Indigenous Reserves and Community Forests

Indigenous peoples have occupied the Amazon basin for thousands of years, traditionally practicing small scale shifting cultivation. In recent decades, community groups and indigenous peoples have succeeded in gaining a voice in debates of forest conservation such as REDD+, as well as forest use and Free Prior and Informed Consultation. Communities in Mexico have been particularly successful at developing timber operations, while Amazonian communities have been successful in gaining recognition for subsistence use and extractive reserves of products such as rubber and Brazil nuts. More recently, several of these community groups have been able to transition their forest use and operations into payments for ecosystem services; several studies find the governance structure and local control nature of indigenous and community forests as a key component to the success of payment for ecosystem service programs such as REDD+.

Many studies find that deforestation rates in areas of indigenous and community managed forest are comparable or even lower than that in state managed protected areas. In the Amazon, indigenous communities can sustainably use their forest land through shifting cultivation, trade of non timber forest products, and occasionally selective logging. Indigenous reserves often have the power to prevent illegal land incursion, whereas government protected areas are often understaffed and lack the resources to enforce boundaries. Moreover, community forestry enhances rural livelihoods and provides income opportunities.

One of the greatest challenges for community forestry in the Amazon is lack of investment. Capital investment is necessary for sustainable forest operations to efficiently harvest, transport, and market their products. Mechanisms for investment in community forestry include enabling investments or grants, which provide no financial return but lay the ground for future activity, and asset investments, which seek a return. Land tenure, reliable transportation for products, and good governance to ensure predictable regulation are all crucial to minimize risk for investors. In the Amazon basin, community and small scale forestry enterprises often face a financing gap to scale up to larger operations. For example, chainsaws are often used to cut boards in remote regions of the Amazon; wood processing equipment is more efficient and wastes less wood, but is often costly for small producers. Other reduced impact logging techniques such as testing trees for hollowness, vine cutting, and road planning are sometimes costly to implement in the short term but can translate to long term savings. Similarly, smallholders often have difficulty accessing forest certification. Credit access can allow small holders to invest in the resources necessary to achieve certification and economies of scale (see The Forest Dialogue publication on investing in community forestry).

Equally important, community and indigenous forests need clear tenure security. The tenure “bundle of rights” includes rights of access, rights of control and restricting access of others, and rights to harvest and management. In the Amazon basin, indigenous and community groups hold varying degrees of these tenurial rights. For example, in southern Peru, outside of Manu National Park, indigenous groups have been granted partial tenure rights to their forest territory but the national government has granted rights to natural gas exploitation on top of these. Conflicts also continue after the granting of a tenure right, including lack of defense, conflict with overlapping claims, and lack of support for management and market integration. Additionally, the award of rights is often accompanied with a burdensome set of regulations, and community and indigenous groups often lack the capacity or the resources to follow these regulations. Lack of tenure security is also an impediment that threatens successful implementation of REDD+.

Other challenges for community and indigenous forest management are social. Researchers find self-organized, “discovered” community management most effective (as opposed to designed, or created from the outside). Effective forest management will most likely stem from support and capacity building of existing organizations. In many cases, gender inequality is also an issue for effective forest management. In many traditional communities, women perform many of the community activities related to forest management and use, but only the men are consulted in the policy process. This is often the case in extractive rubber reserves in the Brazilian Amazon; organizations such as the Secretariat of Women Extractivists are assisting women to gain greater voice in forest conservation and governance.

Promoters of community and indigenous forest management find that effective capacity building requires mutual learning and peer to peer exchange. See a review of community forestry and conservation from Forests, Carbon, Markets and Communities and examples of work from the Ford Foundation


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