Tropical forests for local people



  • International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO)


  • 17/02/2012

  • REGION :

  • Global


  • (tropical countries)


  • The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) has funded over 1,000 projects and activities contributing to its mandate to promote sustainable forest management (SFM) in the tropics over the Organization’s 25-year history. These projects span a range of themes and topics relevant to SFM. One of the most important areas of ITTO’s work, and one of the most relevant to the International Year of Forests, 2011 theme of Forests for People, is its efforts to involve local communities in SFM.


  • Community/local forest management, tropical forests, ITTO


  • Steven Johnsonis Communications Manager for the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) based in Yokohama, Japan. He is a Canadian who has worked for ITTO since 1990, prior to which he worked and studied in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Forests are particularly important resources for the rural poor in tropical countries, with over 800 million people living in forests and woodlands in the tropics. Forest communities include indig-enous peoples and other local groups which have been living in forest areas for significant periods, as well as more recent settlers or immigrants. Many of the very poor are hunting or gathering tribes, landless people living around forests and landless forest workers.

In addition to improving livelihoods by providing a subsistence safety net, including food, shelter and fuelwood, the tropical forests also provide communities and smallholders with a source of cash income, a capital asset, a source of employment and an alternative health-care system based on forest plants. More needs to be done to improve the livelihood of forest-dependent people when they are interested in moving from subsistence livelihoods towards market-based activities. In many tropical zones, most local community cash income from forests comes from collection and commercialization of non-timber forest products such as bamboo, rattan, bushmeat, wild medicinal and aromatic plants and forest fruits. The employ-ment impact of these activities in the tropical rural areas is measured in millions in both the informal and formal sectors, but reliable estimates are lacking. However, due to poverty and difficult access, many forest communities are living in conditions in which even the most minimum standards for education, health, sanitation, potable water, infrastructure and employment cannot be met.

Indigenous groups and communities own or are entitled to the use of about 25 per cent of the forests in developing countries. According to a recent assessment, the forest area owned by commu-nities and indigenous peoples in the ITTO developing member countries in 2008 was about 332 million hectares. This was about 51 million hectares (18 per cent) more than six years earlier, demonstrating a strong trend to transfer formal ownership to forest communities. However, there are various countries where commu-nity forestry is not yet practised at all, or is still in the initial stages.

Community forests have existed for centuries and represent one of the main forms of forest ownership. For instance, in Guatemala, Mexico and Papua New Guinea, community ownership of forest land has been the dominant tenure form for decades. More recently, the Governments of Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Guyana, Honduras, India, Peru, Thailand and Venezuela have revised their policies and legislation for this purpose, some of them with ITTO assistance. In addition to transferring or recognizing ownership rights, various other arrangements are being applied in the devolution of management or use rights to local communities and their members.

The process is not, however, as simple as granting communities title over forest areas, since this is usually not sufficient to ensure SFM and the development of community forest enterprises (CFEs). In general, forest communities are poorly equipped to manage their forests sustainably and to generate value through timber produc-tion and various other benefits. One reason for this is that the forest areas transferred to communities have often been degraded lands with limited development potential and a lack of investment in rehabilitation, which seriously limits their role as a livelihood source for local people who are in need of immediate tangible benefits.

In spite of the difficulties, community forest manage-ment and enterprises represent a huge opportunity for contributing to national development goals through poverty reduction, sustainable socio-economic devel-opment and environmental conservation in rural areas. It has become clear that, given the right conditions and incentives, communities can govern and manage forests sustainably for a variety of objectives, and restore degraded landscapes and ecosystems. However, improvement is generally needed in managing natural, human, financial, physical and social assets by communities.

[Family Nursery “Community forest nursery, family, Country: Peru, Photographer: Ruben Guevara, Organization: ITTO, Site: El Milagro community]

In order to address continued high poverty levels in tropical countries due partly to the inadequate capacity of indigenous peoples and forest communi-ties to manage their forests and develop community forest enterprises on a sustainable basis, in 2009 ITTO established a Community Forest Management and Enterprises (CFME) Thematic Programme. Some of the prominent causes of poverty and unsustainable management of community forest resources are:

  • Lack of clear land tenure and resource rights and inappropriate legal and policy frameworks
  • Poor organization of forest communities and limited capacity among CFEs due lack of technical, business and managerial skills
  • Weak competitiveness in CFEs.

Land tenure is often insecure and resource rights have not been clarified which is a major constraint for engag-ing communities in such long-term endeavours as SFM. Insecurity discourages sustainable practices in forest utilization and community investment. This is partly explained by inappropriate legal and policy frameworks which have often been designed for large-scale private operators and tend to be biased against small-scale operators like CFEs.

In various ITTO producing member countries there is a lack of clear government policies on community forest management, which is reflected in the absence of targeted public support to this activ-ity. National policies tend to overlook the economic potential of community forestry and the important social, cultural and other benefits of CFEs. Even where policies exist, forest authorities do not tend to have confidence in the capacity of indigenous peoples and communities to sustainably manage their forest resources.

Consultations with ITTO producing member country focal points have revealed that, in countries with no or weak community forests, government institutions do not fully understand commu-nity priorities. In most countries, even where legal reforms have been carried out, the regulatory frameworks reflect outmoded tenure arrangements and can make it impossible for small-scale actors and communities to benefit from the reforms. Discriminatory rules and regulations can represent fundamental challenges for forest communities and the rural poor. Regulations often prevent legal access to forests and markets, unduly raise the transaction costs for community enterprises and promote unfair sharing of benefits and corruption. In addition, arbitrary changes of rules and obligations can have dire consequences for local people.

[“Mother, Son, Grand son, and Daughter in law in their family nursery, “ Ashaninka family, plantation, community forestry, Country: Peru, Photographer: Ruben Guevara, Organization: ITTO, Site: Sargento Lorenz community]

Regarding social assets, weak internal organization is often found in forest communities, particularly those which have a heterogene-ous ethnic population structure. This is often associated with differing priorities and conflicting interests among community members, some-times resulting in inequitable sharing of benefits. Basic organizational capacity and effective participation of all members of the community, including women and marginalized groups, are preconditions for success in such targeted joint efforts as sustainable forest management.

Being small and isolated, forest communities do not represent the necessary critical mass as a stakeholder group to promote common interests in policy development, forest product markets and the development of appropriate support services. The underlying reason is inadequate cooperation among forest communities and their enterprises. Forest users’ organi-zations, networks and alliances are essential to advance community forestry and CFEs. There has been extensive reliance on external intermediaries such as non-govern-mental organizations and government agencies, with a focus on short-term project approaches to providing support. Building up community capacity is, however, a long-term endeavour. Capacity-building is also needed in forest agencies to create new attitudes and skills to enhance their facilitation role.

[“Dayak villagers and harvested forest incense product, providing access to East Kalimantan cash economy”  Dayak; incense; East Kalimantan, Country: Indonesia, Photographer: Gary B. Wetterberg, Organization: consultant, Site: East Kalimantan]

In spite of its importance, traditional knowledge is not usually enough when forests are managed for market-based production purposes. Indigenous peoples and forest communities typically lack essential managerial and tech-nical skills, knowledge and experience in running CFEs and accessing markets. This is a key constraint which also makes communities vulnerable to external pressures and illicit activities. Building up community capacity to plan, utilize, monitor and control their forest resources is therefore critical to reduce illegal logging and associ-ated trade. However, in most ITTO-producing member countries a shortage of targeted capacity-building and training facilities, weak local intermediaries and inad-equate support to community-based organizations are retarding progress. Valuable lessons learned have been accumulated in many countries but this knowledge has not been sufficiently used to replicate and upscale success-ful experiences. Traditional knowledge should not be lost as it can provide invaluable support to sustainable forest management if systematized, improved and disseminated together with modern tools to increase competitiveness and market-based approaches.

Community-based enterprises are typically insufficiently competitive as there are major shortcomings in their human, financial and physical assets. Even in the leading countries only a few CFEs have developed into medium-sized industrial enterprises, and their capacity to get a fair price for their products and to invest in value-added activities is low. Apart from niche markets, buyers generally tend to prefer suppliers who can provide reliable deliveries in sufficient quantities. As CFEs typically lack commercial cooperation and other networks, they cannot enjoy the economic benefits of scale and specialization, keeping their profit-ability low. This is coupled with isolation from the market, limitations in market access due to increasing requirements for verifiable legal and sustainable product supply and general ignorance of market character-istics and pricing potential. Trade intermediaries tend to unduly exploit such situations to reap windfall profits, resulting in an inappropriate sharing of benefits for CFEs. Support programmes have often failed due to problems with providing the required economic feasibility assess-ments for community forest enterprises.

Another set of constraints to the development of forest communities, smallholders and their enterprises can be their limited access to capital and appropriate technologies. Most rural funding schemes have been designed for agriculture and only a few countries have targeted financing schemes for community forestry. This is particularly problematic in fairly common situations in which the forest areas transferred to community management are degraded and require significant investment in restora-tion. Existing credit schemes are not tailored to the need of community forests for relatively long pay-back periods which are not compatible with the conditions of regular commercial credit. Financing institutions have little understanding of the business potential of community forest opera-tions. Forest growing stock could be used as collateral for financing of CFEs but this is rarely possible due to lack of relevant regulation and engagement of the banking sector.

[“Community forest nursery, Community forestry, Country: Peru, Photographer: Ruben Guevara, Organization: ITTO, Site: Belen Community]

ITTO’s contribution

Since 1992, ITTO has accumulated a significant body of knowl-edge and experience in the development of community forestry in its producing member countries. Prior to establish-ment of the CFME programme, a total of 85 projects were implemented with an investment of about US$40 million. These projects have had a significant impact on country and community capacity as revealed by thematic evaluations. It has been clearly demonstrated that community forest management and enterprises can lead to sustained improvements in livelihoods but they have to be economically feasible, which is one of the key issues of the CFME Programme.

ITTO has implemented successful community forestry projects in Bolivia, Ghana, Panama, Peru, the Philippines and Togo, among others. In addition, many ITTO projects in the field of reforestation and forest management have included a focus on creating economic and other benefits for the local communities through their participation in project interventions. ITTO recently completed a series of forest tenure conferences in the three tropical regions, raising the profile of this important topic globally. And the CFME programme (which commenced operations in 2010) is already funding important country activities in Ghana, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Thailand.

A considerable body of this work has been under-taken in partnership with other multilateral and bilateral organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Forestry Department and the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) and in consulta-tion with the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the Global Alliance of Community Forestry (GACF) and the Forest Peoples Program (FPP) of the World Rainforest Movement. ITTO will continue to work with its global partners to ensure that communities and local people achieve their potential to contribute to the sustainable management of the forests they depend on.