Rural people key to saving the world’s forests

The best way to conserve many of the world’s forests — and alleviate poverty in some of its poorest countries — is to allow rural communities to generate income by selling forest products, rather than tightly regulating forest use, according to a report released on 7 March.

Forests are vital to one quarter of the world’s poorest people, who depend on forest resources for their subsistence, the report says. It adds that improving the lives of these people through commercial forestry is essential to conservation.

The report, Making Markets Work for Forest Communities, runs counter to conventional wisdom on forest conservation.

“If we want to protect the world’s forests, let’s not lock them up,” says Sara Scherr, one of the authors of the report and senior policy analyst for the US-based organisation Forest Trends, which released the report together with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia.

Eight per cent of the world’s forests are in legally protected areas, where there are tight restrictions on the use of forest products. The report deals with the management of the vast areas of forest outside of these reserves.

“When local people get involved, they have an incentive to conserve the forest,” says Scherr.

Rural communities and indigenous people now control over one quarter of the developing world’s forests. But, the report says, local communities are often not allowed to commercially exploit forests.

In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, the government has recognised the rights of indigenous groups to about 75 million hectares of forest. But timber harvests are banned in the same area.

“This restriction creates conditions under which illegal logging becomes the only viable option, with mahogany sold for US$30 per tree to traders, who resell it for upwards of US$3,000,” says Andy White, programme director of Forest Trends and another author of the report.

“We have to make it easy for small producers to operate legally,” says Scherr. “Existing regulations are hurting the small landholders, not the large plantation owners. There is a need to level the playing field.”

But John Palmer, manager of the UK Department for International Development’s forestry research programme, argues that it is not just a ‘simple’ matter of reforming legislation.

“The capacity of most developing countries for legislative drafting is very weak, especially on environmental issues,” he says. “What most communities need to know is how to operate under the existing regimes of rampant corruption and unsuitable legislation.”

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Katie Mantell SciDev.Net

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