Community Forestry Essay

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Community forestry is an approach to forest conservation and management in which forest inhabitants participate in management activities and ideally enjoy the economic and livelihood benefits. Community forestry contrasts with exclusionary models of forestry, including logging concessions to large firms and national parks that prohibit most human uses.

Community forestry appeared in the context of three broad social trends. First, there was the late 20th-century context of political change, including the widespread replacement of authoritarian regimes with democracies throughout the world and the rise of neoliberal development policies that encouraged states to decentralize, deregulate, privatize, and generally withdraw from many traditional management activities. Second, the analysis of conservation and forestry projects repeatedly identified social conflicts between managers and forest residents that often jeopardized conservation goals. Third, there were increasingly influential social movements of indigenous people and other traditional forest inhabitants demanding greater autonomy and self-determination. Within this context, states have increasingly recognized the legitimacy of forest residents’ land claims, and in some cases, implement forest regulatory structures that permit forest inhabitants to participate in forest management. In other cases, states maintain forest ownership but grant concessions to communities, or create joint management arrangements between forest departments and local groups. In addition, many communities still occupy and manage forests without official state sanction, but they risk suddenly finding their forests scheduled for logging or exclusionary preservation.

Community forestry also varies greatly in the rights of communities to benefit from forests. In many countries, timber is one of the few forest values recognized by existing markets, but it is rare for states to recognize full community rights to its commercial use. Where economic benefits are denied, community forestry is little more than a way for states to dump environmental management responsibilities on communities while granting the rights to economic benefits to forest departments, or other privileged, noncommunity actors.

Multiple Approaches

There are multiple approaches to community forestry in different countries. Mexico exemplifies an approach in which the state recognizes village members as collective owners of specific areas of forest where they have the main responsibility for forest management. Villagers often establish forest management enterprises that engage in logging and forest management. Except for normal taxes, the state makes no claim to community revenues from the sale of forest products. In Guatemala, most forests remain state property; but in some cases, the state grants concessions to communities as a strategy to protect forests from illegal logging or clearing for agriculture. The Guatemalan community concessions do not concede ownership rights, but they do include the rights to harvest timber, take nontimber forest products, and even to continue farming on previously cleared agricultural lands surrounding villages. India’s most widespread approach to community forestry is called Joint Forest Management.

This approach does not transfer ownership of forests; instead, beneficiaries are organized into village committees and given recognition of rights to collect minor forest products. They are also entitled to a portion of the proceeds from the sale of forest products, including trees. The proportion of the harvest that goes to the community varies from 100 percent in a few states to only 20 percent in others.

In the United States, 56 percent of forests are private, 38 percent are on government lands, and 6 percent are owned by indigenous peoples. Logging in these forests is increasingly embroiled in paralyzing conflict about endangered species, unsustainable timber yields, and industrial restructuring. Community-based collaborative partnerships are increasingly important in U.S. natural resource management, as groups of people work together to define and address common resource management issues that affect specific places but cut across government regulatory agencies. A few U.S. national forests have entered into isolated collaborative efforts with local communities. Stressing the idea that healthy forest ecosystems depend on healthy human communities, regional movements of community forest activists advocate wider legal and political openings for increased local stewardship over forests, despite opposition from some environmental organizations.

Community forestry remains controversial. Some conservationists prefer preservationist approaches, usually with a stronger role for the state in forest management and protection. Others criticize the romantic way in which community forestry policies sometimes overlook social difference, social conflicts, and injustice within communities. Despite these criticisms, it is often successful in improving both rural development and forest conservation outcomes.


  1. Baker and J. Kusel, Community Forestry in the United States: Learning from the Past, Crafting the Future (Island Press, 2003);
  2. Poffenberger and B. McGean, eds., Village Voices, Forest Choices: Joint Forest Management in India (Oxford University Press, 1996).

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