tropical Forests Action Programme. FAO. Bangkok.

Dove, M.R. 1993. A revisionist view of tropical deforestation and development. Environmental Conservation. (20): 1-17.

Eaton, P. 1985. Land tenure and conservation: protected areas in the South Pacific. South Pacific Commission, Noumea. New Caledonia.

Fortmann, L., and D. Rocheleau. 1990. Women and agroforestry: four myths and three case studies. Agroforestry Systems. (2): 252-272.

Poole, P. 1995. Indigenous peoples, mapping, and biodiversity conservation: a survey of current activities. Forthcoming in Cultural Survival Quarterly.

Roy, S.B. 1991. Forest protection committees in West Bengal, India: emerging policy issues. Paper presented to the Social Forestry Writing Workshop sponsored by the Environmental and Policy Institute, East-West Center, Honolulu, 15 July-23 August.

Wells, M., and K. Brandon. 1992. Parks and people. The World Bank. Washington, D.C.

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Western, D., and R.M. Wright (eds.) 1994. Natural connections: perspectives in community-based conservation. Island Press. Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA.

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