Strengthening Rural Communities and Improving Conservation

On July 29th of this year the Ford Foundation announced a new, five-year and $85 million initiative to address climate change through the inclusion and empowerment of rural and indigenous people. In the first part of this two-part interview we are speaking with David Kaimowitz ,director of Sustainable Development at the Ford Foundation and its natural resource and climate work, about the reasoning and goals behind the Foundation’s new initiative.

(Photo credit: University of Wisconsin)

To help develop its new initiative, the Ford Foundation referenced studies on community rights to forest lands by the Rights and Resources Initiative, a coalition of research, conservation and development organizations. According to these studies, forest areas suffer disproportionately from conflicts, humanitarian crises and corruption. What is it about forest areas that make them, in many cases, some of the most disputed and poverty stricken?

The remaining forests in developing countries tend to be in remote areas with limited government presence and poorly developed property rights that have a large proportion of ethnic minorities. The forests are still there because historically governments and the dominant ethnic groups were not interested enough in those areas to firmly establish themselves there and clear the forest for agriculture and other uses. When changes in policies, markets, technologies, or other factors lead outside companies and settlers to become interested in these areas for their land, timber, minerals, petroleum, hydroelectric potential, biodiversity, or carbon stocks that often leads to conflict. Lack of access to government services and markets, ethnic discrimination, and soils poorly suited for agriculture are among the main causes of widespread poverty in these regions.

Can you discuss the relationship between the issues of agriculture, human rights, food security and climate change that can be addressed through improved land tenure systems in forest areas?

Providing local inhabitants of forested regions clear rights over their natural resources can limit human rights abuses by logging, mining, petroleum, ranching, and plantation companies. It can also give them greater political clout, which can help them to defend themselves against human rights abuses. Several studies from Brazil and Mesoamerica have shown that providing secure rights over forests to Indigenous Peoples and community forestry groups has been at least as effective as protected areas at conserving forests, and hence reducing Green House Gas emissions from deforestation that contribute to climate change. In some countries loss of access to natural resources has been one of the main causes of loss of stable access to food, particularly when people are displaced by violent conflicts. Displaced peoples in many countries urgently need secure access to land and forest to farm and collect forest products for their use.

What is the “myth of the empty wilderness?”  Can you discuss how preserving large swaths of forest is not as simple as putting up public protected areas?

People that live in urban areas tend to think of forests as places where no one lives. In fact hundreds of millions of people live in heavily forested regions, and many more depend on natural forest vegetation and wildlife for their fuelwood, medicinal plants, wild meat, construction materials, fodder, fertilizers, and other basic needs. It would be neither ethical nor practical to simply deny all of these people access to the forests they depend on. Governments, NGOs, universities and other groups must recognize that these people have a right to live in dignity and control the natural resources they have traditionally managed and need to work with local communities to encourage them to manage their resources as sustainably as possible.

How can local communities be integrated into conservation efforts?

In some parts of world communities’ cultures already favor conservation. For example, many African and Asian peoples have forests they consider sacred, which they leave untouched. Many hunters and fishers practice norms that ensure that they species they rely on can reproduce. Indeed, many Indigenous Peoples and other forest dwellers have successfully co-existed with their forested surrounding for long periods of time. This is by no means universal, and population growth, cultural changes, and the growing power of market forces may weaken the institutions and practices that traditionally protected the ecosystem, but in many cases it provides a base to work from. Governments and Non-Governmental Organizations can strengthen communities’ efforts to conserve their natural resources by helping them to defend their territories against incursion by outside groups that seek to use those resources to earn short-term profits.

Please explain the relationship between the threat of infectious diseases and land-use?

Forest clearing and fragmentation affect the populations of mosquitoes, flies, bats, rodents, and other vectors that spread disease, and migration of people into forested areas affects their exposure to these vectors. This has been shown to affect the prevalence of malaria, yellow fever, leishmaniasis, river blindness, and chagas, among other diseases. However, one cannot simply say that less forest will mean more disease. In some cases it is the opposite.

Regular contact between wild animals and hunters in forested areas can also be a major source of new zoonotic diseases. Many diseases spread from wild animals to people through hunting, and increased mobility and trade can help them spread faster and farther. This applies to well-known cases such as HIV-AIDs, SARs, and Ebola, as well as many lesser known cases, and probably many diseases that have yet to appear.

Can you discuss the unique relationship between women’s rights and quality of life, and land tenure and forest management?

Since natural resources, and specifically land and forest, are the most important asset in many rural areas access to them, or lack of it, greatly determines a person’s wealth, vulnerability, health, and independence. Women’s role in rural societies varies greatly, as does their access to land and forest. In most African countries women do most of the agricultural work, whereas in other regions that is largely considered man’s work. In many societies women collect most of the fuelwood, medicinal plants, and materials for making handicrafts. Nonetheless, women are often marginalized from the decision-making processes about their resources, and their needs and opinions are often not taken into account. If women lack rights over natural resources they are particularly vulnerable in situations where many of the men die of HIV-AIDS or other diseases, migrate for work, or are displaced by conflict. For all those reasons there is an urgent need to give women rights over land and forest.

What is the significance of emphasizing local governance of forested areas? How are governments and communities working to clarify land access laws and regulations?

In many developing countries (and even some developed ones) national governments find it extremely difficult to control what goes on in forested areas. Most are remote and relatively inaccessible. The governments have very limited resources to devote to managing forests and it is easy for isolated groups of forested guards or park guards to be bought off by groups that want to exploit the natural resources. Local governance of forested areas ensures that more decisions will be made by groups that live closer to the forest and can monitor them better. Often these systems work best when national governments give communities the power to use their natural resources, on the condition that they use them sustainably. This is not a panacea, however, there are many cases around the world of Indigenous groups and other forest communities that manage their forests sustainably – or at least more sustainably than other groups have done. Thus, for example, there is less deforestation in the Indigenous Territories in the Brazilian Amazon than in many of the national parks there and many degraded forests have regenerated in India and Nepal after the government gave local communities greater control over those resources.

Stay tuned for part-two of this interview series in the coming days.

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