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Tenure Rights and Beyond: Community Access to Forest Resources in Latin America


Anne M. Larson, Peter Cronkleton, Deborah Barry, Pablo Pacheco of CIFOR



Forest Resource Access and Local Livelihoods


How do institutional and governance relations in forestry constrain or promote improved livelihoods for the poor?


In partnership with CIFOR, PROFOR examined key variables affecting access to forest resources and their benefits. To improve understanding of these relationships in diverse settings, case studies were carried out in Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to include conservation settlement communities, indigenous territories and agro-extractive communities. The conceptual framework and instruments for conducting the research were developed within a larger project, the first CIFOR-Rights and Resources Initiative global research project (Informal Institutions and Governance in Forest Communities) designed to focus on cases where recent changes in forest tenure, regulations and access to markets for local communities have taken place.


The review showed that winning legal rights on paper is not enough. These rights are only a first step, and moving from statutory rights to practical access requires overcoming many obstacles.

Virtually all of the communities - even the successful ones - faced practical challenges. These included disputes with other resource users, failures of the state to define or defend rights, conflicts with local authorities, difficulties with old institutions taking on new roles, barriers to reaching markets, and lack of forest management capacity. The legal reforms brought new rights but also new responsibilities and restrictions. State authorities gained new decision-making roles. New institutional arrangements gave power to persons lacking experience or accountability.

Governments gave more effort to regulating than to defending community rights; communities spent resources defending their rights that could have gone to building governance and forest management capacity. Policy frameworks failed to support community-based management opportunities.

Despite all this, some communities did gain better livelihoods. Understanding the successes and failures in these cases may help future reformers anticipate problems, prepare for them, and improve the chances of success.

The role of the state, in the granting, implementation and protection of rights, is decisive in shaping outcomes. The rights-based approaches necessarily demand duties and accountability – particularly the duty of the state to protect human rights and to be accountable for the implementation of policy. In none of the cases studied has the state played a particularly effective role in fulfilling its duty to defend community rights or the perimeter of the territory.

Policy frameworks, so far, have generally failed to establish an enabling environment for the development of integral and innovative management of community forests. Community forest enterprises have been promoted based on blueprints for organizations and resource extraction that require heavy external support and fail to build on the self-governance capabilities of smallholders and communities. Forest enterprises are established from outside with little understanding of deeper cultural issues such as ancestral rights to cultural reproduction.   More often, projects and policies working to promote enterprises lose sight of “community” in community enterprises.  In the search for market solutions and the development of viable enterprises, it is important to put the social and cultural considerations of local governance institutions at center stage, for, in the end, these constitute the foundations of future sustainability.

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Author : Anne M. Larson, Peter Cronkleton, Deborah Barry, Pablo Pacheco of CIFOR    
Last Updated : 02-24-2017