|Balancing Acts: Community-Based Forest Management and National Law in Asia and the Pacific (WRI, 1995, 204 pages)|
In many developing countries, tropical forests are the single most important natural resource for rural communities. Woodlands provide food, shelter, and fuel, often nourishing the spirits of their inhabitants as well as their bodies. Unfortunately, few national governments in developing countries recognize forest-dependent peoples' locally-based natural resource rights or their contributions to sustainable forest management. Nor do most countries give local resource users any meaningful say in decisions on national forest laws and policies. Instead, many adhere to colonially inspired and centralized systems of forest land ownership that legally disenfranchise many rural citizens.
National legal systems that benefit political and economic elites also isolate the hundreds of millions of people who inhabit or depend upon tropical forests for survival. Such systems reinforce the inequitable distribution of the benefits of natural resources. They also undermine local incentives for sustainable development and contribute to the still-accelerating rate of tropical deforestation.
Three fundamental and persistent misrepresentations are often used to marginalize forest dwellers and other forest-dependent peoples, even though they have been thoroughly disproved.147 One is that forest-dependent peoples are few in number (outdated and inaccurate official counts underestimate the population of classified forest areas). Another is that forest-dependent peoples use public resources illegally. The third is that they are destroying the forests, especially with slash-and-burn farming.
A growing body of evidence demonstrates that many forest-dependent people actually protect biologically rich areas and sustainably manage local ecosystems. In particular, many forest dwellers rely on elaborate systems of community-based property rights which have been developed over many generations, systems that often spring from long experience and a deep sense of obligation to the natural world.
Forest bureaucracies know, of course, that when push comes to shove many forest-dependent communities can resist or bollix governmental forest-management schemes that strike them as inequitable and unsustainable, however "legal." Traditionally marginalized peoples, including forest-dependent populations, won't allow themselves to be legislated or developed out of existence. By building partnerships with forest communities, governments can stave off potential unrest and develop an alternative strategy for sustainably managing fast-disappearing forest resources.
The plight of forest-dependent communities has been a long time in the making, as has the well-documented failure of state-managed systems. Now, the deforestation crises that many South and Southeast Asian countries face can be defused only by a fair and balanced government partnership with local communities. Both power and its rewards must be shared with forest-dependent communities, and community and national interests must be balanced to promote the common good.
National and state authorities need not, and should not, be eliminated from the management processes of forest resources. Empowering local communities does not mean disempowering governments. The states play a vital and necessary role in managing tropical forest resources, but it is one they share with forest-dependent communities and one that should be used to secure the balance between community and national interests and thereby promote both.
Only by sharing authority can overburdened national forest departments truly help communities and the nation sustainably develop and equitably share in the forest patrimony. In turn, by accepting their share of responsibility and cooperating with reasonable state regulations, local communities will be better able to promote the common good, as well as their own.