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The challenges of community forest management in the Amazon

The challenges of community forest management in the Amazon

By Rodrigo Arce Rojas

The first thing that should be differentiated is that the word "management" obeys a conception of human dominion over nature. That is why it is pertinent to speak of forest ecosystems or forest biodiversity.


Attached to the legitimate indigenous agenda on land rights is the management and conservation agenda for communal forests. In this context, community forest management appears as a relevant issue. The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the main challenges to advance community forest management as a strategy to consolidate sustainable life options for indigenous Amazonian peoples.

The first thing that should be differentiated is that the word "management" obeys a conception of human dominion over nature. In many indigenous peoples, rather than a management conception, what exists is a conception of coexistence with forests. However, we have to recognize that due to acculturation processes there is a gradation in the cultural matrix from preservationist positions to high degrees of articulation to the market.

The conception of forestry is not homogeneous either. Some prefer to call it "forest" although forest rather than forest alludes to wildlife with the physical basis that sustains it. For indigenous peoples, the forest concept does not always include the entire worldview and for this reason they prefer to speak of the territory to intertwine the biophysical and cultural components, the past and the present, the horizontal and vertical occupation.

The same happens with the concept of community. There are multiple ways of living the community, in addition to the different names they receive in Latin America. Although there are community forest management practices that involve the community, it is common to find a division between the social and the productive. The social, referring for example to community boundaries, road maintenance, bridge construction, school building, among others, refers to community activities themselves. What is productive, in most cases, is individual in nature and with "property" features while it is used. When the soil is depleted and there is a need for new land then the productive area "returns" to communal property.

We see then that community forest management is rather a western conception to have a framework of interpretation on the management or coexistence relations between indigenous peoples and their territories aimed at achieving their physical, psychological, economic and cultural well-being. This does not mean that there are no local forest management experiences, such as those carried out by riverine inhabitants in the Amazon basin. From these various experiences, we can draw valuable lessons learned to identify challenges.

One could speak of varying degrees of success of community forest management experiences. However, it would be necessary to specify exactly what we are referring to when we talk about success. The dominant paradigm alludes to the success of community forest management based on the degree of articulation to the market, but it should be asked whether in all cases this premise is valid. From a more conventional perspective, this logic seems unquestionable because it alludes that success has to do with the degree of economic profitability that is achieved in the forestry operation. Let's delve more into this aspect that seems immovable.

If the degree of success is measured according to the level of articulation of the market, then what we see is that the pattern to carry out the diagnosis of the community to enter advantageously in the community forest management will show many deficiencies: economic-financial , technical, technological, organizational, managerial. Added to this are other factors such as: distance from markets and difficulties in linking up with value chains. We wonder if it would not be more coherent if the scope of community forest management is defined jointly and objectively (between promoters and the community). There are several aspects to consider for a proper definition:

• Forest unit size: neither so small that it does not cover the costs of management nor so large that it is impossible to manage directly.

• Degree of involvement of community members: realistic definition of who is going to be involved responsibly. If it is the whole community or really interested groups (“Interest Groups”)

• Degree of reach in the value network. If it is intended to maintain a producer role or it is intended to achieve involvement in transformation and commercialization processes

• Internal ways of defining rights and responsibilities for forest conservation and management

• Internal forms of profit distribution

• Distance to markets based on the degree of transportability of the products

It is also important to take into account a series of conditions that ensure the proper development of the forestry operation. Among others we mention

• Land tenure security that encourages long-term investment

• Participatory internal zoning that guarantees that the forest areas will be respected and the change of use within the community will not be promoted.

• Internal community regulations that regulate the various productive activities and forest conservation

• Internal governance that ensures an adequate decision-making process

• Cultural factors compatible with the needs of community forest management


A great deal of candor is required to define the scope of community forest management. Not everything has to go through the wood nor everything has to weigh for the articulation to the market. It is also feasible to develop management and conservation options aimed at meeting the immediate needs of community life. This can be better understood if it is understood that in many communities the quantity and quality of provision of the goods and services of the community's forest ecosystems has already been affected. Recovering the quality of forest goods and services for the quality of life is also a not inconsiderable objective. This can be understood when the community appreciates a shortage of firewood, a shortage of palm leaves, a shortage of fauna for subsistence hunting, a shortage of medicinal plants, a shortage of fish. The pressure on resources resulting from both increased external demand and the appearance of new needs to satisfy can also affect the ability of forests to provide their benefits. This in no way means denying the market but rather rethinking the level of relationship with the market. For communities that have already decided to proactively enter the market, the accompaniment strategies should go in the same direction.

It is not a question of judging everything in light of urban business management paradigms that do not necessarily fit the cultural conditions of communities. We can be faced with different conceptions of time, effectiveness and even of the ethics of accumulation. The values ​​of the gift economy (solidarity, reciprocity) must be processed in the light of the new values ​​of the market economy. A new economic ethic is required that means the consolidation of the values ​​of associativity and reciprocity rather than means that promote divisiveness and individualism. Hence the importance that the scope of community forest management are the product of an authentic participatory process in which not only the benefits of community forest management but also the commitments, implications and challenges that this implies can be discussed with great objectivity. Communities must (re) know very precisely what it implies to embark on a community forest management process so as not to produce disappointment and subsequent desertions.

It is clear that community forest management proposals have to be inscribed in a rights proposal. But rights also means recognizing responsibilities. This is not only an environmental issue but also implies intergenerational responsibility within the indigenous peoples themselves. When it comes to experiences articulated to the market, we are not only talking about processes that facilitate access to forests and extraction of forest resources, but, above all, we are talking about processes that guarantee the sustainability of forests. This is valid for any actor linked to productive processes from the forests.

Although external subsidy processes are valid, recognizing the social debt towards indigenous peoples, they must be designed in such a way that they do not generate conditioning or dependence on external actors. Therefore, these should be temporary and oriented rather to achieve the full empowerment of the forestry actors involved.

From the beginning, processes of capacity building should be considered in a participatory way where cultural energy, indigenous knowledge and know-how have a preponderant place. Likewise, a favorable attitude should be developed to incorporate intercultural criteria in forest management. In the same way, in social processes it is more prudent to get on the logic of social and cultural energy than to generate proposals that affect the internal structure of the community. A community forest management project is intended to strengthen social relations rather than promote divisiveness and internal conflict.

It is clear then that in the face of conditions of high biological and cultural diversity, a diversity of options for the management and conservation of forests also correspond to their different goods and services. It is important to properly dimension the role of community forest management, which can be an interesting economic option but it is not the only and exclusive one, since it is necessary to have a diversified strategy of options.

Finally, it is important to clearly specify the real scope of the forest management and conservation undertaking, there may be different degrees of articulation with the markets without this necessarily meaning “failure”. Greater openness is required to understand the value of culture in community forest management. Likewise, it is necessary to understand the psychological motivations that move indigenous actors and organizations to proactively get involved in community forest management ventures. That is, developing an ontological vision to guarantee the effectiveness of community forest management.

Rodrigo Arce Rojas, Forestal engineer


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