Does Devolving Rights to Communities Improve Forest Conditions?

Guest commentary by Matt Sommerville, Chief of Party for USAID Tenure and Global Climate Change (TGCC) project.

Tenure and New York Declaration on Forests

This week Heads of State converged on New York City at the request of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to demonstrate political commitment for completing negotiations on a climate change treaty by the end of 2015, and to announce voluntary actions on a diversity of topics, including forest management. At the meeting, over 125 developed and developing country governments, companies, indigenous peoples groups and civil society organizations signed on to the New York Declaration on Forests, which laid out high-level goals to address deforestation and promote restoration, alongside an action agenda with specific voluntary actions. Many of these forest-related actions will highlight the importance of engaging local communities more effectively in resource management. Indeed, one of the ten commitments of the Declaration is to: “Strengthen forest governance, transparency and the rule of law, while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, especially those pertaining to their lands and resources.”

The subsequent action agenda notes that: “There is growing evidence that areas where communities have clear and enforced rights over forests have reduced deforestation. In Nepal, deforestation has been virtually eliminated in areas under community management.”

It stresses that “Governments can:

  • Promote and support participation and respect the rights of indigenous peoples, including to their lands, territories and resources, consistent with applicable law.
  • Clarify rights in land tenure systems to improve land security, strengthen community management of natural resources and resolve overlapping forest clearing concessions.”

And that “Indigenous peoples can:

  • Exercise and promote their rights to traditional lands and other natural resources in ways that protect and conserve forests, especially when such rights are secured, consistent with applicable law.”

Within this context, new synthesis research supported by USAID explores the “growing evidence” highlighted in the Declaration on the extent to which devolving forest rights from central authorities to local levels results in improved forest condition. This USAID-funded work includes both a brief and a full literature review. It is important to note that the USAID review considers a range of devolution to local levels, while the Declaration largely refers to indigenous peoples lands, but does not explore the challenging issues around defining “local communities,” which may or may not include indigenous peoples.

Why Consider Forests, Climate Change and Devolution of Rights to Local Levels?

The loss of forest ecosystems globally represents a significant source of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. As a result, the protection and restoration of forests (through a mechanism known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+) is one of the most important opportunities for combating climate change by providing incentives to developing countries to reduce emissions from the forest sector. The importance of involving local communities in national REDD+ efforts is commonly recognized in global agreements and project-level guidance. This focus on enhancing engagement of local communities in forest management also overlaps with a global movement to decentralize land and resource rights and protect the rights of local communities in the face of land acquisitions and other land-related pressures in many developing countries. As governments, investors, and project proponents design programs at the local level to reduce deforestation, it is important to critically examine how this relates to achieving climate objectives. Recent publications have described how strengthening community forest rights leads to climate change mitigation (WRI, 2014), and there is a broad set of case studies that examine the successes and failures of local resource management.

Research Findings

The USAID-funded research (released 22 September 2014) calls for a nuanced understanding of the potential causal relationship between devolved resource rights and positive forest outcomes. The review finds some evidence of a positive relationship between devolution of rights and forest condition, but it argues that this does not imply conclusive evidence of a causal link, as there are a range of conditions, including around local capacity, financial incentives, and monitoring and enforcement, that affect whether devolution of rights leads to improved forests. Authors Runsheng Yin, Leo Zulu, and their team from Michigan State University (MSU) find that the full bundle of ownership and management rights are rarely devolved to the local level. As a result, communities are often limited in their rights to extract timber or engage in a range of active forest management activities. In some cases, communities are given management rights, but do not have technical support, for example on low-impact harvesting or in negotiating fair agreements with outside actors. Often, local communities are given responsibilities, for example in monitoring and enforcement, without adequate support, which may undermine communities’ ability to carry out these responsibilities effectively.

The authors also find that the concept of community is overly simplified in existing reviews, with a general failure to explore the range of locally-managed rights regimes. For example, individualized private ownership of forests, local municipality-managed forests, and co-management regimes between a community group and government each represent very different governance regimes with different levels of engagement and different conditions for success. The USAID work calls on researchers and practitioners to explicitly consider the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to strengthen the rights of local actors in research and project design.

The authors also describe analytical weaknesses in the existing literature. While there are many relevant studies, few have been designed specifically to test the relationship between devolution of rights and the resulting forest condition outcomes. The most common design weakness is an unbalanced focus on either physical science or social science elements. Across the literature, many studies demonstrate a strong understanding of community governance institutions but rely on reported change in forest condition. On the other hand, biophysical studies that track forest degradation and growth, even those done through remote imagery, rarely include rigorous indicators related to local resource governance. Future site-specific research should focus on integrating these social and biophysical science elements and utilize uniform indicators.

Local communities must be a part of natural resource management policy and certainly part of any successful REDD+ program. However, the application of these policies and programs will result in a change in access, use, and management of forests from national to local levels. Not all communities will benefit equally, and some members will find their access reduced. Centralized government management of forests that does not engage with or recognize the rights of local populations has not been a successful forest management approach in most countries. Yet, while a response that places increased rights in the hands of local populations is welcomed, it must be accompanied by specific efforts to ensure that the associated conditions around local capacity strengthening, and links to broader monitoring and enforcement assistance are present. These outcomes should inform the activities that emerge from the New York Declaration on Forests and future REDD+ and land tenure programming and financing.

This work was produced under the Tenure and Global Climate Change project, a global USAID project (2013 – 2018) that focuses on targeted research and pilot activities to explore the relationship between strengthening land and resource tenure and the success of climate change mitigation and adaptation activities.


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