Empowering locals in the management of forests both enriches the natural diversity, and provides benefits for the people, says a new analysis of forest management schemes across tropical Africa and Asia. The study, published in Friday in Science, is one of the first to attempt to settle the debate over the involvement of local people in managing threatened forests.
These tropical forests are seen as globally important reservoirs of biodiversity, as well as vital stalwarts in mitigating climate change. But to people living nearby, they are also a resource upon which they depend, for everything from firewood to timber to fodder for animals. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of people rely on such social benefits from these woods.
The question conservationists have wrestled with is whether those local interests can be reconciled with the wider global concerns over disappearing tropical forests. Author, Arun Agrawal of the University of Michigan, said ''These disagreements have persisted for decades because the evidence needed to resolve them simply didn't exist.''
In order to help resolve that debate, the team from the Universities of Illinois and Michigan looked at data from 84 sites in 6 different countries - ones where there was good information on both locals use of the forest and on the forest biodiversity. They were particularly interested in how the direct involvement of local people in the rule-making affected indicators of biodiversity and social benefit.
Biodiversity was defined by tree species richness, and the percentage of households subsisting on forest products was seen as a marker of the social utility of the forests. When the data on these two aspects were plotted against one another, there was a wide range of outcomes. The team focused on the 27% of forests where high biodiversity and social benefit indicated a sustainably managed forest.
They then looked at the factors in common which might explain why these forest sites were having the best of both worlds. It was found that direct participation in forest management for locals made a big difference, in determining the sustainable forest-people relationships from those that were not-so-sustainable.
In essence, the research appears to show shows that empowerment, and a sense of ownership, changes the perception of locals. The forest becomes something that belongs to them and needs looking after, rather than someone else's resource that can be exploited. ''It's a lesson for governments about how to make policies to manage and govern their forests,'' said Agrawal.
International Forestry Resources and Institutions.