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New research shows community managed forests have lower rates of deforestation than protected areas

New research shows community forests have lower rates of deforestation than protected areas

A recent paper published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management compares previous studies of deforestation rates in protected areas and in community managed forests. The research supports the authors’ hypothesis that community managed forests are at least as good, and sometimes better, at reducing deforestation than strict protected areas.

The report is titled: “Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics”, and is written by Luciana Porter-Bolland, Edward A. Ellis, Manuel R. Guariguata, Isabel Ruiz-Mallén, Simoneta Negrete-Yankelevich, Victoria Reyes-García.

In a press release from CIFOR, Manuel Guariguata, one of the co-authors and a Senior Scientist CIFOR, explains that,

“Our findings suggest that a forest put away behind a fence and designated ‘protected’ doesn’t necessarily guarantee that canopy cover will be maintained over the long term compared to forests managed by local communities – in fact they lose much more.”

The research compared peer-reviewed studies covering 40 protected areas and 33 community managed forests in 16 countries across Latin America (11 countries), Africa (two countries) and Asia (three countries). While protected areas lost an average of 1.47% of forest cover per year, community managed forests lost just 0.24% per year.

In their paper, the authors explain that there are three reasons for looking at alternatives to strict protection of forests (the “fortress conservation” model):

  1. “empirical accounts indicate significant social and economic costs for local populations derived from the establishment of strictly protected forests”.
  2. “recent research suggests that after controlling for (statistically) confounding variables, the effectiveness of strict forest protection in reducing deforestation rates may not be as high as previously estimated”.
  3. “there is evidence that within the same region, forests managed by local or indigenous communities for the production of goods and services can be equally (if not more) effective in maintaining forest cover than those managed under solely protection objectives or with respect to the wider forest landscape”.

The paper aimed to compare the effectiveness of protected areas and community managed forests in maintaining forest cover and to assess the underlying causes that may explain the differences between the two types of forest management. The authors’ hypothesis is that “on a pantropical scale, rates of deforestation within or around community managed forests are either equal to or less than forests under strict protection”. They found that their hypothesis was supported by the research.

The underlying causes of deforestation are interesting. Human population growth is exerting pressure on 70% protected forests with high deforestation rates. Infrastructure development and economic activities just outside the forest (such as coffee production in Costa Rica and Jamaica) is an issue in 55% of the protected areas that faced deforestation. In two of the protected areas (in Indonesia and Mexico) commercial forestry activities and timber markets are driving deforestation.

In almost half of the protected areas forest cover was maintained or is increasing. Most of these, the authors found, “were characterized by the absence of infrastructure development, population pressure, agricultural expansion, cattle ranching, development policies, and markets”. Meanwhile, in 60.6% of the community managed forests forest cover was maintained or is increasing.

The authors note that underlying causes of deforestation do not inevitably cause deforestation in all cases. For example,

[I]n community management ejidos in Quintana Roo (Mexico), deforestation drivers such as infrastructure development, population growth, agricultural expansion, and development programs do not necessarily result in increased annual deforestation rates mostly because communities have working rules for managing forested areas. The ejidos in Mexico exemplify how the maintenance of forest cover in CMFs can occur even with the presence of deforestation pressures.

The authors acknowledge that their findings are subject to the limits of existing case studies of deforestation, particularly in community managed forests. There are few peer-reviewed case studies of deforestation, particularly in Africa. It is also possible that a “selection bias” is at play, where researchers have chosen successful examples of community managed forests for their case studies. Another possible bias is that protected areas were established to protect forest where the threat of deforestation was high. It is possible that community managed forests show lower deforestation rates because the threats to the forest are not as serious.

Another problem is that community managed forests are vulnerable. Protected areas are mapped and documented by state forestry departments, even if they are little more than “paper parks”. Subsequent research will reveal any destruction of the forest. If, on the other hand, a palm oil company sends the bulldozers into a community managed forest the chances are that the only people that knew anything about the management of the forest and its boundaries are the local community. The forest, and its management system, disappears almost without trace. That is not the fault of the community or their management system, but a failure of the forestry authorities and the palm oil company to recognise either.

In CIFOR’s press release, co-author Gauriguata spells out the implications for REDD:

“After decades of expanding protected areas, the need to incorporate human rights concerns and equity into management objectives is now unquestioned. REDD+ schemes could provide an opportunity to recognize the role that local communities play in reducing deforestation.”

Note the careful use of the word “could”. The role of local communities in managing forests must be recognised. But the underlying causes of deforestation must also be addressed – such as the palm oil companies and their bulldozers.

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  1. It woulda probably done the people who set up the Canadian forest deal to read this report first. I know, I know, I’m sorry, I keep bringing it up,but I do think it’s an important lesson in sticking to activist morals, so to speak; don’t sell out the people you’re trying to help.

  2. Yet another very oriented and ideologically biased paper. The title is misleading. The core of the paper states adequately that the research is invalid because of many bias and limitations.
    1.47% vs. 0.24% loss? But how much area is that?
    The structural value of forest is not taken into account. Community forest are mostly fruit trees and timber species and Protected Areas are often primary forests.
    Even if the title was true. The canopy is marginally better off but what of biodiversity and wildlife?

    Readers will think that there is an important lesson in this report…

  3. @Seb

    “Community forest are mostly fruit trees and timber species”??

    You’ve obviously never been in one.

    What would be some good examples, in your mind, of Protected Areas of primary forest?

  4. @Seb (#2) – Thanks for your comment. You may have an interesting point, but it would help if you could provide some evidence to back it up.

    Do you have examples of other “very oriented and ideologically biased” papers to back up your opening sentence?

    This paper is a meta-analysis of previously published case studies. Are you suggesting that these previous studies are also biased? (The authors acknowledge one possible bias – that studies of community forests are carried out more on successful examples than those that fail. And I pointed out that community forests that are bulldozed by oil palm companies may disappear without trace, leaving no written record of their existence.) Or are you suggesting that that authors carefully selected studies that would support their argument and omitted other studies that contradict their argument? If so, it would be useful if you could provide links to these studies that the authors excluded from this paper.

    Thanks @D Witness for pointing out that “Community forests are mostly fruit trees and timber species” is quite an extraordinary statement. @Seb – do you have any evidence to back up this extraordinary statement?

    True, there are other considerations, such as biodiversity, but as the first sentence of the abstract to this paper states, this is a paper looking at deforestation rates:

    “This paper assesses the role of protected and community managed forests for the long term maintenance of forest cover in the tropics.”