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Strengthening rural communities and improving conservation: an interview with David Kaimowitz

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Issue date: 
Sep. 7, 2010
Publisher Name: 
Environmental Expert
Molly Theobald
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In July, the Ford Foundation announced a five-year, US$85 million initiative to address climate change through the inclusion and empowerment of rural and indigenous people. David Kaimowitz, the foundation's director of sustainable development, talks with Research Fellow Molly Theobald about the new initiative and what he hopes it will accomplish.

In developing the new initiative, the Ford Foundation referenced a Rights and Resources Initiative study on community rights to forest land that found that forest areas suffer disproportionately from conflicts, humanitarian crises, and corruption. What is it about forests that leads them to become some of the most disputed and poverty stricken areas?

The remaining forests in developing countries tend to be in remote areas with limited government presence and poorly developed property rights that have a large proportion of ethnic minorities. The forests are still there because historically, governments and the dominant ethnic groups were not interested enough in those areas to firmly establish themselves and clear the forest for agriculture and other uses. When changes in policies, markets, technologies, or other factors lead outside companies and settlers to become interested in these areas for their land, timber, minerals, petroleum, hydroelectric potential, biodiversity, or carbon stocks, it often leads to conflict. Lack of access to government services and markets, ethnic discrimination, and soils poorly suited for agriculture are among the main causes of widespread poverty in these regions.

Can you discuss the relationship between agriculture, human rights, food security, and climate change, and how these issues can be addressed through improved land tenure systems in forest areas?

Providing local inhabitants of forested regions clear rights over their natural resources can limit human rights abuses by logging, mining, petroleum, ranching, and plantation companies. It can also give them greater political clout, which can help them to defend themselves against human rights abuses. Several studies from Brazil and Mesoamerica have shown that providing secure rights over forests to indigenous peoples and community forestry groups has been at least as effective as protected areas at conserving forests, and hence reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation that contribute to climate change. In some countries, loss of access to natural resources has been one of the main causes of loss of stable access to food, particularly when people are displaced by violent conflicts. Displaced peoples in many countries urgently need secure access to land and forest to farm and collect forest products for their use.

What is the 'myth of the empty wilderness?' Can you discuss how preserving large swaths of forest is not as simple as putting up public protected areas?

People that live in urban areas tend to think of forests as places where no one lives. In fact, hundreds of millions of people live in heavily forested regions, and many more depend on natural forest vegetation and wildlife for their fuelwood, medicinal plants, wild meat, construction materials, fodder, fertilizers, and other basic needs. It would be neither ethical nor practical to simply deny all of these people access to the forests they depend on. Governments, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], universities, and other groups must recognize that these people have a right to live in dignity and control the natural resources they have traditionally managed and need to work with local communities to encourage them to manage their resources as sustainably as possible.

How can local communities be integrated into conservation efforts?

In some parts of world, communities' cultures already favor conservation. For example, many African and Asian peoples have forests they consider sacred, which they leave untouched. Many hunters and fishers practice norms that ensure that the species they rely on can reproduce. Indeed, many indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers have successfully co-existed with their forested surrounding for long periods of time. This is by no means universal, and population growth, cultural changes, and the growing power of market forces may weaken the institutions and practices that traditionally protected the ecosystem, but in many cases it provides a base to work from. Governments and NGOs can strengthen communities' efforts to conserve their natural resources by helping them to defend their territories against incursion by outside groups that seek to use those resources to earn short-term profits.

Can you discuss the unique relationship between women's rights and quality of life, and land tenure and forest management?

Since natural resources, specifically land and forest, are the most important assets for many rural areas, access (or lack of it) greatly determines a person's wealth, vulnerability, health, and independence. Women's role in rural societies varies greatly, as does their access to land and forest. In most African countries, women do most of the agricultural work, whereas in other regions that is largely considered men's work. In many societies, women collect most of the fuelwood, medicinal plants, and materials for making handicrafts. Nonetheless, women are often marginalized from the decision-making processes about their resources, and their needs and opinions are often not taken into account. If women lack rights over natural resources, they are particularly vulnerable in situations where many of the men die of AIDS or other diseases, migrate for work, or are displaced by conflict. For all those reasons, there is an urgent need to give women rights over land and forest.

What is the significance of emphasizing local governance of forested areas? How are governments and communities working to clarify land access laws and regulations?

In many developing countries, and even some developed ones, national governments find it extremely difficult to control what goes on in forested areas. Most are remote and relatively inaccessible. The governments have very limited resources to devote to managing forests and it is easy for isolated groups of forested guards or park guards to be bought off by groups that want to exploit the natural resources. Local governance of forested areas ensures that more decisions will be made by groups that live closer to the forest and can monitor them better. Often these systems work best when national governments give communities the power to use their natural resources, on the condition that they use them sustainably. This is not a panacea; however, there are many cases around the world of indigenous groups and other forest communities that manage their forests sustainably - or at least more sustainably than other groups have done. Thus, for example, there is less deforestation in the indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon than in many of the national parks there, and many degraded forests have regenerated in India and Nepal after the government gave local communities greater control over those resources.

When people have secure land tenure they tend to invest more and make longer-term investments. That is good for the economy. It also tends to encourage more sustainable natural resource management. Farmers are more likely to plant trees and perennial crops and conserve their soil and water if they know that they're the ones that will benefit. Although in some circumstances, paradoxically, secure land tenure may also promote long-term investments in less environmentally friendly activities, such as clearing forest for cattle ranching or oil palm plantations.

Secure land tenure does not necessarily mean having a formal title. Informal land rights are often just as good, as long as people generally respect them. In fact, some land titling projects have actually undermined land tenure security by provoking conflicts over land or creating uncertainty about the validity of pre-existing informal rights to land.

What is an example of a project that the Ford Foundation has included in its new funding initiative focused rural land access?

The largest single project the foundation is supporting related to this is the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). RRI is an international alliance of 10 global, regional, and national organizations that have joined together to promote greater community rights to forests. It includes grassroots organizations, such as the Federation of Community Forest Users of Nepal (FECOFUN) and the Coordinating Association of Indigenous and Community Agroforestry in Central America (ACICAFOC), NGOs like the Civic Response in Ghana and the Forest Peoples Program (FPP) based in the U.K., and research organizations such as the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Kenya. Ford's grant to RRI supports research, policy dialogues, training, and communications activities designed to promote community rights, both at the global level and in about a dozen high-priority countries. By influencing the policies of major global donors such as the World Bank and the European bilateral donors as well as government policies in countries such as China, Liberia, Bolivia, and Nepal, the initiative hopes to affect the lives of literally millions of people.

At the same time, the foundation also supports smaller projects in individual countries. In Brazil, for example, we are working with government agencies, universities, grassroots organizations, and NGOs to support greater recognition of the rights of Afro-descendent communities (called Quilombolas) in the Brazilian Amazon. In Kenya and Uganda, we have been supporting the National Land Alliances, which are working to promote tenure reforms that give greater rights to women, pastoralists, displaced peoples, and ethnic minorities, among others. Since most of the projects funded through this initiative are designed to promote better policies, they can potentially affect large numbers of people, with relatively small investments.

Where would you like to see more funding directed?

It is important that the major global donors such as the World Bank, the regional development banks, and the main bilateral donors devote more attention to ensuring community rights to forests, mountainous areas, grasslands and arid lands, aquatic resources, and low fertility croplands. That is where many of the world's poorest people live and they depend heavily on those resources for their survival. Private foundations such as Ford definitely don't have enough funds to take on this issue alone. Indeed, our most important role is to serve as catalysts to get the large donors and national government agencies to take up these issues.

One particular area that deserves much more attention than we are able to give at this point is the defense of the human rights of grassroots activists that promote greater community control over natural resources. These activists are often threatened, imprisoned, or even killed by groups and individuals that feel threatened by their work, and much more needs to be done to defend them from repression and harassment.

What is the role of the funding community in the alleviation of hunger and poverty worldwide? How do you think the funding community could better direct its resources toward achieving this goal?

The main reason that hunger and poverty continue to exist in the world is that governments and large private companies tend to respond more to the needs of better-off groups, which are better organized and have more resources at their disposal. We will probably never be able to change that situation entirely, but we can help to partially level the playing field by supporting groups that can effectively represent the interests of low-income people, ethnic minorities, women, and other traditionally marginalized groups. The Ford Foundation sees itself as making a modest but significant contribution to that effort, but it is essential that more and more donors in the funding community join those efforts.

Molly Theobald is a research fellow with the Worldwatch Institute. Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about the fight for food sovereignty in industrialized and developing nations.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut