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peoples are few in number (outdated and inaccurate official counts underestimate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