Community forestry is central to Bolivia’s climate plans, but bottlenecks remain

In conversation with Humberto Gómez Cerveró

Community members of the Indigenous Territory of Lomerío, Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Credit: IBIF
4 November 2021

By Koen Kusters

The Bolivian government sees community forestry as a way to achieve objectives related to both climate change and development. However, to truly unleash the potential of community forestry, the capacity of communities needs to be strengthened and the regulatory environment needs to be improved, says Humberto Gómez Cerveró. 

Between 31 October and 12 November, leaders from 196 countries will meet in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. Alongside the COP, hundreds of experts will join the GLF Climate conference, to discuss ways in which better landscape management can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation. In the lead-up to these events, Koen Kusters interviewed several members and partners of Tropenbos International about the relationship between community forestry and the climate agenda. Here he talks to Humberto Gómez Cerveró, of the Bolivian Forest Research Institute (IBIF), who has been helping the Bolivian government with strengthening the role of community forestry in its climate plans.

The government’s climate plans are described in the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The Bolivian NDC is quite different from those of most other countries, explains Gómez Cerveró. This is because it does not mention targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In the view of the Bolivian government, including such targets would be to assume part of the responsibility for global warming, while it is developed countries that are primarily responsible. The Bolivian government is also against participating in carbon offsetting programmes, where actors from developed countries pay for emission reductions in the Global South — it is seen as the ‘commercialization of Mother Earth and its environmental functions’. Instead, the Bolivian government focusses its NDC on policies and actions for joint mitigation and adaptation, in a way that is aligned with the national development plan. 

What is the role of the forest sector in Bolivia’s NDC?

‘The forest sector is one of the three focus sectors of the NDC, next to water and energy. The NDC is quite ambitious with regard to the role of forests, and community forestry in particular. It mentions a goal to have 4.5 million hectares reforested in 2030, which would be achieved through agroforestry practices by local and indigenous communities, among others. It also includes a goal to increase the forest area under community management from 3.1 million hectares in 2010 to 16.9 hectares in 2030. That would be a five-fold increase. I have not seen other NDCs that include similar commitments to community forestry.

Are these goals going to be achieved?

‘I think it is good to be ambitious. However, since the submission of the first NDC in 2016, progress has been slow. The government primarily invests in energy and water, and much less in forestry. The role for us, as civil society, is to remind the government of its own ambitions, and to provide support to achieve the goals. Up until recently, a main problem was the lack of an implementation strategy; there was no governance structure to ensure that NDC goals are integrated in the policies of different government departments, and to ensure that there is budget to implement programmes. To address this, civil society organizations have pushed the government to adopt a mechanism for implementation of the NDC. This is called the joint mitigation and adaptation mechanism. It means to actively involve local governments and communities, and develop joint agreements on mitigation and adaptation goals. Based on these agreements, these local actors then get money from the central government. Support for agroforestry and community forestry is a key part of these agreements.’

What is the main difference between community forestry and industrial forestry, when it comes to achieving climate objectives?

‘If done well, both types of forestry will result in climate change mitigation, and the provision of environmental services. The main difference, I think, is that industrial forestry does not enhance local communities’ resilience, and it does not allow communities to control the future of their own landscapes. Also, private forest enterprises pay national taxes, but that money does not flow back to the landscapes where the timber was harvested. Moreover, a system in which local labourers work for large-scale companies may create all kinds of social challenges. In the mining sector, for example, it has been associated with alcohol abuse and prostitution. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that there is no room for commercial companies in the forestry sector. It’s all about finding a good balance.’

A good balance between industrial and community-based forestry, what does that look like?

‘Certain parts of the value chains of timber and other forest products are very complicated for local and indigenous communities. Think of making deals with foreign buyers. We can’t really expect that people in these communities learn how to speak Chinese, for example. So there is a need to create commercial relations between communities and businesses. These relationships can have many forms, depending on the preferences of the community. In some cases, a community may decide to give a company access to its forest, for which the community receives a part of the revenues. In other cases, a community may decide to conduct logging operations, and sell the timber to a company for further processing and trading. These are all forms of community forestry… The main idea is that the community controls how to use the forest, and how to use the benefits in favour of the community. This comes with its own challenges, for example related to community-level governance.’ 

Why is community-level governance a challenge?

‘Indigenous communities in Bolivia own their land collectively, and many NGOs believe that the benefits from the use of those areas will therefore also be shared collectively. But if you go down to communities, you will see that this is not necessarily the case. When commercial opportunities arise, it can lead to opportunistic behaviour, and tensions within the community. New systems may need to be developed to organize the way in which benefits from community forestry activities are shared at community level. A major limitation is often the lack of financial literacy. Therefore, the work that we are doing right now is aimed at strengthening the capacity of community-based forestry organizations.’

What other challenges are there?

‘Although indigenous communities in Bolivia have ownership rights to their territories, they do not have the rights to commercially use the natural resources on their own terms. If they want to engage in forestry activities, they need to adhere to the same regulations as commercial companies. This means they have a comparative disadvantage. For example, communities usually don’t have access to finance that is needed to invest in basic equipment. This is because banks are not providing credit to communities with collective land titles. Such bottlenecks need to be addressed. If we don’t do that, you will see that communities will end up leasing their forests to commercial companies. Again, it is up to civil society organizations to bring these issues to the attention of the government, and to propose alternatives. Increasing the area under community forestry will only result in increased resilience, if communities have the necessary capacity, and if the regulatory environment enables them to use and manage the forest on their own terms.’

This story also appeared on Tropenbos International News, as part of a series of interviews on the relationship between community forestry and the climate agenda, in the lead-up to the 2021 GLF Climate conference, organized by the Global Landscapes Forum.


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