The commonly heard story from an African country is that forest resources are declining and degrading rapidly under the population pressures. A major driver is conversion to agricultural land, but also illegal logging and logging concessions play their role. In Africa well above 90% of the forest is “managed” by the government and in Eastern Africa up to 98%. Government budgets and resources are insufficient to truly manage the resources, law enforcement is weak and corruption is the norm. Sounds familiar, right?
International community has for a long time lobbied for decentralized forest management. Research findings support the idea that handing over the forest management responsibility to local communities, benefiting and depending on the forest resource, will decrease deforestation and forest degradation. By handing over the management right to the local level, the forest becomes a valuable asset instead of open access no-man’s land. This is true with some preconditions. Experience shows that the manager’s benefits and responsibilities need to be balanced and management responsibilities and authorities need to be handed over before any benefits should accrue. Benefits should also be attractive enough to feed motivation of the managers, in this case communities. The key in terms of rights in most cases is that the manager should have rights and means to exclude outsiders to protect the forest resource.
Since early 2000, Zambia has been experimenting decentralized forest management through Joint Forest Management arrangements but experiences have not been impressive. This is mainly due to inadequate legislative support especially in benefit sharing mechanisms. After the new Forest Act was approved in 2015 the situation has completely changed. Zambia has now forest legislation which opens the door to various types of very flexible forest management arrangements. What is to be seen now, is how the legislation is put in practice and enforced through regulation. The new Forest Act is very timely - close to 60 % of Zambia is covered with forest although regional differences are large. Still, the deforestation and forest degradation rates are alarming. Encroachment for agricultural expansion and for energy are major drivers of deforestation. The forest resources have also attracted foreign operators in Zambia, including Chinese logging companies, in their search for valuable natural timbers (rosewood and African teak). The concessions are too often handed over to the companies without proper consultations locally, either by authorities or by traditional leaders.
Indufor is supporting the implementation of the Decentralized Forest and Other Natural Resource Management Programme (DFNRMP) in Zambia by providing the technical assistance services and as the home office coordinator of the programme I visited the programme in June. In the field I saw the enthusiasm at local level when communities are see the opportunities which the new law provides, and are trained to manage through the steps to establish a community forest. The programme team - government authorities with the support from the technical assistance team - is grasping momentum by working on establishing the required capacity, and formulating regulation and practices to govern community forestry agreements and forests, which now can be established under the new Act. District, and even provincial level authorities share the enthusiasm and so far also the national level the atmosphere is supportive. What remains to be seen is if the national authorities have courage to truly “let it go” and loosen the control enough. To really enable scaling up the community forestry would call for very simple application, agreement and management models and procedures. Until the procedures are approved, the fear is that professional foresters, like me, tend to look for detailed, complicated management plans with fancy maps. These plans are beyond communities’ capacities to produce and maintain. Also, if the national level has too central role in the process, it becomes slow and may not have enough capacity to handle the applications in reasonable time.
Throughout the participatory planning and identification processes it has been clear that people recognize significance of forest in maintaining viable livelihoods and productive landscapes and also value the forest produce, timber and non-timber products, and want to protect and preserve the resource base. Even more so in the southern parts of the country where deforestation is a serious problem. Not only in Zambia but all over the forested globe Indufor is working closely with communities, national authorities, national and international organizations and private sector partners to develop workable, feasible solutions to protect, manage and improve that resource base. Now we, together with agronomists, just need to find the silver bullet which can solve the increasing need for agricultural land to feed growing populations! That is something where we are more than happy to contribute!