The RIC Good Wood Guide

What is Community Forestry?

- This popular movement presents a challenge to foresters in the 1990's

by Alistair Sarre *

Contents at a Glance...


So what is community forestry?

Some Definitions of Community Forestry


Community forestry has become a popular movement, challenging foresters to change their thinking. The message is simple: people are the key to success rather than the cause of failure.

The message may be simple, but barriers to successful community forestry are many:

  • If they do have rights to the forest, factions within communities may exploit others, or the community as a whole may be exploited by outsiders;
  • The forests are often degraded due to past logging or agricultural activity;
  • Participatory decision-making can be cumbersome and unwieldy;
  • Communities may lack the technical skill to manage the existing forest or to plant new ones;
  • The outside agency that is promoting community forestry may be doing so with a particular outcome in mind, an outcome not necessarily in tune with the wants and needs of the community in question; and,
  • Despite these and other obstacles, community forestry also offers opportunity. Local people, who are often blamed for the destruction of the forest, have the opportunity to establish a long-term source of income. Foresters have the opportunity to rediscover the grassroots of their profession. And nations have the opportunity to develop a forest-based industry which has widespread community support.

    When community forestry is initiated by an outside agency, the key is undoubtedly partnership. Community forestry requires adoption of 'bottom-up' decision-making - authoritarian approaches have no role. For professional foresters, community forestry may often require a healthy dose of humility, because it is sometimes hard for professionals to admit that they have as much - or more- to learn than the people they are attempting to educate.

    So what is community forestry?

    Some definitions are given below; most stress the importance of participation and benefit-sharing. Perhaps, like sustainable development, community forestry should be seen as a process - a process of increasing the involvement of and reward for local people, of seeking balance between outside and community interests and of increasing local responsibility for the management of the forest resource. Also, like sustainable development, community forestry should be a learning experience for all involved parties. Whether or not it leads to better forest management is an arguable point - but in some places it may well be the last chance for the forests.

    Some Definitions of Community Forestry:

    "Community forestry is a village-level forestry activity, decided on collectively and implemented on communal land, where local populations participate in the planning, establishing, managing and harvesting of forest crops, and so receive a major proportion of the socio-economic and ecological benefits from the forest."

    - Martel & Whyte, 1992

    "Successful community forestry requires... genuine popular participation in decision-making... Experience has proven time and again that participation is more than a development cliche; it is an absolute necessity if goals are to be met. But working with people rather than policing them is a new role for many foresters."

    - Eckholm et al, 1984

    "Community forestry has the following characteristics: the local community controls a clearly and legally defined area of forest; the local community is free from governmental and other outside pressure concerning the utilisation of that forest; if the forestry involves commercial sale of timber or other products, then the community is free from economic exploitation of markets or other pressure from outside forces; the community has long-term security of tenure over the forest and sees its future as being tied to the forest"

    - J. Revington, Rainforest Information Centre, 1992

    "Community forestry, social forestry and rural development forestry are more or less equivalent and reflect Abraham Lincoln's view of democracy - government of the people, by the people, for the people."

    - J. Burley, Oxford Forestry Institute

    "The political dimension of community forestry makes it a venue for people's struggle against domination and exploitation of the community's resources by 'outsiders'. Ecology, equity and social justice are part of this struggle."

    - Rao, 1991

    * Alistair Sarre is the editor of the ITTO Update, the journal of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (see Books, Journals, in the Alternative Directory.

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