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Forest ownership rights can improve peoples’ livelihoods

©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Reforming forest tenure systems and securing forest ownership rights can significantly improve peoples’ livelihoods and enable them to gain income from forest products, said FAO in a newly published guide, Reforming Forest Tenure.

13 July 2011, Rome – The continuing demand for land, weak governance in many countries, and emerging global challenges such as climate change increase the urgency of addressing forest tenure reform,” said Eva Muller, FAO’s Chief Forest Policy Officer. 

The guide was launched at the Forest Tenure, Governance and Enterprise Conference taking place in Lombok, Indonesia, from 11 to 15 July. Attended by around 200 representatives from international and regional organizations, private sector, non-governmental organizations, civil society and researchers, the conference was co-organized by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry (MOF), the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).

In recent years, FAO has carried out extensive assessments of forest tenure systems in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Central Asia and its impact on sustainable forest management and poverty reduction. Based on this analysis, the guide offers practical guidance for policy makers involved in forest tenure reforms.

State of ownership of the world’s forests

According to FAO, around 80 percent of the world’s forests are publicly owned, but forest ownership and management by communities, individuals and private companies are increasing – more in some countries than in others. 

In Venezuela and French Guiana, for example, almost all forests are under public ownership, whereas in Paraguay, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Chile more than 30 percent of forests are under private ownership. In Peru, Guyana and Costa Rica, more than ten percent of forests are owned by indigenous people.

“A more diversified tenure system could result in improving forest management and local livelihoods, particularly where state capacities to manage forests are weak,” said Muller.

Social equity and gender dimensions

Forest tenure reforms should give attention to the empowerment of marginalized groups, particularly women and the poor. Research suggests that trees and forests are more important to rural women’s livelihoods than men’s. Poor women in one Madagascar community earned 37 percent of their income from forest products, compared with men’s 22 percent. In some areas of Andhra Pradesh, 77 percent of women’s income was derived from forests.

Forests can be crucial to the survival strategies of farming women. In sub-Saharan Africa, responsibility for caring for household members afflicted by HIV/AIDS falls mainly on women, leaving them with less time for agricultural production. As a result, they become more reliant on forest foods and income from fuelwood.

Enabling environment   

Without an enabling policy environment, forest tenure reform is unlikely to deliver the beneficial socio-economic outcomes, Muller stressed. Key stakeholders should be enabled to manage forests in a way that improves both their livelihoods and the condition of forests. Forest tenure should be as secure as possible, and overregulation should be avoided by keeping compliance procedures simple. Legislation should be coupled with responsible governance at all levels, including government agencies, the private sector and communities.  

Recognition of customary rights

Many forests worldwide have been used, managed and even owned on the basis of traditional or customary tenure. Such informal tenure systems often operate in parallel with legal tenure. In such cases local people regard forests and forest products as belonging to specific people or groups, regardless of whether the rights have been recognized by the government or not. 

Informal tenure can be effective, unless other interests, such as privatization or converting to other land-uses encroach, which often results in conflict and frequently leads to forest degradation. Tenure reforms should take into consideration customary tenure systems that are not legally protected, Muller said.          

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