It’s a familiar refrain in environmental circles: to be effective and sustainable, landscape restoration initiatives must be founded on local communities’ desires and needs. “We have all been saying this for a long time,” said Paul Laird of the International Tree Foundation in his Landscape Talk in the Global Landscapes Forum’s annual conference in Bonn in December last year. “But are we doing it?”
In the hurry to conserve and restore landscapes to meet international climate change mitigation commitments, it’s all too easy for governments and international organizations to take ownership of projects and processes at the expense of local participation. “We need to avoid being rushed into these commitments becoming top-down,” said Laird. “We must not repeat the old mistakes.”
Establishing clear rights to land and resources can help to maintain community control over restoration processes, but in places with colonial histories, formal governance structures are often misaligned with customary structures and institutions.
Jordan Treakle of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shared his organization’s experience working with marginalized communities such as the San in Angola to help them delineate customary land tenure and get it recognized officially at national levels. They also helped enable local institutions and civil society to lead the process and are now stepping back and handing the remainder of the work over to those they trained.
Top-down regulations do have their place in natural resource governance, said Johannes Schielein of Bonn University’s Center for Development Research (ZEF). But many of the regulations aimed at shifting unsustainable behaviours to unwittingly favor larger, wealthier actors, who have the financial flexibility, technological access and education levels to change tack easily.
For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, Schielein and his colleagues explored farmers’ responses to tightened enforcement around land conversion. They noted that when converting more forest to pasture was no longer an option, farmers felt incentivized to restore degraded pastures instead. However, 90 percent of restoration was occurring on 10 percent of farms – generally the largest. The majority of farmers meanwhile, who lacked the resources and capacity to restore their pastures effectively, simply became more impoverished and alienated from the institutions pushing the regulations.
Schielein argued that in order to boost restoration and limit land conversion, it’s crucial to also provide assistance “to help those who are left behind and cannot improve their production systems on their own.” If not, and “we lose more farmers in this battle,” he said, “we will lose the fight for the environment as well.”
The legal frameworks governing forests can also be contradictory at national levels, as they usually involve the laws of several different sectors, and might be “unclear, incomplete or contradictory,” said Yulia Stange of Client Earth. This means that forest clearance for agricultural conversion is often inadequately controlled, which creates a significant risk of accelerating climate change. Stange advocated for participatory legal reform to tighten up on forest governance.
On a similar note, John E. Fa of Manchester Metropolitan University and the Center for International Forestry Research explored some of the issues around regulating the hunting of bushmeat in tropical forests across the globe. While large-scale hunting threatens the survival of a number of endangered species, banning it outright would destroy local traditions and livelihoods. Local use and sale of the meat is not an issue in itself, he said, but “when lots of it goes to cities, then that’s a problem.”
So, it’s “fundamental to work with communities to find new ways of managing the resources that are there,” said Fa. He called fellow scientists to act on the issue: “Science, conservation and communities have got to work together to make sure that there isn’t a loss of biodiversity or food security for people living within or near forests.”“This issue isn’t either top-down or bottom–up – it needs to be both,” said Sara Scherr of EcoAgriculture Partners and the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative. “The bottom needs to be enabled. Meanwhile, the top needs to provide the framework conditions for enabling, and we need to make sure that people and regions can learn from each other.”