Empowered local governance key for forest restoration and management, finds study

Tree planting drives alone cannot help address climate crisis and biodiversity loss, it highlights

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Monday 04 December 2023
File photo: CSE

Numerous studies have highlighted the significance of community involvement in restoring and managing forests. However, new research has discovered that strong decision-making power for local communities, like formalised community forest management with local participation in governance, leads to effective management and restoration of forests over a simplistic emphasis on tree planting.

Governance of forests may be more important to achieve the desired outcome of forest restoration and consecration, said the study, Community forest governance and synergies among carbon, biodiversity and livelihoods, published in the journal Nature Climate Change. 

It identified five distinct clusters of forest commons used and managed by rural communities as part of a broader landscape matrix and underscored the importance of involving those who live near the forests in restoration efforts and advocated for a community-focused approach.

The researchers analysed a dataset of 314 forest commons in human-dominated landscapes across 15 tropical countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to study their relationship with carbon sequestration in above-ground woody biomass, tree species richness and forest livelihoods. 

The aim of the study was to address the urgency of forest conservation and restoration in the backdrop of twin crises — climate change and biodiversity loss, said Ashwini Chhatre, executive director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business and one of the authors of the paper. 

The study focused on low- and middle- income countries, examining forest commons in fragmented human-dominated landscapes and the people living in the vicinity depending on their livelihoods from them — such as timber, fodder, firewood and forest produce like mushrooms, medicinal herbs, wild honey and non-wood products.

According to the study, general forest policy prescriptions, such as tree planting, that have been advocated as a key carbon mitigation priority globally may not be as effective. 

“We find tree plantations to be positively associated with subsistence and sustainable forests but negatively associated with carbon and conservation forests. Compared with degraded forests, tree plantations decrease the relative odds of being either a conservation or a carbon forest and have no significant association with sustainable or subsistence forests,” it noted.

Compared to tree planting, institutional factors proved to have strong associations with achieving positive outcomes, Chhatre said. 

The study observed that institutional reforms that support more effective local resource management have the potential to serve as an important policy strategy for supporting multiple human and environmental outcomes from forest restoration.

The most important finding of their study was that empowering local governance in the form of formal community forest management organisations, as well as local participation in rule-making, became the primary predictor of multiple positive outcomes such as carbon, biodiversity and rural livelihoods, all at the same time.

Compared to external influence and government agencies, local communities — with their time-specific knowledge of socioecological dynamics — can form more locally appropriate monitoring rules.

“Existing research shows that decentralising management authority to communities can support more-effective, locally driven governance processes over the long term,” it observed.

The findings align with the growing emphasis on recognition of rights and the role played by indigenous people and local communities in terms of climate mitigation and restoration measures, the researchers pointed out. 

The formalised local forest institutions have different forms and there is not one model of governance that can be applied globally, it stated. Thus, there is a need for decentralised policies for forest governance to enable communication and achieve the objectives of forest conservation.

“Amidst growing global calls for nature-based climate solutions and expanding protected areas for biodiversity conservation, it is important to recognise that forests in much of the world have a substantial human presence and are thus multifunctional in nature,” the research noted.

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