From meeting needs to honouring rights: The evolution of community forestry

Liz Alden Wily 1


This presentation seeks to lay a foundation for linking the interests of ordinary people with the need to conserve forests for the greater good of people and planet (`forests as a source of life'). Using the African continent as an example and focusing upon the structural changes occurring in policy and especially legal frameworks, emergent community forestry is explored as an important path through which a positive relationship between human needs and conservation is being forged.

The author suggests that this path is most viable where community forestry goes beyond meeting forest product needs towards addressing basic rights. This is particularly the case where it serves as a route through which communities secure land rights, in this instance mainly over properties they hold (or once held) in common. It also occurs where power over forest resources is genuinely devolved to community levels. In the process, after a century of neglect, `community' itself is seeing reinvigoration as a viable level of governance, and one fashioned less by the norms of the past than by the practical demands of modernized common resource management. More inclusive and democratic norms are encouraged. In this way, more than conservation, livelihood aid or even good governance in the form of higher local participation is achieved. More fundamental social transformation may be served.

Introduction: From needs to rights

Acceptance of the concept of community forestry is widespread around the world today. In more than 100 states, ordinary citizens are being acknowledged and encouraged as forest conservators.2 Many of the roles and powers that governments have previously kept for themselves are being handed over to citizens, including, unusually, the remote rural poor. The trend is uneven. Intentions are mixed, ranging from what is initially little more than burden and cost sharing to real power sharing. Doubt, contestation, backtracking and backlash are common in an evident evolution of one to the other.

That overall, change in forest management relations are afoot, and that this is broadly devolutionary in character, cannot be denied. Nor can it be denied that this development is gathering a momentum of its own - and one that goes well beyond the kind intentions of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - UNCED) to pay attention to the needs of people. Through community forestry initiatives and the policies and legal paradigms being built to support them, what is changing is more than how forests are managed and by whom. As it matures, community forestry is reaching deep into questions of rights, local rights to regulate local forests, and rights of ownership over forest land, in particular. Social relations as a whole are being affected. Whilst the pivotal relationship between State and people is most acted upon, relations internal to the community are also altered, ultimately usually towards more inclusive and fairly managed norms.

An important driver in this is the fact that forests generally exist in relation to people ultimately as a common property interest. In defining community-level actors and powers, clarification of community membership normally results, although not without contestation. Previously excluded poorer or institutionally weaker members tend to gain, if only by virtue of residency. Outsiders are also more specifically defined, and their interests made subordinate. Where outsiders are neighbouring communities, this may catalyse their own definition of `our forests' to broadly positive effect. Where commercial interests are restrained, the resulting tensions and effort required to balance interests are generally greater and more complex.

Such shifts are integral to wider shifts in power relations in contemporary global agrarian society. What is startling about the forestry case is just how far it is helping to drive, as well as be driven by changing norms, and - given the tangible nature of the resource at stake - in concrete, not just declamatory ways. Whilst it may be premature to claim that improved governance results, the signs are that this will be the case; that community forestry is proving a potent route to the empowerment of ordinary rural people, enabling them to gain more control over resources that support their livelihood and environment, and the way in which they organize themselves to act upon their circumstances. Forests and society gain.

Discussion: The African case

The case of Africa is used to illustrate this social transformation.3 Happily, this may also serve as a partial antidote to the Africa of global publicity, the "basket case" continent, riven by tribal dispute, malign dictatorship, rampant corruption, falling standards of living, extreme indebtedness and now failing health. For there is another face of Africa that bodes more positively and from which changes in the forestry sector draw strength; rejection of corrupt administrations, the emergence of multiparty democracy and poverty-centred planning with new, majority-centred targets. The strengthening of devolutionary governance, allowing for higher levels of mass participation in decision-making, is equally powerful. And widespread land reform, pledging, inter alia, to improve the tenure security of agrarian majorities, is equally promising (Alden Wily and Mbaya, 2001; Toulmin and Quan (eds), 2000).

What drives these changes? Common drivers appear to be: frustration with the failure of central regimes to raise standards of living or keep the peace, the ending of the natural life of European-introduced norms that did little to secure progress for the majority or to conserve the precious natural heritage of the continent, and international and often specific donor support towards finding new ways forward.

Rescue through reconstruction

Crucially, these developments look increasingly to `community' as the platform of change at the periphery. Despite a century of formal suppression or benign neglect, community identity and norms in Africa remain relatively robust. Through necessity or common sense, sector after sector is beginning to build upon the basis of community. In the process, community norms are tending to be reconstructed along more inclusive and less hierarchical lines than has customarily been the case. Thus, we begin to see local governments, land administration, dispute resolution and natural resource management bodies at more and more local levels, including the village level.

New law as indicator

Where is the evidence of this transformation? Partly it is in practical delivery in the forestry sector, as described below. A more general indicator is substantial policy and legal reform across the continent, which is evidence of at least seriously intended change. Since 1990 alone, some 20 new National Constitutions, 20 new local government laws, 30 new land laws, 15 environmental management laws, 15 wildlife laws and at least 30 new forestry laws have been enacted across Africa (FAO, 2002; Alden Wily, 2003). When the substance of new legislation is examined and the common concern of governance noted - along with stronger positioning of the interests of communities, women, pastoralists, the dispossessed, the untenured and the very poor - it may be concluded that a more people-centred, enabling environment is being put in place. It is within this context that community based forest management is evolving.

Community forestry

In an FAO-supported workshop on participatory forestry management in Africa in February 2002, 22 states were able to report that they had formal community forest management projects under way, a great advance upon the handful of initiatives described at a similar conference three years previously (FAO, 2003). Since then, some ten other states have begun implementation. Today it may be estimated that some 5 000 communities are involved, bringing around three Mha of either nationally or locally owned forests under community or state-community protection and management. Almost without exception, these include forests that would otherwise have remained or become degraded (Alden Wily, op cit.).

While these figures represent but tiny proportions of either Africa's forests or communities, a rapid and active start has clearly been made. This gains substantial support from the plethora of guiding new policies and laws. Of 56 mainland and island states, 26 countries have enacted new forest laws since 1990 and another 15 have legislation in draft (FAO, 2002; Alden Wily, op cit.). Almost all make commitments to increased public participation in forest management, particularly by those who live within or adjacent to forests.

Differences in approach

The means through which increased public participation in forest management is pursued are various. Salient differences exist, for example, in where community participation may be advanced. As is the case elsewhere, one or two states still restrict local participation to forests that are either less biologically diverse, are less important for tourism, have limited commercial importance and/or are degraded or settled. Often this coincides with a distinction between forests that are reserved and those that are not. In Cameroon for example, community forests may be established only in unclassified forest and are also restricted to 5 000 ha and ten-year agreement periods. In contrast, Uganda, South Africa, Ethiopia and Guinea Conakry have begun community management in forest reserves, including some of highest conservation priority. Most countries have made it a matter of principle that community management may be applied for all forest classes and values. This is the case, for example, in Tanzania and The Gambia. Whilst natural forest is the focus, an intention to involve communities in the privatization of commercial plantations is also gaining ground (e.g. Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa). Related social responsibility spending is under way in Ghana and Cameroon, where timber-harvesting companies are now required to divert specified small percentages of profit to local-area developments, via local councils or otherwise.

Products or power

The most fundamental differences between strategies stem from different perceptions of the basic rationale behind involving communities in forest management in the first instance. A broad distinction may be drawn between approaches designed to gain local cooperation with existing government-controlled regimes (benefit sharing) and those designed to devolve control to community level (power sharing). Both claim improved local livelihoods as a result. The former focuses on providing alternative sources to forest income (buffer zone developments), employment opportunities, improved legal access to the resource, and/or beneficial shares from revenue earned from the forest, often paid in the form of local social services. The latter assists the community in bringing the source of livelihood (the forest) under its own control and even tenure, on the grounds that only this level of empowerment will enable the community to conserve the forest for lasting livelihood and local environmental benefit. Costs to the State may also plummet, as forestry staff move from positions of controlling manager or co-manager to more remote technical adviser and watchdog.

With each passing year, the balance of practice (and legal provision) is shifting more positively towards the latter power-sharing norms. This may be manifested in the endowment of community actors with stronger rights to regulate forest use themselves (e.g. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Namibia), the relaxation of Government veto powers over the content of community-designed management plans (e.g. Cameroon), or the extension of contractual arrangements to longer periods (e.g. Madagascar, Senegal).

Community Forests

As might be expected, power-sharing is much more advanced where the forest is off-reserve, and often (but not always) on land tacitly accepted as belonging to the community. Broadly, the designation `Community Forests' is being applied to such estates. Significantly, it is this development, rather than co-management initiatives associated with National Forests, that is seeing most growth. In the lead cases of The Gambia, Tanzania and Cameroon for example, only a small proportion of State Forests are coming under any level of community management compared to the several hundreds of Community Forests being declared in these states.

Today, at least 20 countries provide for the legal establishment of Community Forests. In practice, most are established only through formal agreement with central forestry administrations on the basis of an agreed management plan and often with formal survey and mapping of the forest area required, significantly delaying finalization (The Gambia) or raising costs for the community (Cameroon). Tanzania is an exception, where administrative and legal acceptance of a Community Forest is through community declaration, witnessed agreement of boundaries with neighbouring communities and registration of these details along with a simple management plan and the by-laws that will be used to enforce adherence, at district government level.

At this point, less than half of the Community Forests provided for in new policies and laws enable the community to be formally recognized as owner-manager and to manage the forest in largely autonomous ways. The Gambia and Tanzania are strong examples. The remainder either limit recognition of local tenure (e.g. Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia) or as commonly, acknowledge local tenure but circumscribe local level jurisdiction (e.g. Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso). A typical arrangement is for Government to retain control over licensing and its enforcement. The ability to determine how the forest may be accessed and used in the first place, including the right to define and exclude outsiders, remains elusive for many community managers. Nor have more than a handful of states yet made it definitively possible for communities to enact forest use and management regulations that courts are obliged to uphold, should they be challenged. In this respect, few communities have the advantages of those in Tanzania, where village governments are elected and endowed with real decision-making and legislative power. Nonetheless, the act of creating a Community Forest in most of these countries does appear to establish a platform from which communities may slowly but surely garner stronger roles and powers that are eventually reflected in law. This is a transition that is visible in countries as far apart as Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Malawi, Namibia and Madagascar.

Prompting institutional change

Institutional change is important because community forest management of necessity involves the creation or revitalization of a local-level institutional base. Even where the committee or association is formed initially only for the purpose of distributing benefits from state- or private sector-run developments (e.g. Mozambique, Ghana) or as a framework through which local subsistence forest use is organized (e.g. Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya), such actions tend to catalyse organized action and thence demands.

In the process, the character of the local institution itself changes. Questions of representation, inclusion and accountability begin to arise and be dealt with. One trend is movement away from arrangements that are pinned solely upon traditional authorities, towards the widening of this base to included representatives of a broader source of interest groups (e.g. Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique). A more common shift is away from associations formed solely by and on the basis of user groups towards more community-wide organizations constituted as management authorities (e.g. Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Mali). This may be regarded as a critical maturation of community forestry, allowing for fuller devolution of jurisdiction to community levels and their repositioning as custodians, not just users. It also allows for a useful separation at the local level of the vested interests of community members who are forest users or dependants, from more general environmental support interests of the community as a whole.

The crucial role of forest land tenure and reform

Issues of forest tenure are often central to these changes. This is typically the case when one sector of the community disputes the gathering control or benefit of another over what is perceived as a shared asset of the community. Clearer definition of the constitution of the community, and the nature of its rights over the resource, tend to follow.

In such considerations, community forestry is gaining substantially from land reform developments, which are again being most concretely expressed in new land laws. An important emerging theme is new state law support for majority customary land interests. The new land laws of Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Niger, Mali, Namibia and South Africa are exceptional examples, with similar prescriptions promised in proposed legislation in Lesotho, Swaziland, and Malawi.

The relevance to community forestry is that these developments not only provide for formal recognition of individually held customary rights to be upheld as private rights, but also for properties held in common to gain this new legal support. In such circumstances, communities may, for the first time ever, secure local forests as group-held private property and even register their ownership as such. Helpfully, definition of what is `customary' is being defined less by tradition than by prevailing community-supported norms. In countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burkina Faso where customary rights are eschewed in principle, ample provision is gradually being made to enable existing, if not customary communal holding to similarly gain registrable form (Alden Wily and Mbaya, op cit.).

A corollary development is seeing greater restraint being placed upon the use of the routine right by Governments to appropriate land for public purposes - including the creation of Government Forest Reserves. Procedures are being made more publicly accountable and almost everywhere require fuller consultation with those affected. The now much higher rates of compensation that must be paid to those who lose rights acknowledged as private rights in the new laws, are a special disincentive to wanton appropriation of local commons like forested areas.

The upshot of these developments is that many new forestry laws of necessity now lay out more cautious procedures for declaring or classifying forests (as Government Reserves) and are encouraged to provide alternative routes to securing still unreserved or un-demarcated forests as formally dedicated to the purposes of forest conservation and sustained use. Community Forests provide this route. Even where Governments remain determined to bring a forest under their own jurisdiction, the agreement of local communities is practically and sometimes legally more essential than in the past. In such cases in Tanzania for example, the State is legally bound to consider whether declaration of a community forest would not be `a more efficient, effective and equitable route to balance the maintenance of existing rights with the protection and sustainable use of forest resources'. Such provisions clearly illustrate the changing tenor of forest management.

The difficulties of process

It would be incorrect to give the impression that evolutionary community forestry around the world is problem-free. On the contrary, as we have seen in recent years in countries as far apart as Nepal, Zambia and Brazil, two steps forward in policy support may be followed by one step backwards. Or at the local level, replication may founder upon rather too expensively developed models. Or strictures in new tenure, wildlife and mineral legislation may contradict the directions community forestry promises. As is typically the case with social transformation, problems may inhibit progress and stimulate effort at one and the same time. What does seem to be clear is that democratization in forest management relations is gradually occurring. There is, in fact, a chance that by the end of the twenty-first century, conservation management around the world will be predominantly in the hands of people, with the conservators of the twentieth century - national governments - playing only advisory and monitoring roles.

If this is achieved, then it should be registered as a success. The sector will have shown itself able to grasp the nettle and recognize that the resistant problems it faces are ultimately problems of governance, and are resolvable only through transformation in governance relations. This includes sounder and fairer determination as to how control over the forest is vested and exercised and by whom, and who owns the forest. That the future of forests, and the bridge between human and environmental needs, lie in democratic transformation, seems an essential conclusion to be drawn by this Congress.


Alden Wily, L. 2003. Community Forest Management in Africa Progress and Challenges in the 21st Century, in FAO 2003.

Alden Wily, L. & Mbaya, S. 2001. Land, people and forests in eastern & southern Africa at the beginning of the 21st Century. The impact of land relations of the role of communities in forest future. Nairobi, IUCN.

FAO. 2002. Law and Sustainable Development since Rio: Legal trends in agriculture and natural resource management. FAO Legislative Study 73. Rome.

FAO. 2003. Proceedings of the second international workshop on participatory forestry in Africa. Defining the way forward: sustainable livelihoods and sustainable forest management through participatory forestry. 18-23 February 2002, Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. Rome.

Toulmin, C. and Quan, J. eds. 2000. Evolving land rights, policy and tenure in Africa. London, DFID/IIED/NRI.

1 Political Economist, 1 Cullompton Hill, Bradninch, Devon EX54NP UK. [email protected]

2 The 46 issues of the FAO-funded Forests, Trees and People Newsletter provide an invaluable record of the evolution of community forestry up until 2002.

3 Stringent word limitations mean that documentation is deliberately avoided in this paper. Readers are asked to refer to these publications for details and sources: Alden Wily, 2003; FAO, 2003; Alden Wily & Mbaya, 2001.