Keeping it in the community
AT A sawmill in the misty hills of Michoacán in central Mexico, loggers sporting damp sombreros and droopy moustaches are working through a drizzle, hauling pine logs. With iron spikes they lever them into position, hack out any stones embedded in the pungent orange flesh and heave the logs on to a runner. A bullnecked lumberman guides them through a buzzing circular saw, slicing them into rough boards. Another cuts them into planks, which his mate tosses onto a rising stack. It barely takes a minute to transform giant trunks into building material.
Most of it will be sold locally. The loggers, who belong to a rural co-operative (or ejido) that owns 680 hectares of the nearby Ocampo forest, will use the rest to make simple furniture. The business provides jobs for 20 of the ejido’s 138 members, hauling lumber, turning lathes and planting trees, and each member gets an annual profit share of around 15,000 pesos ($1,150).
Over 75% of Mexico’s forests, which range from temperate spruce and fir to tropical rainforest, are controlled by local communities, either ejidos or indigenous groups. Most were parcelled out in the 1920s, in a spate of land reform after Mexico’s 1910-20 revolution. Though much of this forest is technically owned by the state, the communities have strong rights to it. They won control of logging permits in the late 1970s after protests by ejidatarios against commercial loggers had brought Mexico’s timber industry to its knees. The communities are not allowed to clear or sell their woods; otherwise they can do with them more or less as they please.This makes Mexico a remarkable case study in what some consider as the best form of forest management. Most forests are claimed and mismanaged by governments. That can also mean dispossessing local people who, denied ownership of a forest they may have considered their own for centuries, tend to become protagonists in its destruction. An obvious solution is to put the forest back in local hands. Once they have tenure, it is argued, local people will regain their incentive to manage the forest sustainably, and trees and people will both flourish.
This is more radical than it may sound. Not long ago it was widely accepted that communally owned resources inevitably get overexploited because a few spoilers, or even a suspicion of them, are sufficient to make other users abandon prudential rules. Known as the “tragedy of the commons”, after a hugely influential 1968 essay by an American ecologist, Garrett Hardin, this theory was often cited by governments to justify their takeover of forests in the 1970s and 1980s.
But the tide may be turning. In the past two decades the area of forest in developing countries that is wholly or partly controlled locally has more than doubled, to over 400m hectares, or 27% of the total. That is partly due to a growing recognition that most governments make lousy forest conservationists, and a corresponding hope that locals will do better. That helps explain why 450,000 hectares of Guatemala’s Maya rainforest have been made over to 13 communities living there. But other factors have also contributed to the shift, including efforts to deal with the grievances of dispossessed indigenous people, especially in Latin America, and political decentralisation schemes, especially in Africa and Asia. Tanzania, for example, has devolved rights to about 2m hectares of its dryland forest. And in India a combination of political devolution, tree-hugging judges and activists for tribal folk has helped 275m people win more rights to their nearby forests.
With such diverse origins, the reforms now in progress vary greatly in scope, design and implementation. Yet most share three features: an emphasis on conserving forest; a prohibition on selling or clearing it; and a tendency to deliver less change than they promise. That is often because governments try to claw back control, in myriad ways. They may restrict forest pursuits such as collecting firewood or hunting. They may make it hard to obtain logging licences and other permits, either through incompetence or spite, or they may invent new ones for fun. In Nepal community foresters are not allowed to sell timber on the open market until they have offered it to neighbouring villagers.
Governments also like to keep the more valuable forests for themselves. In Cameroon this is policy. Moreover, even with strong rights to a potentially rich resource, naive villagers generally need advice, training and access to credit to manage it on a commercial basis, and that is rarely forthcoming. More often the forest’s new owners are undermined by petty officials’ preference for dealing with local elites. In Ghana and Cameroon this has allowed venal village chiefs to steal logging revenues.
Most of these troubles are evident in India. Its recent reform, passed in 2006 after an outcry over a court-ordered policy of forest enclosure, grants each household the right to four hectares of agricultural land and a share in local forest produce. But its implementation requires diligent officials, so not much has happened. And the record of an earlier Indian scheme, joint forest management, in which locals were promised a small share of timber revenues in return for deterring illegal logging and planting trees, is discouraging. It offered a few brilliant examples of co-operation between organised communities and motivated officials, but in many of the 85,000 communities covered by the scheme corrupt and controlling officials made participation hard. India-wide it did little for people or trees.
Recent research by CIFOR on community forest management in 11 tropical countries suggests that such outcomes are not uncommon. In most of the examples studied, at least some benefit had accrued to some community members, but local control was not in itself a guarantee of better forest management. Where communities were given degraded forest and instructed to regenerate it, they generally did so. But where devolving forest rights provoked local conflict, as quite often happens, the forest usually suffered.
This does not mean that community forest management is no good. There is rarely a better way to balance the interests of poor people and forests. But to do a good job, communities need strong property rights and often technical help. Such assistance should not stifle their ideas on forest management, which are often, though not always, based on a deep understanding of the local ecosystem. Outcomes that are good for both trees and people will also depend on external factors such as law enforcement and access to timber markets. And in the way of forests, these conditions will vary greatly from place to place.
The state of the Maya forest is a good illustration. Where the local foresters get tourism revenue from Mayan archaeological sites, it is thick with trees. In some other places, where the same indigenous communities have the same legal rights to the same sort of forest, it is degraded. “We should not think there’s any optimal form for preserving forests,” says Elinor Ostrom, an American political scientist who won last year’s Nobel prize for economics for her work on common property and collective action. “We find government forests that work and community forests that work and those that don’t,” she adds. “Panaceas, like thinking ‘community forests are always great’, are dangerous.”
That is true even of Mexico’s community forests. The Ocampo ejido is inspiring. Its members began logging their forest in 1989, and with the profits they made they bought their sawmill two years later. The forest, most of which is inside a famous butterfly reserve, has also thrived. Illegal logging has fallen—despite the recent entry into the trade of a cultish local narco-mafia, La Familia. Yet such examples are rare. Around 80% of Mexico’s community forests are not managed at all because the locals are unskilled or unorganised or their forest is difficult to log. The dry forests of southern Chiapas and Yucatán require expert management which is beyond the local indígenas. They are among Mexico’s poorest, most unlettered and most rebellious people, with weak property rights and rapidly disappearing forests.
And even in Michoacán, community forestry faces an uncertain future because it is inefficient. The Ocampo loggers’ sawmill is old, yet they are loth to upgrade it for a less labour-intensive model. They also confess to lacking the nous to find the niche markets their pine requires. It is of high quality, but at least 30% more expensive to produce than the sappy Chilean alternative. Overall, Mexico’s timber production has fallen by a third in the past decade, despite a $400m annual subsidy to the industry. To remedy this, the government is establishing a big plantation forestry which will make it even harder for the ejidatarios to compete.
“In terms of economics, community forestry doesn’t make much sense,” says Juan Manuel Torres Rojo, director-general of the Mexican forestry department. “But in terms of equity, and perhaps conservation, it’s the way to go.” He reckons community forest revenues need topping up by a third, and is looking to REDD.