Regional voice a win-win for forests

U. MICHIGAN (US) — Forests are more economically and ecologically beneficial when local residents have a say in how they are managed.

The findings are particularly relevant for small forest patches in regions with high population density—instances that present special challenges for achieving sustainability.

Using evidence from more than 80 forest sites in six tropical countries, researchers tested how local participation affects social and environmental benefits in tropical developing countries in East Africa and South Asia and found improved household access to forest products, including firewood, fodder for livestock, and timber for housing; and higher biodiversity.

“There are substantial disagreements among scientists about whether it’s possible to achieve both economic and ecological benefits together from forests, but little work to understand conditions that might lead to this,” says Lauren Persha, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan and lead author of the paper.

“Our study is one of very few that has been able to do this kind of analysis in a systematic way across a large number of cases and countries.”

Report details are published in the journal Science.

Persha and colleagues analyzed patterns of biodiversity conservation and forest-based household livelihoods at 84 study sites. Tree species richness was used as the indicator of forest biodiversity.

The percentage of households that depend significantly on a forest for subsistence livelihoods was used as an indicator of the forest’s livelihood contributions. A sustainable forest system was defined as one in which both tree species richness and livelihood contributions were above average.

Most cases were a mixed bag, where either tree species richness or livelihood dependence were below average. But in 27 percent of the cases, both biodiversity levels and livelihood dependence were above average, meeting the criteria for a sustainable forest.

Forests are significantly more likely to be sustainable when local users have a formally recognized right to participate in forest rulemaking, according to the study, while unsustainable forests are more likely when users do not have this right.

“It’s a lesson for governments about how to make policies to manage and govern their forests,” says Arun Agrawal professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of Michigan.

Hundreds of millions of people in the tropics depend on forests. In recent years, governments in nearly two-thirds of the developing world have tried to involve rural households and organizations in forest management. Often, the goal is to improve both social and ecological results by giving local residents incentives to manage forests sustainably.

Such reforms have doubled the area of forest land under community management in the past 15 years. Whether allowing local people to participate in forest rulemaking improves forests or leaves them worse off remains a matter of debate.

“These disagreements have persisted for decades because the evidence needed to resolve them simply didn’t exist,” Agrawal says. “The current study is an important step toward improved evidence and analysis on this subject.”

Researchers from the University of Illinois contributed to the project, funded by the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.

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