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The poverty of forestry policy: double standards on an uneven playing field


Can policies designed to maximize exploitation by elites benefit the people who live in forests? Forestry policy throughout the developing world originates from European “scientific” forestry traditions exported during the colonial period. These policies were implemented by foreign and local elite whose interest was to maximize and extract profit. In spite of reforms since the end of the colonial period, policies on the environment usually remain biased against rural communities. Even when more recent policies are fair, the rural poor face severe biases in implementation. In addition, they must compete on an uneven playing field of ethnic and other social inequities and economic hurdles. This article examines how forestry policy and implementation maintain double standards on this uneven playing field in a manner that permanently excludes the rural poor from the natural wealth around them—producing poverty in the process. Change that would support poverty alleviation for forest-based communities requires a radical rethinking of forest policy so as to counterbalance widespread regressive policies and structural asymmetries.

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  1. We use here the term “community” to mean “local populations” following its usage in the community forestry and agroforestry literature. We occasionally use “communities and smallholders” to emphasize both communal and private land owners. The paper does not discuss differentiation within communities—which raises an additional set of issues with regard to access—but rather highlights the differences between wealthier and more powerful outsiders, often logging companies, for example, and those who live in or near forests and have more limited livelihood resources.

  2. FAO (2006) reports that 84% of forests were publicly owned in 2000. Another study found that in developing countries, 71% were owned and administered by governments, and 8% were publicly owned but reserved for communities (White and Martin 2002). Only in Central America are private forests (at 56%) more economically important than public ones (FAO 2006).

  3. There are many ways to measure poverty and well-being, and rural communities, particularly indigenous communities, often resent the “poverty” label and have their own understandings and definitions of poverty. The use of the terms “poverty” and “poor” here should be seen as a convenient shorthand and not an unquestioning acceptance of imposed definitions.

  4. Many forestry projects claim to increase local income. This article is not drawing on the literature on projects, as projects are not state law or policy.

  5. In Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, the state still apparently granted concessions to third parties on indigenous and community lands as of 2006 (Taylor et al. 2006).

  6. Such as for indigenous communities and quilombos (colonies formed by runaway slaves) in Brazil (Taylor et al. 2006).

  7. This article refers more specifically to laws in practice rather than a formal national forest policy, which has not played much of a role in shaping the legal or institutional environment. An official policy for 2015 was written in 1996 but was replaced four years later by another; this version was then ignored by COHDEFOR, which pursued its own policies outside of either of these documents (Vallejo and Guillén 2006).

  8. Another study presents very different figures, with 63% national, 14% municipal, and 23% private (Wells et al. 2004).

  9. Honduras’ total forest area is about 4.6 million ha (FAO 2006). This area thus represents about 4% of the total.

  10. Over 80% of Honduras is considered forestland, although only 41.5% has forest cover (FAO 2006).

  11. A draft forestry law is still being discussed in Congress as this article goes to press. Some of the following provisions may be included: the right to concessions, if desired, to communities living in or near forests, gradual titling of agricultural land inside forests, and concessions to logging companies in areas away from communities and where the latter do not have a stake in forest management (Vallejo, personal communication, 27 January 2007).

  12. Although the Municipalities Law established the transfer of 5% of the national budget to municipal governments, this was not enforced until 2004 (Larson et al. 2006a).

  13. A local cooperative still manages the production of resin and firewood (M. Vallejo, personal communication, 24 January 2007).

  14. Municipal authorities complain that the local enterprises do not invest money in advance and see no reason to support them. On the other hand, “municipal authorities find it difficult to deny the requests of powerful timber contractors, whom they often need for strategic alliances,” and the demands of outside loggers on Lepaterique is very high because it is one of the few municipalities that has a valid management plan (Nygren 2005, p 646).

  15. Clients rarely demand compliance with the sixty-day limit, because they fear that authorities would take revenge by limiting their forest access in the future (M. Vallejo, personal communication, 24 January 2007).

  16. In essence, the producers are subsidizing the process with their labor by working for less than subsistence wages.

  17. In fact, there is no reason to believe that the migrant’s methods are any better than no management at all. There is also no evidence that the “management” used in project areas is better than no management or the migrant woodcutter practices.

  18. Like the quota, the license too is illegal under Senegal’s current laws (see RdS 1995).

  19. In the 1980s, the only woman merchant in the market took over the business after her husband had died (Ribot 1990).

  20. “The PCRs organized to demand their own quotas. Patron X was our point man. E&F [the Forest Service] said no, because decentralization is for protecting the forests, not to exploit them.” (interview, President of UNCEFS, 9 July 2004).

  21. In many decentralizations the most lucrative opportunities are retained for central government authorities, while degraded, non-commercial, low-value lands and resources used primarily for subsistence tend to be transferred to local authorities (Ribot 1999b, 2000; Bazaara 2003, 2006; Muhereza 2003; Resosudarmo and Pradnja 2005; Xu and Ribot 2005).

  22. This term refers to the ministries commonly established to govern different sectors (agriculture, forestry, health, education, etc.) in developing countries.


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The authors would like to thank Marcus Colchester and two anonymous reviewers for comments on a previous version of the manuscript and Mario Vallejo for clarifications on the Honduras case. We would also like to thank Jon Anderson for encouraging us to write on “double standards” and the USAID Economic Growth Agriculture and Technology division for supporting some of the background research. The Senegal research for this paper was also generously supported by Royal Embassy of the Netherlands in Senegal. J.C. Ribot would like to thank CODESRIA for their collaboration on the Senegal research, and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology for providing an inspiring setting in which a portion of this article was written.

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Correspondence to Jesse C. Ribot.

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Larson, A.M., Ribot, J.C. The poverty of forestry policy: double standards on an uneven playing field. Sustain Sci 2, 189–204 (2007).

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  • Community forestry
  • Forestry
  • Honduras
  • Policy
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Senegal