Farmers need stronger rights and incentives to preserve trees in Africa

by Barbara Fraser, CIFOR | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Tuesday, 4 June 2013 10:00 GMT

A student studies under a tree on the campus of Sierra Leone's prestigious Fourah Bay College in the capital Freetown, November 20, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some farmers in Ghana kill saplings on their land over fears their food crops will one day get damaged by loggers who come to clear the trees

Some farmers in Ghana kill saplings on their land over fears their food crops will one day get damaged by loggers who come to clear the trees.

And in Cameroon, while communal forests can generate up to 50 times more income than what they did under state control, almost none of that money goes to families or toward roads, schools and other projects that benefit the community as a whole.

Studies published in a special issue of the journal Conservation and Society say despite reforms designed to promote community-managed forests in Africa, local people often have little incentive to preserve them.

Giving stronger rights to the resources on their lands is only part of the solution, the authors say: Countries must also ensure that there are tangible benefits for those involved in protection and management.

“There has been significant community resistance to forest operations when local people feel left out,” says Emmanuel Marfo, lead author of a study of land tenure and benefits from forest resources in Ghana.

“The question is how can these interventions actually benefit local communities,” he adds.

In Ghana, the problem stems in part from the difficulties of working with a complex land-tenure system that combines customary practices inherited from traditional and colonial structures, official law and private titling. Rules are so detailed that one person may have the right to collect fruit from a tree while another has the right to fell it for timber or use it for firewood.

Some forest reserves have been established, where the land remains under traditional ownership while the government manages it “for the public good”.

Outside of those reserves, farmers who have trees on their lands may gather nuts and fruits, but the government retains the right to harvest the timber once the trees mature. Income from the timber sale is shared by several government agencies, a district assembly and local chiefs, but the farmers receive nothing.

Worse yet, farmers say, the loggers who cut the trees damage crops, robbing the family not only of the income from the tree, but also of part of its livelihood.

“The system needs to be changed,” says Marfo, who works with Ghana’s Forestry Research Institute.

“If farmers benefit from the timber trees they protect on their farms, they’ll be more likely to plant or preserve those species.”

He notes that Africa’s tropical forests have a huge carbon-storage potential, making them attractive targets for climate change-mitigation programs such as carbon credits or compensation for REDD (reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation).

Unless the problems of tenure, accountability and benefit sharing are solved, however, such programs “may reinforce existing inequities,” he says. “The key issue is how to create incentives for the actors who matter most for the mitigation of deforestation.”

Cameroon, in Central Africa, is experiencing similar problems.

Forest management decentralization and community forestry reform launched more than a decade ago were designed to protect communities’ rights to their resources and give them a more secure income.

But it didn’t turn out that way.

A study of community-managed forests in four provinces showed that community income from forests increased between 1997/1998 and 2007/2008 – by 370 percent in the Lomié/Dja area in eastern Cameroon, 725 percent in the Ocean area in the south, 3,200 percent in the northwestern Mount Oku area and 5,300 percent in southwestern Mount Cameroon.

But community incomes derived from community forestry have failed to improve livelihoods, the study showed. Poverty rates at the household level in those communities remain high, because income is channeled to community projects not relevant for poverty reduction and to the functioning of village management committees, instead of to projects addressing poverty reduction at the household level, according to a study led by former CIFOR researcher Phil René Oyono, now working with the Washington, D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative.

“By and large, the allocation of new community rights to forests is not leading to the improvement of basic assets at the household level – like income, housing, and equipment,” he said.

Money from community forestry could be invested in small credit systems, for instance, in order to support individual initiatives. The social engineering of NGOs working in support to community forestry is so poor on this point.”

These issues were discussed at the two-day conference Sustainable forest management in Central Africa: Yesterday, today and tomorrow Yaounde, Cameroon. 22-23 May, 2013.

For more stories on the future of Central Africa’s forests, visit

Another result of the study is that before the reforms, the state had exclusive rights to forests and their resources, while local communities only had rights to some uses. Though management and market rights have since been transferred to communities, they do not have full ownership.

The new legislation established community forests of up to 5,000 hectares, but in some cases, those forests are smaller than areas the communities used to manage, leaving villagers feeling that the reform reduced their rights and access to resources instead of strengthening them.

Community forests in Lomié/Dja, Ocean and Mount Cameroon have also suffered from over-exploitation and degradation, he says.

The exception is the Mount Oku area, where traditional social and political structures are stronger than in the other areas. In that region, a traditional chief and assembly of counselors have extensive control over forests and resources, patrols have been set up in each village and the villagers work for forest conservation, keeping illegal loggers out.

While it is too soon to say that Cameroon’s legal reforms have been unsuccessful, so far they are failing to achieve the key goals of ensuring sustainable forest management, promoting public participation and contributing to poverty reduction, Oyono says.

Based on his study, he recommends granting full forest ownership rights to communities, as an incentive for better management, and establishing and enforcing regulations to prevent illegal logging, as well as accountability procedures to avoid mismanagement of funds and ensure that revenue actually benefits the local communities through households.

The land tenure special issue of Conservation and Society was edited by Dr Anne Larson. For more information, please contact Anne at