It takes communities to save forests

For decades research has found evidence that community forest management provides both income for local communities and conservation of forests. A recent article suggests some of the design principles that can make it work.

In the developing world, forests are falling to the axe and drying out. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is up 89% over the year as of June 2020, and long-term drought in tropical forests is leading to declines in functional, taxonomic and phylogenetic biodiversity1,2. To address this concatenation of crises, two commonly proposed policy instruments are protected areas and community forest management (CFM). Proponents of each have been locked in a decades-long debate over which is superior for achieving sometimes contradictory goals of conservation and development3,4. Writing in Nature Sustainability, Hajjar et al.5 leave aside academic polemics, and instead evaluate what works in CFM. Analysing 267 studies, they assess the achievements of CFM around the world in terms of environmental, income and natural resource rights goals. They also evaluate predictors of joint positive outcomes, and identify trade-offs.

CFM is a ‘rights-based approach’. Securing land and resource rights for indigenous and/or local communities and for women within these groups is key to confronting the biodiversity and climate crises while assuring sustainable livelihoods and food security. The achievements and the magnitude of the challenges in devolving rights are noted in a new report, which finds that 49.2% of the area of a 42-country sample consists of territories of indigenous, local and Afro-descendant peoples6. Of these lands, 53.5% are recognized by national governments, whereas in 46.5% communities have still unrecognized and frequently threatened customary rights.

Evidence is accumulating that community participation is key for the success of forest conservation initiatives. For example, indigenous territories cover 30% of the area in the Amazon Basin. In this fraction, deforestation and fire occurrence are lower and it contains more than half of the region’s carbon stocks, while having only 10% of recent forest loss despite multiple threats7. Another study of social and conservation outcomes in a large sample of protected areas found that those with positive socioeconomic outcomes and cultural and livelihood benefits for communities also had improved conservation8.

Hajjar et al. explore the variables associated with varying combinations of positive joint outcomes and their trade-offs. They focus on three categories of outcomes: environmental measures (forest cover, forest condition and biodiversity), community and household income, and commercial and subsistence resource rights. These variables were extracted from a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed studies, with not all outcomes reported in all cases. There was substantial variation in outcomes, with joint positive outcomes among all three categories present in only 18% of a subsample of 122 cases. More common were findings on trade-offs. For example, in 169 studies that examined income and resource rights outcomes, 34% found joint increases while 31% had increases in income associated with decreases in resource rights.

They look at a range of predictor variables of biophysical conditions of the forest, local and national-level institutions, policy intervention characteristics and user-group characteristics. They find that biophysical conditions (forest type and elevation), national institutional arrangements (low development and governance indicators) and pre-existing resource rights are associated with double-positive and triple-positive outcomes. Additionally, the policy intervention of co-management (more equitable power-sharing and responsibility between government and local user groups), is associated with joint positive environmental and income outcomes.

The paper also provides some counter-intuitive findings. Commercial timber extraction is not found to be a predictor of positive joint outcomes. However, there are good examples of this association like Mexico, where some 1,600 communities are engaged in regulated commercial timber extraction with many jointly positive outcomes reported, such as reduced poverty and associations with positive forest cover outcomes9. It is also surprising that access to markets did not predict joint positive outcomes. Again in Mexico, relatively stable and high timber prices were key factors in the emergence of the sector10. In sum, in this data-rich study Hajjar et al. provide an array of validated design principles to inform policy using a large-n sample and a sophisticated methodology. Recent research suggests that there are 19 countries where the legal framework, national and subnational government interest, and government and community operational capacity are such that large or medium-scale investments in CFM could be successful11 (Fig. 1). The Hajjar et al. findings could find quick application in these countries and beyond.

Fig. 1: Opportunity framework for members of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) has evaluated 23 low- and middle-income countries, members of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), and found that 9 of them had the conditions for large national or subnational CFM reforms to be successful, 10 were ready for medium projects, and 4 would require enabling support to undertake small projects. Figure adapted with permission from ref. 11, Rights and Resources Initiative.


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Correspondence to David Barton Bray.

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Bray, D.B. It takes communities to save forests. Nat Sustain (2020).

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