The state of the world's forests 2022


5.2 Securing rights is essential if smallholders, local communities and Indigenous Peoples are to deliver local recovery via the forest pathways

Systematic reviews of land and forest property reforms have found generally positive or mixed impacts on agricultural productivity, income consumption and capital.445 Interventions that devolve more limited rights (e.g. only access or withdrawal but not management or alienation rights) are less likely to alleviate poverty than the devolution of more extensive rights.446 Moreover, there is substantial social differentiation in the impacts of tenure reform (e.g. by ethnicity and gender).447

Tenure reform continues to face challenges in many countries, such as states adopting laws but not implementing them, or retaining control of high-value forests448 and decentralizing low-value degraded forestland in need of restoration;449 the persistent marginalization of women’s rights to resources;450,451 and differential livelihood impacts on ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. Nevertheless, tenure and property rights can act as levers of change452 and, in some contexts, reforms can facilitate locally led recovery and the local development of value chains.

Many countries recognize customary rights in statutory laws or have devolved new rights on public lands. This has been done by either formalizing customary tenure or through various collaborative, community and smallholder programmes on public lands. More than 90 percent of Africa’s rural people gain access to land through customary or formalized new-customary institutions. One-quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s land area – 740 million ha – is made up of communal property such as forests, rangelands, swamps and deserts.453 Approximately 45 percent of intact forests in the Amazon are on the customary lands of Indigenous Peoples.454 The trend in devolving rights is partly in recognition of community-based forestry (all forms of forestry allowing people’s participation) and its potential to move towards sustainable forest management and improve local livelihoods, particularly where the centralized state management of forests has failed to control deforestation and degradation.455

States have been providing communities with more robust rights in recent decades, including by recognizing rights over ecologically intact forests rather than mainly degraded forests; allowing fuller governance roles rather than only some responsibilities such as monitoring and patrolling; and granting commercial rights to wood products and NWFPs rather than the subsistence use of NWFPs only.q Since 2012, international endorsement of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security has provided significant additional validation and support for the strengthening of customary tenure globally.456

These significant shifts in national policies have increased the ability of smallholders, local communities and Indigenous Peoples to sustainably harvest high-value forest resources and derive income from PES, REDD+ and carbon credits, thereby giving them both sustained benefits and incentives for better forest governance and management. Progress has not been uniform, however: not all states recognize customary rights or provide forest rights to communities; some have adopted laws but not implemented them; and some have recognized local stakeholder rights but subsequently retracted them.457

Accelerating the formalization of customary and collective rights is crucial for protecting forests and mobilizing resources for recovery and development

National-level policymakers can use rapid and low-cost means to provide robust and secure tenure for millions of rural households without the need for major legal reforms. In a number of countries, customary forest rights are already recognized in statutory laws but have not yet been formalized.

Approaches exist to rapidly formalize rights where statutory laws already recognize them. Countries can develop regulations giving recognition to customary lands without the need for titling while also encouraging the registration of such lands through simplified processes to prevent encroachment. Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe allow the recognition of customary rights without requiring titling. Mozambique, Timor-Leste and the United Republic of Tanzania recognize rights but encourage registration.458

India recognizes customary collective tenure to forests in its Forest Rights Act, 2016; under this Act, customary governance (community forest rights) can be formalized on an estimated 34.6 million ha – close to half the national forest area – but only 10.4 percent (3.6 million ha) has been so formalized, mainly through support from non-governmental organizations.459

Governments can simplify land registration processes by reducing the number of steps required, and there are many ways in which this can be done. For example, governments can eliminate requirements for official or historical records and instead recognize oral testimonies validated by neighbouring communities and local leaders as proof of land claims; help negotiate overlapping claims; allow communities to submit simple land-use or community development plans rather than the complex forest management plans required of industries; recognize indigenous and local communities as legal entities rather than requiring them to incorporate themselves as associations; and, where rights registration systems are lacking, provide local registries in place of regional and national land offices. For example, Madagascar’s Land Law allows local claimants to register lands through community land commissions.460

To speed up formalization, some governments use a “tenurial shell” approach, which recognizes the outer boundaries of multiple adjacent communities and allows them to manage land and resources for diverse purposes within these boundaries.461 This approach can help prevent encroachment by outsiders and facilitate the recognition of seasonal and secondary resource rights, particularly those of women, transhumance communities and other vulnerable groups. It can work well where intra- and inter-community conflicts are few, traditional institutions are strong, traditional authorities are able to secure tenure for its members and resolve internal conflicts, and national governments can enforce such rights; Ecuador and Colombia have used this approach to recognize the authority of Indigenous Peoples to manage forest reserves on their lands.499 Governments may require resource management plans and evidence that resources are being managed.

Countries recognize rights through diverse other approaches suited to varied ecological contexts and local needs. For example, Brazil recognizes perpetual territorial use rights in some areas, and it has designated some other areas as extractive reserves for the commercial use of specific NWFPs. India recognizes the customary rights of settled communities and smallholders as well as appropriate rights for pastoralist groups, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and those practising shifting cultivation, including in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.462

In some cases, processes to formalize rights have been targeted at areas where forests are under particularly high pressure and where tenure formalization can yield important benefits. For example, titling carried out in the Peruvian Amazon involving more than 1 200 communities of Indigenous Peoples led to a significant reduction in illegal logging and improvements in forest conservation within two years.463

A range of new, low-cost technologies are being used to help secure community tenure in remote areas through participatory approaches. Drones, global-positioning-system-enabled smart phones and tablets, mobile apps, open-source software and crowd-sourced data-collection methods can significantly reduce the cost of surveying and associated mapping exercises.464,465 Finally, respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to free, prior and informed consent, as per the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and consultation throughout the process, can help ensure that the approaches identified are appropriate to the local context.

Nearly all countries have some form of community or collaborative forestry regime.466 A recent assessment of 23 countries showed, however, that legal provisions and implementation were weak in most or implemented in only a small proportion of national forests.467 Nineteen of the 23 countries provided indigenous and local communities with few or no legal protections against the reduction or elimination of land and forest rights. Twenty-two had regulatory frameworks that hindered the capacity of communities to benefit from their recognized rights, and only one (China) supported the development of community-forest-based economies.468

Regardless of the status quo, governments can improve forest governance and restoration efforts by prioritizing the devolution of forestry programmes such as those involving FLR and REDD+. Formal community-based forestry initiatives can:

  • build on customary rights and local tenure arrangements to avoid conflicts between and among multiple primary, seasonal and secondary forest users;

  • devolve rights by law and in practice to land controlled by communities, including those with good-quality forests;

  • ensure that rights go beyond subsistence needs to the use and management of high-value resources;

  • enable the generation of forest-based income and thereby recovery, which can help prevent out-migration;

  • simplify regulations and remove regulatory barriers (such as restrictions on harvesting that complies with management plans) to facilitate the use of resources, processing and value-adding;

  • invest in alternatives to large private sector concessions, such as community-owned forests and community-plantation-based concessions (e.g. for timber, fuelwood, charcoal and high-value resources) and community licences for timber and biomass energy;469

  • ensure that rights are not eliminated or reduced arbitrarily (which is a disincentive for good forest management); and

  • where the effectiveness of community-based forestry is uncertain, grant longer-term rights based on performance, as practised in the Gambia.470

Strengthening smallholder tree rights and reducing regulatory barriers can encourage smallholder adoption of restoration and agroforestry

Gains in tree cover (in countries as diverse as China, Sweden, the United Republic of Tanzania and Viet Nam) are often driven by private smallholders for commercial purposes, but smallholder land rights are uncertain in many countries. For most smallholders, tree (and carbon) rights are even more uncertain than land rights. For example, many African states retain ownership rights over trees on farms, even those planted by farmers.471 Although this is changing gradually, most countries that give farmers tree rights also heavily regulate tree use and management on private lands, especially for naturally regenerated trees. Governments also provide farmers with large subsidies to cultivate staple crops, leading to forest loss472 and incentivizing rural households to shift away from agroforestry towards annual crops. Bottlenecks in wood product supply chains may discourage farmers from engaging in agroforestry. In India, for example, most states allow farmers to plant and harvest trees on their farms, but many farmers with forest areas and approved management plans still choose to plant crops rather than trees because of the bureaucracy involved in treefelling and transport.473

Forestry programmes might recognize these limitations that undermine landscape restoration but address them inadequately. For example, the Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (see Box 11) provides countries with guidance on assessing tenure and land governance in forestland tenure planning processes, but an assessment found that reports from countries in which the methodology has been implemented do not include systematic assessments of rights to trees, forests or land in statutory or customary laws.474 Governments can promote restoration and agroforestry initiatives through a range of measures. For example, they could provide smallholders with secure rights to land, trees and carbon; they could also use forestland allocation mechanisms or conditional leases in which farmers (particularly the landless and tenant farmers) are offered long-term, secure rights to trees and tree products in exchange for adopting good natural resource management practices, including sustainable agroforestry.475 Where farms are small and fragmented, they could also provide land consolidation measures or regulations that allow landholders to combine lands into joint holdings, incentivized by special rules and taxes,476 and they could remove regulatory constraints to sustainably use and manage trees on private lands (Box 29). In China and Viet Nam, governments provided comprehensive support to small-scale forest enterprises over long periods, with huge positive economic and environmental impacts (Box 30).

Box 29 Re-greening the Niger by advancing tree rights for farmers

A presidential decree in the Niger in July 2020 awarded farmers formal ownership rights over naturally regenerating trees on private lands.477 This came after 30 years of the gradual strengthening of tree tenure rights in the Niger. Tree-planting efforts in the 1970s and early 1980s failed because of low tree survival rates and a lack of local participation. In 1983, the Government of the Niger began encouraging farmers to regenerate naturally occurring trees on their farms, starting in the Maradi region, and removed restrictions that prevented farmers from managing these trees. Seeing the success of this approach, the government enhanced rights to protect, manage and benefit from on-farm trees in the 1993 Rural Code and strengthened rights to the subsistence use of trees on customary lands and forest reserves under the 2004 Forest Code. Meanwhile, projects worked with customary institutions to privatize rights to trees. Farmer-managed natural regeneration rapidly paved the way for re-greening nearly half of all cultivated land (5 million ha), benefiting about 30 percent of the population with improved crop yields and the production of woodfuel, fodder and other products and reducing conflict over scarce resources and poverty-driven migration.478 Women, widows and the landless poor also benefited from the restoration of degraded areas, gaining access to land and increasing their incomes.479 Natural regeneration helped restore ecological processes and biodiversity compared with restoration involving nursery-grown tree stock.480

Box 30 Enabling policies for smallholder forestry in China and Viet Nam

Prompted by severe forest degradation, China initiated forest tenure reforms in the 1980s by devolving forest tenure rights to communities and then allowing communities to allocate forests to individual households. More than 180 million ha of collective forestland was transferred to households for a 70-year period.481 Full rights were granted to wood and non-wood products for subsistence use and sale and, over time, all taxes were eliminated, including on wood sales. The government set up service centres to facilitate the transfer and registration of forestlands, conduct forest asset appraisals, provide market information and microcredit, issue logging permits, broker trade, and provide technical support and extension services and skills training.482 These reforms led to an increase in forest cover, and smallholder forests are now meeting a significant portion of domestic demand for wood; China produced 40 percent of wood-based panels and 27 percent of paper and paperboard globally in 2019.483 Although the government emphasized timber production, the reforms also enabled communities to collectively scale up their commercialization of non-wood forest products.484

In Viet Nam, where smallholders own around 1.97 million ha of forest plantations and contribute 60 percent of the industrial wood supply, smallholder tree farmers have been supported by favourable policies on land allocations, land tenure, tree ownership, foreign investment, regulations and trade, as well as by favourable stumpage prices, low-interest credit and the private sector provision of seedlings and technical support.485 As a result, they are contributing to rural development, employment generation and the strengthening of rural livelihoods.486,487

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