Forest tenure

  • What is behind the conflicts between local community disputes with national park officials or oil palm companies in Indonesia?
  • Why are trees, especially those that provide gum and resin, in Ethiopia’s dry forests poorly managed?
  • Who makes decisions about community forests in Nicaragua and why is it so difficult for women to participate in this process?
  • What are the challenges facing REDD+ community projects in Brazil?
  • Why are some forests managed sustainably while others are not and why are some communities better off than others?

These are only a few of the questions that researchers at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are addressing. The answers to these questions are linked to forest tenure and forest rights. Our research is interested in understanding how changes in forest governance, tenure security and tenure reform lead to mixed outcomes in sustainable resource management and livelihoods. CIFOR researchers are not only interested in the different tenure systems, but also how livelihoods and sustainability outcomes are impacted by the changing processes of tenure and property rights.

What is Forest Tenure

Forest tenure is concerned with who owns forestland and who uses, manages and makes decisions about forest resources. It determines who is allowed to use which resources, in what way, for how long, and under what conditions, as well as who is entitled to transfer those rights and how. Forest rights may be shared in a number of ways between people and are often seen as a bundle of different types of rights: the right of access, the right to use forest products, the right to make management decisions, the right to exclude other users, and the right to sell or lease. However, not all rights are exercised and not all of those who gain access to resources have rights.

In most developing countries, tenure is characterized by two systems, statutory and customary tenure. Statutory, or de jure rights, deal with a set of rules established and protected by the state including registered land titles, concession contracts, forestry laws and regulations. De facto rights are patterns of interactions established outside the statutory law, including customary rights, a set of community rules and regulations inherited from ancestors and accepted, reinterpreted and enforced by the community. These forest and tree tenure systems are often overlapping, unclear and contested.

Why Forest Tenure Matters

Governments officially control about one-third of the forests in Latin America, about two-thirds in Asia, and almost the entire forest estate in Africa. Even if the state is the owner and manager on paper (holder of the statutory rights), in practice, forests are typically used and managed by the communities who depend on them. In developing countries, forest tenure conditions are characterized by contesting interests, overlapping claims, and insecurity of rights over land and resources.

Understanding forest tenure, and the decisions and actions regarding forest resources, provides a unique perspective on ways to potentially improve people’s livelihoods and manage forests sustainably. We also know that the very poor and women in the communities are often disadvantaged by tenure decision making arrangements. And, whereas unclear and insecure tenure arrangements are often the reason for conflict and disputes, clear and secure tenures, a condition under benefit sharing schemes such as REDD+, reflect the opposite.

Ultimately, forest tenure in tropical forests is shaped now by two distinct processes. The first process involves tenure reforms (forest law reforms) which recognize or transfers forest rights to communities living in forests. The other process involves new pressures on forestland for commercial activities such as agriculture, biofuels, carbon sequestration and conservation.