Successful forest conservation needs clear land rights

What exactly is land tenure and why is it so important for forest conservation? Put simply, land tenure systems determine who can use which resources, for how long, and under what conditions.

Poorly defined, ambiguous land tenure and overlapping claims can lead to forest overexploitation through a classic “tragedy of the commons” scenario, whereby everyone with access to a parcel of land will extract as many resources as possible for their own purposes, without taking into account the combined effect. At its worst, this can result in the complete exhaustion of the resource, or the collapse of the ecosystem.

Another scenario is for forest to be classed as state-owned, but not protected by state authorities, resulting in communities feeling as though they have neither benefits nor responsibilities from the forest area, which leaves forests vulnerable to illegal (but unregulated) logging, hunting and clearing for agriculture.

The importance of recognised land rights, also referred to as tenure, has received renewed impetus with the development of conservation models such as REDD+ and Payments for Ecosystem Services, which provide incentives to farmers or landowners to manage their land sustainably.

Although clarifying land tenure is not on its own sufficient to guarantee long-term sustainable management of forests and other ecosystems, it is a vital step towards their protection.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) recognises the immense benefits that this long and challenging process can deliver, and has worked to support many communities clarify land tenure.

A big win for Sumatra, Indonesia

One such example is in Jambi Province of Sumatra (Indonesia) where, over the past four years, our exceptional team has supported communities to clarify >40,000 hectares of community-managed High Conservation Value forests through Village-Forest (Hutan Desa) and Customary Forest (Hutan Adat) licenses, is in the process of clarifying an additional 7,000 and has identified a further 43,000 hectares to work on in the near future.

This work is being led by Ibnu Andrian (aka Dudung) and our Merangin team in collaboration with many local partners (L-TB, WALESTRA, ICS, G-CINDE, Forest Management Unit and District Forestry Offices in Sarolangun, Merangin, Kerinci and South Solok Districts).

Ibnu Adrian (aka Dudung). Credit: FFI Merangin team.

Ibnu Andrian (aka Dudung). Credit: FFI Merangin team.

The licenses guarantee rights of forest use and management for renewable, 35-year periods and are currently the strongest legal tenure instrument for communities in Indonesia. In short, this means that forests will be community managed and cannot legally be converted, allowing communities to take responsibility for their customary forests while benefiting from legal access to life-supporting forest resources.

This feeds into FFI’s vision for long-term community-led sustainable forest management, where FFI and partners will continue to support local people in strengthening village-level forest governance and diversifying local economies so that they are less dependent on forest resources.

This is of course excellent news for Critically Endangered Sumatran tigers and other local species such as the Asiatic wild dog, Sunda slow loris, Sun bear, and thousands of other species all living in these precious forests.

The results achieved by the Merangin team and partners are a shining example of how to assist communities through this arduous process as efficiently as possible and are a testament to Dudung’s strong leadership.

Similar land tenure clarification is progressing well in other parts of Indonesia. In Aceh and West Kalimantan (Ketapang and Kapuas Hulu) Provinces, our local teams led by Dewa Gumay, Lorens and Eko Darmawan have clarified tenure over 15,000 hectares of community-managed forests with the help of committed local partners.

Gray-shanked douc. Credit: Le Van Dung.

Gray-shanked douc langurs have benefited from sustainable management of forest. Credit: Le Van Dung.

Work in progress

In Vietnam, meanwhile, FFI is working to support 11 ethnic minority villages (Hieu Commune) obtain tenure over 15,000 hectares of forest in the Central Highlands. Among other species to benefit from more sustainable management of this area will be the world’s largest population of grey-shanked douc langurs.

The Vietnamese Forest Land Allocation process is complex, with land rights granted via ‘Red Book’ and ‘Green Book’ certificates. Red Books are the strongest tenure instrument, used primarily for production forests and agricultural land. Green Books, on the other hand, are used for short-term forest protection rather than actual transfer of tenure, and require annual renewal.

Within Hieu Commune, FFI has been guiding villages through the Forest Land Allocation process, and has established a new system based on customary land tenure and management arrangements that enable villages to secure Red Book land use rights and thus manage their own land sustainably.

Pygmy hippo. Credit: JK-MK/FFI.

Pygmy hippo caught on a camera trap in Liberia. Credit: JK/MK FFI.

Simultaneously in Liberia, FFI is supporting the government to gazette Wonegizi (37,000 hectares), as a Multiple Use Protected Area and to make local people an active part of reserve management.

These are just a few examples of FFI’s work in this area, with similar efforts from around the world. The work our field teams and partners are doing to clarify land tenure is a first step in the long-term successful protection of threatened wildlife, and a real reason for hope in some of the areas most at risk of deforestation.