Turning poverty into potential: Community forestry in Amazonia

During the last years many have stepped up and argued that greater involvement in the establishment of rules and regulations and improved autonomy over forests from a local level are strongly related to better forest management practices as well as livelihood benefits for the communities themselves. After all, who can manage the forests better and who has more to gain from using them responsibly than those who live within or near to them? The community forest management approach may be the best tool we have in achieving combined forest conservation and rural development goals, serving both humanity and nature. Governments and non governmental organisations (NGO’s) have been formally supporting many different versions of community forestry management in a wide range of countries during the last 50 years, and community management rights have increased rapidly. Unfortunately, establishing an efficient community-managed forest management system is not always an easy task. As in the rest of the world, in the Amazon region in South America several community forestry projects have been put into practice during the last years. These projects were set up because community leaders or individual land owners would often bargain informal contracts with big logging companies, allowing them to harvest economically valuable trees in exchange for small cash payments. The poor logging practices by the companies led to immense damage to the communities’ forest stands and the community would in time loose its forest resources, which were an essential part of their livelihoods. NGO’s have responded to this trend by supporting the local communities to harvest timber themselves, based on settled management plans set up by outside experts. Most of these projects initiatives, however, involve a commercial forestry approach which makes use of mechanized harvesting operations and either requires the selling of the extracted logs or the transport of them to community sawmills for further processing. Despite an optimistic approach and the success of similar projects in other parts of the worlds results thus far have been minor in the dense jungles of Amazonia. Community forestry in Amazonia currently encounters many problems. First and foremost, it is difficult for the communities to meet up with the organizational and technological skills needed: often the small villages community forestry projects focus on have limited access to markets and if they do they can’t compete with the large-scale companies that dominate the region, or with the cheap timber that enters the market illegally. They often have no marketing knowledge whatsoever, need more infrastructure and can’t bring up the start-up capital needed on their own. Communities involved need significant subsidies that will cover their operational costs for a substantial amount of time and putting an end to this financial support can lead to the almost immediate collapse of a project. Fortunately a different strategy for community-based forest management practices waits just around the corner. This strategy makes use of small-scale production methods that are technologically and organizationally simple. It focuses on the needs of the community itself rather than the needs of the market. Communities are allowed to have their say in what the concepts of forest management and forest use should be like, allowing them to get strongly involved in defining a regulatory framework. The traditional focus of rural producers on things such as agricultural production and the extraction of non timber forest products are no longer being ignored and vertical business-like management models that require massive investments are to make room for a horizontal approach which focuses on smallscale economic activities with more immediate returns and benefits. Reporters speak about it, researchers write about it and now, to see whether this approach will really prove to be a succes, the strategy should be finally be implemented and monitored. Small projects have already started and despite the lack of in-depth studies on such projects, their outlooks seem great. It might work. After all, it is not the principle of community forestry which is under fire – we know it works. It is the current framework in which it is presented.

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