Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) Toolbox

Forest Tenure

Welcome to the Forest Tenure Module, which is intended for people involved in forest-tenure reforms or who are charged with implementing or facilitating SFM in forests under varying or contested tenure arrangements.

This module provides insights into issues related to forest-tenure systems and governance; key tools for analysing tenure systems, identifying stakeholder perspectives on tenure and assessing tenure governance arrangements and practices; and case studies on the practical application of such tools.

Forest tenure contributes to SDGs:

The condition of forests depends on how they are used and managed, which in turn depends largely on who has rights to their ownership and management. Tenure is a generic term referring to a variety of arrangements that allocate rights to land and resources and (usually) set conditions on those who hold land. Tenure regulates access to, and the use of, resources. Tenure arrangements may involve exclusive rights (where only one person or group has access to a resource), or non-exclusive rights, where more than one group of people have certain tenure rights to the same resources.

Forest tenure is a broad concept that includes ownership, tenancy and other arrangements for the use of forests. It is a combination of legally or customarily defined forest ownership and other rights and arrangements for the management and use of forest resources. Forest tenure determines who can use which resources, for how long and under what conditions. While forest tenure is closely linked to land tenure, it concerns not only the land but also the forest growing on the land.

SFM is unlikely to succeed without the security provided by credible, negotiated arrangements on tenure. In many countries, resolving disputes on forest tenure is not easy but must be done – most effectively through a transparent and equitable process – if resource management is to be sustainable.

Different forest-tenure arrangements may allocate different combinations of rights, such as rights to use, manage and control forest resources; market forest products; and inherit, sell, transfer, dispose of, lease or mortgage forest land (and sometimes trees and other resources on such land). Some tenure systems give people the right to use land (including forests), but not the right to own or transfer them.

In some places, traditional ownership and management may apply to forests that are also subject to a statutory tenure system (either for exploitation or conservation). A lack of clarity on rights and responsibilities for forest land and resources is likely to lead to confusion and conflicting claims.

In many contexts, decisions about resource tenure are critical for forests and livelihoods. Forest tenure determines who:

  • has access and rights to use or withdraw forest resources;
  • can make decisions on forest use or a change in land use;
  • decides who may use resources and who is prevented from using them; and
  • determines who may transfer, sell or lease the resources.

A change in forest tenure implies changes in the distribution of rights and forest management responsibilities among stakeholders. As forests come under increasing stress due to the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change, and growing demand for land and forest products, the governance of tenure will be even more crucial for SFM.

A forest-tenure system that is clear, just and appropriate for local conditions is more likely to result in SFM and lead to a concomitant reduction in deforestation and forest degradation because secure tenure provides incentives for people to invest time and resources in forest management. People are more likely to look after forest resources if they can benefit from them.

It is vital, therefore, that forest managers:

  • understand local tenure arrangements for land and other resources and the impacts (positive or negative) these might have on stakeholders, especially the poor;
  • understand how tenure influences SFM; and
  • participate in forest-tenure reform processes, for example by providing accurate data, facilitating multistakeholder dialogue, and providing space for local people to articulate their views and issues.