Source: FAO –

Origins of community forestry

Community forestry was initially defined, by FAO, as “any situation which intimately involves local people in a forestry activity. It embraces a spectrum of situations ranging from woodlots in areas which are short of wood and other forest products for local needs, through the growing of trees at the farm level to provide cash crops and the processing of forest products at the household, artisan or small industry level to generate income, to the activities of forest dwelling communities” (FAO 1978). Thus, community forestry was perceived as encompassing activities by individual households, women and men farmers and other people, as well as those involving a community as a whole.


COMMUNITY FORESTRY is a very misleading concept?

Such activities commonly enter widely into rural life and have always done so. It is therefore pertinent to start by asking why there was the sudden and intense interest in these linkages between people and trees in the middle and latter part of the 1970s – and equally why it had not occurred earlier. In other words, why had the in aggregate large but widely dispersed rural tree resource which had always been present in the rural landscape been largely neglected earlier?

The answers naturally vary from situation to situation and from place to place. However, a number of common factors are evident.

First, there is the almost total separation that had developed between forestry and agriculture. The traditional remit of most forest services focused on trees within areas defined as forests, and most agricultural services were concerned only with those tree species which had been domesticated and adopted as agricultural crops. Falling between the two, most tree stocks maintained by rural people remained effectively ignored – and even unnoticed.

It would be wrong to conclude from this that the issues of providing forest products to rural people were also necessarily neglected. In many countries this had in the past been a major part of forest service activities. However, it was usually pursued through scaling down the conventional parameters of forest management to the level of a village or community woodlot which was provided through the services, or on the instructions, of government – and not as a tree resource which rural people maintained and managed themselves. Moreover, government interventions to get rural people to plant trees were often mistrusted as disguised land alienation – and because of the coercion all too often used as a means of implementing projects. In the 1950s and 1960s even this degree of government involvement in providing for rural needs for forest products tended to be cut back in favour of industrial forestry, as this rose to prominence in the wake of industry-led theories and programmes of development, and rising concerns with maintaining the protective functions of forests.

By the mid 1970s it had become apparent that development strategies narrowly based on industrialization were not working. Few countries had attained significant, sustained growth in this way. Such growth as was achieved became highly localized and all too often poorly related to people’s actual needs. The added wealth generated seldom spread to the rest of the population. In fact, growth patterns often emerged that actually worsened the impoverishment of those outside the growth sectors.

In particular, the folly of neglecting agriculture became increasingly evident. Development thinking, and practice, was therefore moving towards a rural led focus and the need to help rural populations mobilise by devoting greater efforts towards meeting their “basic needs” – a shift which took concrete form in the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD) held by FAO in July 1979.

The growing focus on rural development did much to draw attention to the dependence of rural people on forests and trees. At the same time, the sharply increased concern with energy supplies, following the 1973 jump in fossil energy prices, soon drew attention to the extent to which people in the developing world depend on wood as their main fuel for cooking and other household needs. Apparent implications of this dependence were meeting subsistence nutritional needs and on maintaining tree cover required for environmental stability. E. Eckholm, in his influential 1975 publication “The Other Energy Crisis: Firewood”, pointed out that “for more than a third of the world’s people, the real energy crisis is a daily scramble to cook dinner” (Eckholm 1975).

The fuelwood situation was widely considered to be contributing to a third area of concern – declining productivity of food production systems and deterioration in land use. Deforestation and excessive removal of trees from many agricultural landscapes were increasingly seen to be a critical component of this process, and demand for fuelwood was identified as being one of the main causes of deforestation. The accelerated reduction in tree cover in Sahelian countries during and after the prolonged period of drought early in the decade, and in the Himalayas prior to disastrous flooding in the plains of South Asia in 1977, served to underline such thinking.

Mounting concern over these overlapping problems led to a number of initiatives, at both the national and international level, designed to meet rural needs for fuelwood and other forest products in a more sustainable manner. China, India and the Republic of Korea, for example, initiated major rural afforestation programmes. Their governments perceived that environmental damage due to removal of tree cover had reached unacceptable proportions and could only be contained if people were provided with alternative or increased sources of supply of products being obtained by removal of trees.

At the international level, FAO, with support from SIDA, organised a series of meetings to review existing experience and to define what was needed. This resulted in a seminal 1978 state-of-knowledge publication “Forestry for Local Community Development” (FAO 1978). FAO’s programmes were radically restructured to give effect to this, and FAO and SIDA launched a special action programme to heighten awareness of the importance of “community forestry,” and to help individual countries initiate or upgrade field programmes in this area.

Also in 1978, the World Bank issued its influential Forestry: Sector Policy Paper which signalled a major shift in its forestry activities away from industrial forestry towards environmental protection and meeting local needs. This shift was “to reflect the reality that the major contribution of forestry to development will come … from its impact on indigenous people … in developing countries” (World Bank 1978). A further initiative by IDRC (Bene et al 1977) led to the creation in 1977 of ICRAF, an organization to promote research in “agroforestry”.

A series of international meetings, notably the 1978 Eighth World Forestry Congress, which was devoted to the theme “Forests for People”, served to give the concept of community forestry rapid and intensive exposure. By 1979, field projects and programmes were already taking shape.

The original concept

Community forestry was seen to comprise three main elements. These were, the provision of “fuel and other goods essential to meeting basic needs at the rural household and community level”, the provision of “food and the environmental stability necessary for continued food production” and the generation of “income and employment in the rural community” (FAO 1978). This definition thus encompassed a broad spectrum of possible linkages between people and trees, or the outputs of trees, and was as much concerned with people’s dependence on existing forests as with reforestation.

It was stressed that community forestry must be an integral part of rural development and the “basic precept … (that) the central purpose of rural development is to help the poor become self-reliant … Forestry for community development must therefore be forestry for the people and involving the people. It must be forestry which starts at the ‘grass roots’” (FAO 1978). From its inception, therefore, community forestry was seen as being, by definition, participatory and directed towards rural needs – in particular the needs of the rural poor, both women and men. A distinguishing feature of the first generation of projects and programmes in support of community forestry has as a consequence been an attempt to build them on active participation of the population, with external involvement being of a supportive rather than management nature.

Two things are of note at this point. One is the speed with which community forestry took shape and spread as a concept and policy. The second is the sense that it was urgent to act quickly to respond to some of the perceived problems. Though there was acute awareness that the knowledge base that inspired the early projects was very weak, it was felt to be necessary, indeed unavoidable, that action, based on what little was known at that time, be started at once.

The evolution of community forestry in practice

Early initiatives understandably tended to become focused on those issues perceived to be of particular importance. Of these, the fuelwood shortage became far the most important. It has been estimated that wood provides roughly 20% of all energy in Asia and Latin America, and that about 50% of all energy in Africa is wood generated. The early analyses emphasised the huge numbers of people affected, the apparent “gap” between demand for fuelwood and sustainable supplies – and a seemingly exponential growth in demand with population growth – and the growing burden placed on users of having to search ever further afield for fuelwood and of having to divert crop and animal residues needed for soil working or as livestock feed to fuel use (Eckholm 1975 and 1979; Arnold and Jongma 1978; FAO 1981; de Montalembert and Clement 1983).

A general conclusion from this earlier analytical work was that existing wood stocks were being widely mined to meet fuelwood demand, that there was no feasible large scale alternative to wood fuel – other than other biomass such as crop residues and dung – and that the principal means of averting growing shortages, and the attendant deforestation and human suffering, was to initiate widespread planting of additional trees. When applied to individual countries and regions such analyses resulted in programme targets on a formidable scale. For example, a major World Bank study for sub-Saharan Africa estimated that tree planting would have to increase fifteen-fold in order to close the projected fuelwood gap in the year 2000 (Anderson and Fishwick 1984). As a consequence, a very large part of the initial investment in community forestry was in the form of afforestation projects to increase fuelwood supplies. Many early community forestry projects therefore took shape more as a response to an energy supply/demand problem, rather than to the problem of meeting local needs for trees and tree products (Leach and Mearns 1988).

The design of early community forestry projects was also strongly influenced by the fact that the more striking existing programmes were organised in the form of communal activities – the village woodlots in Korea, the panchayat woodlots of early social forestry programmes in India, the village afforestation programme in Tanzania. As is suggested by their titles, all of these were concerned with creating new plantations, rather than with management of existing forests.

These perceived imperatives had the effect of concentrating the early community forestry effort to just a rather narrow part of the spectrum of linkages between people and trees and tree products that had been identified initially – namely to establishment of new plantations and to fuelwood. There was little in the first generation of projects which was concerned with outputs from existing forests, or with the food, employment and income dimensions. Indeed, the concern with meeting subsistence needs for fuelwood even led, on occasion, to attempts to exclude income generation activities from the project design on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the perceived subsistence aims of community forestry.

As programmes and projects were put in place, a number of patterns began to emerge which were at variance with what had been assumed or intended:

· much greater success was achieved with participation by individuals than by communal groups;

· neither individuals nor groups appeared to share the perception that priority should be accorded to planting trees to provide fuelwood;

· by contrast, individual farmers in many places pursued the planting of trees for sale and for other purposes of economic value, such as fodder and fruit, with considerable vigour;

· the growing of trees as cash crops attracted considerable criticism in some countries on the grounds that it had negative impacts on food supplies, rural employment and, in some cases, on the environment.

Community forestry was therefore soon confronted with the need to reassess what was being done and to respond to the lessons being learned.

Broadening the knowledge base

In subsequent sections of this document we explore the reasons why these, and other, unforeseen developments occurred in the early years of community forestry. However, a number of salient lessons which began to emerge early in the period deserve to be mentioned at this point.

One is that production and use of tree products at the village level is in practice often embedded in complex resource and social systems, within which most of the factors that affect our ability to intervene with forestry solutions are of a non-forestry nature. They are primarily human factors, connected with the ways women and men organize the use of their land and other resources. They therefore require situation-specific approaches and are unlikely to be successfully tackled by generalised solutions or approaches that address only a single element of the situation.

A second is that earlier analyses of the nature of women’s and men’s dependence on trees and tree products was in some respects incorrect or incomplete and the solutions identified were consequently inappropriate. As is discussed in some detail later, this is particularly the case with respect to responses to declining supplies of fuelwood and to the attempts to insert interventions that conflicted with the existing social and institutional framework within a community.

A third is that even projects which have sought to identify local needs, aspirations and possibilities have in practice done so more on the basis of the views of planners and others from outside than on the local people themselves. Dialogue to achieve local participation has all too often started only after the project design has been finalised and is in place. Though the concept of participation took root quickly, in practice it has been, and still is, more frequently preached than practised.

A fourth is that “community forestry” has suffered from considerable confusion and lack of clarity as to its nature and purpose. The use of this umbrella term seems on occasion to have obscured the fact that the objectives set for projects to support community forestry have varied considerably. Project design, and performance, have frequently suffered from a lack of clarity as to which of these objectives were being pursued or had priority. Although some among multiple goals may be congruent or reinforce each other, others may be in conflict. Planting trees to meet environmental objectives such as soil protection is unlikely to produce sufficient output of saleable products as to be economically attractive to the farmer. Similarly, tree growing designed to generate income is unlikely in itself to benefit those with little or no land. Production to meet both subsistence and market needs is unlikely to be achieved with a single production model. Projects originally designed to meet a production goal are unlikely to be equally successful at achieving a subsequently added social goal, such as favouring the poor, unless they are appropriately restructured. And so on.

Social forestry

To some degree this confusion has been compounded by the concurrent emergence of “social forestry”, a term for which no clear definition exists, and which is used by some as interchangeable with community forestry and by others to describe an implicitly narrower spectrum of activities surrounding the fuelwood/deforestation/woodlot issue.

The term social forestry first came to prominence in the 1976 report of the National Commission of Agriculture in India, in which it was used for a programme of activities to encourage those who depended on fuelwood and other forest products to produce their own supplies – in order to “lighten the burden on production forestry” (GOI 1976). It has been suggested that the term is now accepted as referring to programmes “specifically aimed at influencing the social actor able to perform this expansion” (Cernea 1989). However, it is clear that many people assume from the label “social” that the term refers to activities that have a predominantly welfare function. This interpretation would seem to underlie the often exclusive focus on meeting subsistence needs of the poor to be found in many early project documents, and the strong negative reaction to the emergence of tree cash cropping within some social forestry programmes. The choice of the term “social” forestry for activities designed to help people benefit from forests and trees has probably therefore been inappropriate, in the sense that it has contributed in no small part to the misconceptions and misunderstandings which surrounded the early years of community forestry – notably the failure to recognise the overriding economic criterion in farmer decisions.

The emergence of this rather narrowly circumscribed interpretation of participatory forestry has also tended to reinforce the tendency to treat the latter as a programme area definably different and separate from existing programmes, such as forestry, obscuring the need instead to revise the latter to incorporate the additional dimension of meeting local as well as national and industrial needs.