Empowering people to manage the forests near their homes is one tool of sustainable development. Widely known as “community forestry,” the notion originated in the 1970s with the dream of fair, equitable, and sustainable forest use.
But achieving those aims isn’t easy. Schemes have to go beyond preserving trees or boosting the local economy, experts say, to alleviate poverty by serving a diverse array of local people, rather than just one gender or class. And the key to ensuring and widening diversity, according to a recent study in World Development, may actually be mediating between stakeholders and resolving conflicts to enable many different groups to participate.
Naomi Millner, a human geographer at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, explored the case of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is widely considered a successful community forestry program based on metrics of improved forest health and poverty alleviation. Millner wanted to know what factors enabled its success—and the extent to which community members considered it successful. Forest degradation and poverty remained high even after the creation of the park. They only fell after the establishment of the Association of Forest Communities of Petén, or ACOFOP, in 1995. Composed of approximately 30 forest communities around the park, ACOFOP mediates conflicts and advocates on behalf of those communities. “The key takeaway is unless there is this negotiation of power relations you don’t get equitable community forestry,” Millner says.
To understand the problems forest communities have faced and how ACOFOP helped address them, Millner and colleagues collected historical documents from ACOFOP and the Maya Biosphere Reserve, and, between 2014 and 2017, interviewed people who had roles in decision-making such as regional and municipal political leaders, and park administrators, as well as nonprofit and international development organization employees, community leaders, academics, and regional experts. The study outlined challenges and strategies to overcome those hurtles via “accompaniment,” which entails “working alongside the communities to support them to make decisions and manage their resources effectively,” Millner explains. Accompaniment stands in contrast to development models in which institutions presume they know what’s best, she says.
Challenges included resolving conflicts on local to national scales; solutions included network-building and training for both organizations and individuals. For example, in 2001, outside interests, including US companies, pushed the government to turn the reserve into a tourist park, arguing that community forestry wasn’t effectively protecting the ecosystem. ACOFOP successfully advocated to keep the community forestry program; their campaign argued that the existing management scheme was actually working and the forest was regenerating. Over the next decade, ACOFOP invested more in forest monitoring using drones and satellites that tracked forest cover, to prove to any other would-be doubters that community forestry was effectively helping the forest regenerate.
One key contribution of the study, says geographer Laura Rasmussen at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, is that the researchers “both focus upon the specific challenges to make community forestry work, but then they actually also identify strategies that can enhance participation and deal with those challenges.” Years of interviews lend the study a strong sense of local people’s engagement and perceptions. A more quantitative approach—for example evaluating the program’s success by surveying the extent of forest cover—would likely overlook the nuances of past challenges and possible solutions, she notes.
Political scientist Krister Andersson at the University of Colorado Boulder, calls the study “a compelling case for why ACOFOP is a major contributing factor to the success of community forestry here.” But he notes that “from an analytical perspective, it remains a hypothesis to be tested in future work.” To establish causation, Andersson would like to see studies that reach beyond the community perspective— for example, by comparing the Guatemalan case with other community forestry programs that lack an ACOFOP-like organization.
Millner hopes the paper makes clear that the challenges of community forestry do not require a silver-bullet solution, but rather a problem-solving approach that entails mediating between many different interests so that a broad swath of society has the chance to benefit from forestry programs.