Does Community-Based Forest Management Work in the Tropics?

A commonly stated goal of community-based forest management is to improve the livelihoods and well-being of forest-dependent people. But whether CFM really achieves this is unclear.

Forty-one women from the village Sakhisol have formed a forest protection committee in Arabari Reserve Forest, West Bengal, India. Photo by Shreya Dasgupta for Mongabay.

Forty-one women from the village Sakhisol have formed a forest protection committee in Arabari Reserve Forest, West Bengal, India. Credit: Shreya Dasgupta/Mongabay.

Piles of wood lie in an open area behind the main office of the Arabari Reserve Forest in West Bengal, India. Long logs and cut planks of sal trees (Shorea robusta), wet from the incessant rain. The timber is ready to be auctioned, a forest department staffer says, and a portion of the profits will be shared with people living around the forest.

Some of those people reside about a kilometre away, in a village called Sakhisol. Forty-one women from the village have formed a committee that helps the forest department plant and harvest the sal trees and protect the Arabari forest. In return, the committee is entitled to 25% of the profit from the sale of the timber and access to forest products, says Anjum Mahato, one of the committee members. “Some of the women are in the forest right now collecting sal leaves [used for making plates and cups] and mushrooms,” she adds.

Mahato, and the three women by her side seem excited about this partnership. “Women are the ones who usually collect things from the forests, so it’s good that we get to be involved in how Arabari is managed,” she says.

Arabari’s community and the forest department partnership isn’t new. It started as an experiment some 45 years ago, and its apparent success sparked the Indian government’s Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme, which then spread rapidly. According to the latest figures from 2011, more than 118,000 people’s committees are managing 229,000 square kilometres (88,417 square miles), or nearly a third, of India’s forests. The programme also boasts millions of dollars in investment from international aid agencies like the World Bank and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

The JFM is often included under the umbrella term “community-based forest management” (CFM), a form of stewardship that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), “increases the role of local people in governing and managing forest resources.”

Like the JFM, scores of other CFM programmes have taken shape around the world in the past few decades. These programmes go by different names, such as participatory forest management, community forest co-management, or community forest management. And they differ in their rules, goals and practices. But, in general, they all aim to give rural communities roles in sustainably managing their local forests either by letting them partner with the government or by recognising their rights to access and manage the forest themselves.

On paper, community-based forest management sounds like a good idea and it has garnered strong support internationally. But experts familiar with this conservation strategy have found that while CFM may be succeeding in meeting some of its goals, it fails to achieve others. By reviewing some of the scientific literature on CFM’s impacts, we have tried to tease apart its effectiveness.

Why community-based forest management?

Many of the earlier cases of community-based forest management arose largely due to conflicts between forest-dependent communities and governments – both colonial and postcolonial. These governments assumed all rights to the forests, and either extracted timber from them at industrial scales or converted them to large agro-industries. People who depended on the forests for their traditional livelihoods and cultures lost access.

Over the past few decades, however, governments have been promoting community participation in forest management, largely by decentralising authority over managing natural resources to local or community governments that are closer to those resources. Some of this newfound support comes from the need to conserve forests, especially when government resources are scarce. There has also been an increasing recognition that many of the world’s poorest people live in areas of very high biodiversity. And that given the opportunity, traditionally forest-dependent communities can ensure that forests are managed sustainably.

“Conventional theories applied to forest resources presumed that forest users themselves were incapable of organising to overcome the temptations to overharvest,” the late political economist Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prise in Economics, wrote in a 1999 paper. “Extensive empirical research, however, has challenged this theory and illustrated the many ways that forest users themselves have devised rules that regulate harvesting patterns so as to ensure the sustainability of forest resources over time.”

Lately, economists and conservationists have begun touting community-based forest management as a way to alleviate poverty as well. They frequently offer the approach as a means to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of ending poverty and hunger and reducing ecological degradation by 2030. CFM’s role has also been highlighted in talks about the UN’s global initiative to mitigate climate change known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). The belief here is that REDD+ and CFM overlap substantially in their goals of achieving forest protection and generating socioeconomic benefits for forest-dependent people.

Today, community-based forest management enjoys the support of governments, conservation NGOs and international donor agencies. But does this conservation strategy work? Has CFM delivered on its promise to improve both forests and people’s lives? We try to find out.

State of science on community-based forest management

Studying community-based forest management is tricky. While CFM programmes frequently involve shifting the control of forests from the central government to local governments and communities (also referred to as decentralisation) to improve forest conditions and benefit people, their details vary widely.

At one end of the CFM spectrum are programmes that recognise the local communities’ legal rights to the forest land and grant them all or most of the managerial control of it. At the other end are schemes that offer communities a more passive role. The communities in these cases have little to no control over forests but instead, collaborate or cooperate with the government according to a government-prescribed plan. Some CFM programmes allow the communities to collect forest products to sell commercially. Others do not. Even within the same type of government-approved community programmes, the extent of people’s participation may vary: some programmes demand that all local people be enrolled, others allow voluntary participation.

CFM is now quite popular and has prompted a vast body of scientific literature. Yet most of the studies are plagued by the same problems. Most research on CFM takes the form of case reports that simply describe changes that have occurred in a community-managed forest. These can be useful, but they don’t say much about whether the changes were caused by the implementation of CFM or by other factors. Most research is also short-term or very localised, focusing on one forest or one community, which makes it difficult to find patterns or make generalisable conclusions about CFM’s effectiveness.

Few studies actually try to rigorously understand the effectiveness of CFM by comparing community-managed forests with an alternative scenario, referred to as a counterfactual. The counterfactual could be, say, an open-access forest with no form of community management. Studies like these bring us closer to understanding if any changes – lower deforestation rates, for example – are caused by the adoption of community-based forest management or something else, like a change in national forest policy or weather fluctuations.

That said, the quality and quantity of CFM studies seem to be improving. “I think there has been a concerted effort to be more rigorous with regard to assessing impact and a number of studies have tried to look critically at conservation effectiveness [of CFM],” Tom Blomley, director of UK-based Acacia Natural Resource Consultants, who has over 20 years of experience working on CFM projects in Africa, told Mongabay.

But most studies, even the rigorous ones, tend to focus on one or few easy-to-measure outcomes, such as forest cover.

“Most studies have tended to focus on effectiveness from a conservation or forest management perspective, that is, does CFM improve forests?” Blomley added. “What is needed is to expand this to look into issues such as livelihoods and governance benefits… as well as wider issues of political economy.”

But trying to get at the social impacts of CFM is hard. Communities are rarely homogenous. People within the same communities may have different economic statuses, occupations or religions. They hold divergent views of the forest and depend on different resources from it. All of this can affect how CFM benefits them. But studies often fail to capture these differences.

Even when measuring similar outcomes, studies use different methodologies, making comparisons between them difficult. Some researchers use satellite imagery to measure changes in forest cover, for example, while others interview the local people to understand their perceptions of forest change.

How we reviewed available evidence

Community-based forest management means different things to different people. Some experts define CFM narrowly, considering only those programmes that allow communities full managerial rights and/or ownership of forests to be true forms of CFM. For them, partnerships or collaborations do not count. Other experts, including the FAO, include the entire gamut – from complete community ownership to government-led initiatives – within their definitions of community-based forestry.

For our analysis, we defined CFM broadly as any form of decentralised forest management in which people who have a direct stake in forest resources are involved in at least some aspects of forest management.

Since the literature on CFM is vast, we have restricted our review to English-language studies of countries located, at least in part, in the tropics, because that is the focus of our series. Nepal, despite its long history of community-based forest management, is not part of our review since it lies outside the tropics. We have also excluded studies that ask a different form of question, such as what determines the success of CFM rather than what the outcomes of CFM are. Neither have we included studies that compare community-based forest management with another form of forest management strategy, such as a strict protected area. While such studies can be incredibly useful to know what strategy works better in a given context, they don’t answer our question: Does CFM achieve its goals of improving forest health and locals’ wellbeing?

Overall, we found 30 relevant peer-reviewed scientific studies on Google Scholar, including two systematic reviews. (Read more about our methodology here; you can access all 30 studies we reviewed here.)

Among the studies looking into CFM’s effectiveness in the tropics, 11 were “case reports”. While these studies did not rigorously compare community-managed forests with an alternative scenario, they offered useful insights into the changes that have occurred in the forests and the forest-dependent communities since the implementation of a CFM programme. The case reports also typically reported people’s perceptions.

We also found 12 well-designed studies that rigorously compared CFM with an alternative scenario (called “Study III” in the “Select type of evidence” pull-down menu of the infographic). These studies either compared a forest managed under a CFM programme with a local or state forest not exposed to any form of community management; a forest or community before and after a CFM programme began; or participating communities with communities that were not part of any CFM programme. Three of these studies were countrywide assessments offering a glimpse of CFM’s effectiveness across a landscape.

Our review is not exhaustive, but we consider the studies we have included to represent a reasonably good sampling of the existing literature.

Is community-based management better for forests?

Possibly. In countries that lie at least partly in the tropics, where we focused our review, community-based forest management seems to maintain forest conditions and not worsen them.

Take, for example, deforestation and forest degradation, two of the most commonly studied environmental outcomes of community-based forest management. Nearly all of the 16 studies looking into CFM’s impacts on deforestation and forest degradation found that community-managed forests had either lower or similar rates of deforestation compared to openly accessible forests not under any formal community management. On the surface, this suggests that community-based forest management does not make a forest worse – and may even make it better.

But that’s not the whole story.

Forests are not alike. They differ in terms of where they are located, the biodiversity they harbour, and the forestry policies that govern them. Governments may allow felling of trees, livestock grasing, or collection of firewood in some forests, for example. They may even permit the conversion of certain forest lands to plantations or agricultural farms. In other forest areas, felling of trees or other activities may be completely prohibited. So regardless of how forests are managed – by communities or otherwise – some forests are more likely to undergo deforestation than others simply because of the differences in forestry policies. “Deforestation” alone then does not capture the scale of the problem.

Forestry policies often determine the state of forests. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Forestry policies often determine the state of forests. Credit: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

For example, a recent landscape-level study from Indonesia found that community-managed village forests, (called hutan desa) on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of Borneo) had lower deforestation rates compared to non-hutan desa sites with similar characteristics. But the deforestation rates varied a lot across the landscape and forest types and between years.

Hutan desa granted on forests where substantial conversion to plantations or agricultural lands is allowed – or forests that face greater degradation – had much higher deforestation rates compared to those given on forests where little to no conversion is allowed. Deforestation rates were especially high for forests on peat soils because these forests face long dry seasons and are vulnerable to fire. In short, village forests that were already degraded, or had higher risks of fire or other climatic fluctuations, performed worse than forests that were better protected and less degraded, to begin with.

These results can give governments insight into where to invest in community forestry, the study’s lead researcher, Truly Santika of the University of Queensland, Australia, told Mongabay. It is better not to focus on certain areas that have high anthropogenic pressure, she said.

Co-author Erik Meijaard, a conservation biologist who coordinates the Borneo Futures Initiative, agreed. “It is very context-dependent. And the government needs to be careful in recognising this rather than making sweeping statements like community forests work in protecting forests,” he said.

Another well-designed countrywide study, from Madagascar, found that levels of deforestation in community-managed forests were similar to those in non-community-managed forests, suggesting that Madagascar’s CFM programmes have not really brought about the conservation benefits they had promised. But this does not mean that CFM has failed in Madagascar, Ranaivo Rasolofoson of the University of Copenhagen, who led the study, told Mongabay. “While our studies show that CFM did not achieve its objectives to reduce deforestation, our results also do not support that, on average, deforestation got worse because of CFM.”

A lemur in a community managed forest in northern Madagascar. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova.

A lemur in a community managed forest in northern Madagascar. Credit: Zuzana Burivalova/Mongabay

One reason for the minimal conservation success of Malagasy CFM, according to Rasolofoson, is that different CFM stakeholders have diverging objectives that are difficult to reconcile. Poor law enforcement and corruption because of the country’s prevailing political instability have also impeded CFM’s potential from being realised, as have low rates of community participation, he added.

“In the few CFM sites I visited, CFM is there but only few people are engaged in it,” Rasolofoson said. “The majority of the local people continue their lives as usual without worrying about or paying much attention to CFM.”

India’s Joint Forest Management programme has a similar problem of not being really “joint”. For some villages near West Bengal’s Arabari, for example, the JFM programme has faded from memory.

“The forest department does nothing to spread awareness about the forest or the JFM committees,” said Ranajit Ghosh, the 50-year-old head of the elected council of Duki village. Duki is a member of one of the oldest JFM committees in the Arabari Reserve Forest. “Payments are infrequent and very little,” he said. “None of our requests have been fulfilled. So people are no longer interested in the committees or in protecting the forest. Many are now even beginning to forget that the JFM committee even exists.”

Sharachchandra Lélé, a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bangalore, India, said that this problem is common across India’s JFM programmes. “And if people’s participation in JFM programmes is minimal, then the outcomes of forest [conditions] become irrelevant to the programme,” he said. “So when you say the green cover has increased, it is not because of the participatory management programme. It is a result of an imposed afforestation programme by the forest department.”

In fact, Lélé does not consider India’s JFM to be a form of community-based forest management at all. Instead, he pointed to van panchayats, a type of community-managed forest in the Indian central Himalayas, where the power to manage and use a forest lies mainly with the local villages and not the local or central governments. These van panchayats formed in the 1930s following large-scale protests by local people at the British government’s attempts to take control of forests.

The van panchayats seem to be working. Two studies published in 2009 and 2010  found that degradation in these community-managed forests is either lower than or similar to that in state forests. And the van panchayats achieve these conservation benefits at much lower costs than the state forests.

Other studies from Africa and the Americas also have found that CFM is usually associated with either no or minimal benefits when it comes to reducing deforestation or forest degradation. One exception seems to be Mexico. A 2012 study that compared effects of CFM in Bolivia, Kenya, Mexico and Uganda found that only Mexico’s community forestry was associated with considerably better forest conditions.

Mexico’s success could be a result of its long history of granting communities rights over forest land, said David Barton Bray of Florida International University, an expert on Mexico’s community forestry. Many of the community forests are also located at higher altitudes, have lower population densities, or have commercially valuable trees like pine and oak, which might be leading to better management, Bray added.

The prevalence of illegal logging is yet another indicator of how well communities, or community-government partnerships, manage forests. Only a handful of studies measured this, and they found that levels of illegal logging were either lower in forests under CFM or the same as in state-managed forests. Biodiversity is also often a good measure of a forest’s health, but again, few studies have looked into biodiversity levels in community-managed forests – a striking omission, considering that hunting is one of the main ways communities use their forests.

Apart from improving forest conditions, CFM hopes to ensure sustainable use of forests. But there is very little research on whether community-managed forests are actually sustainable over the long run.

“That is a major data gap, driven by confusion over what is ‘sustainable management’,” said Lélé. Researchers typically look at tree or canopy cover when they study community-managed forests, he added, which means they are imposing a value on the forest that the communities are not using as a goal. “The communities’ goal is to have a sustained flow of products or services from the forest that will enhance their livelihoods,” he said. “They want firewood, fodder, timber. Unfortunately, there are only a few well-designed studies that look at how extraction affects each forest product, how it changes the forest.”

Is community-based forest management socially beneficial for people?

The results are mixed.

A commonly stated goal of community-based forest management is to improve the livelihoods and well-being of forest-dependent people. But whether CFM really achieves this is unclear.

2009 study, for example, found that communities that were part of community-based forest management schemes in Kenya and Tanzania did perceive some improvements in their livelihoods and well-being, such as better availability of medicinal plants or better health status. But they saw no gains in other important aspects of their well-being like food security or household assets. Another countrywide study from Madagascar by Rasolofoson and his colleagues found that, overall, involvement in community-based forest management did not significantly improve participants’ well-being. But the study did find some differences: benefits were higher for communities living closer to the forest edge compared to those living farther away.

Effective community-based forest management strategies are also seen as a way for local populations to make their voices heard. Many believe that CFM empowers local communities by giving them the ability to create rules about forest management, to implement those rules, or to settle disputes. The few studies that have looked at this aspect found that communities participating in CFM had either better or similar levels of involvement when it comes to making rules or solving problems, compared to non-CFM communities.

Papuanese tribes attend the handover ceremony of a social forestry permit in Teminabuan, South Sorong, West Papua. Two villages in South Sorong, Mangroholo and Sira, officially received a permit from the government to manage social forestry in their area. Photo by Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace.

Papuanese tribes attend the handover ceremony of a social forestry permit in Teminabuan, South Sorong, West Papua. Two villages in South Sorong, Mangroholo and Sira, officially received a permit from the government to manage social forestry in their area. Credit: Jurnasyanto Sukarno/Greenpeace.

Another push for CFM has come from the growing belief that communities have a right to manage their forests as a democratic principle since their livelihoods depend on it. Some hope that community-based forest management will lead to better land tenure: that is, more secure formal or informal rights to the forest land, and institutions that uphold those rights. And that more secure land tenure will lead to better outcomes for both forests and forest-dependent people. But there is limited research that directly measures CFM’s impacts on land tenure.

A recent systematic review led by Johanne Pelletier of Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts did look at the question of land security more broadly, though. It included improvements in land ownership, access and use rights, or health and education through infrastructure development, and found that CFM was associated with many of these benefits.

One problem with research trying to examine the social benefits of CFM, however, is that different studies measure different outcomes. This makes it difficult to discern a general pattern.

We did see one common thread emerge from these studies, though: where benefits are available, they tend to be inequitably distributed and CFM programmes often even worsen existing inequities.

A number of factors could contribute to this. For example, CFM decision-making bodies tend to be dominated by wealthier or more powerful community members, while excluding women, poorer people and younger men, which could perpetuate social inequality, experts say. Different community members may also have different needs from the forest, which again influences how forest restrictions affect their livelihoods.

For instance, some community forests allow participants to gather only a small, fixed amount of firewood. Wealthier households may be able to supplement their firewood needs from large areas of land they own or by buying alternative sources of energy like gas or electricity. But poorer households that own small patches of land, or none at all, maybe more adversely affected by restrictions imposed by CFM.

“In some cases, communities have been accessing timber, firewood and other forest products from open access areas, which includes government forests as they are largely unpoliced,” Blomley said. “This extraction, while providing local benefits, is often at unsustainable levels. So the imposition of new rules from participatory forest management may ironically reduce local benefits as forests need time to recover before sustainable management can be introduced.”

Is community-based forest management economically beneficial for people?

We don’t know yet because the evidence is limited.

Community-based forest management is frequently included in countries’ rural development strategies to reduce poverty. But what little evidence there is suggests that CFM’s effect on economic benefits is, again, mixed. Some communities do see improvements in incomes from forest products or forest-related activities compared to communities that aren’t part of a CFM programme. Some others become worse off. The latter is especially true for communities that are heavily dependent on forests and face greater restrictions on forest use than before. So economic benefits from CFM tend to be, again, very context-dependent.

Profits are also hard to come by. In Brazil, for example, communities managing forests for timber rarely see substantial profits, a 2015 study found. In fact, the annual profits earned by the households in the study were, on an average, lower than the minimum annual Brazilian salary. One reason for this, the authors write, is that communities are small and lack the necessary capital to cover pre-harvesting and harvesting costs. Market conditions are also still unfavourable for CFM projects, they add. Local sawmills are still supplied by illegal sources, for example, which pushes timber prices down.

As with social benefits, a common finding across many studies looking at economic benefits is that CFM programmes tend to worsen existing inequities.

Pelletier’s 2016 systematic review, that focused on CFM in developing countries, found that community forestry is associated with the increased inequitable distribution of wealth. So poorer households often become poorer; men tend to earn more from CFM-related activities than women, and people with formal rights to the forest land tend to benefit more than landless members of the community.

Piles of sal tree logs in Arabari Reserve Forest. Photo by Shreya Dasgupta for Mongabay.

Piles of sal tree logs in Arabari Reserve Forest. Photo by Shreya Dasgupta for Mongabay.

To counter this, steps must be taken to increase transparency and accountability of elected representatives of the communities, Blomley said, referring to Tanzania’s participatory forest management. “Without this, it is quite possible that more educated and richer persons – often represented on the committee – will get proportionally more benefits than poorer households.”

Some CFM projects have found a way out of this dynamic, however. In a small, recently formed community reserve in northeastern India, members of the Bugun tribe use part of their profits for community development, Umesh Srinivasan, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, told Mongabay. The Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve is the only place in the world where the critically endangered Bugun liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum) is known to live.

“Bird tourism is huge there now because of the discovery of the species,” Srinivasan said. “Although so far there has been no real formal benefit-sharing mechanism, tour operators from the Bugun community have been sharing portion of their profits with the village council. The funds have been used to give scholarships to children, for taking care of medical expenses, or for funding traditional festivals. Now, with the establishment of the community reserve, a more formal management plan and more equitable benefit-sharing mechanism is in the cards.”

Similarly, in Mexico, wealthier communities, instead of distributing money to individual households, tend to reinvest their profits into public goods, Bray said. “It could be in the form of potable water systems, computer for schools, lighting for the town,” he added.

Still, it remains difficult to say whether such redistribution of economic benefits is fair or not.


The body of scientific literature on community-based forest management is considerable. But only a few studies have actually tried to look at the strategy’s effectiveness. What research does exist tells only part of the story.

For instance, community-based forest management does not seem to worsen deforestation when compared to open-access forests. But we still don’t know whether the management strategy is truly sustainable.

The evidence for socioeconomic outcomes is also limited. While some studies suggest that community-based forest management improves community livelihoods and well-being, and can also provide economic benefits, these studies are largely incomparable because they measure different outcomes using different methodologies. There does, however, seem to be a pattern suggesting that community-based forest management can aggravate existing inequalities – both social and economic – within the communities.

Moreover, available research is not always clear about the extent to which communities are actually involved in CFM programmes. This makes it difficult to tease out the true effectiveness of such strategies.

Overall, though, there has been an uptick in well-designed studies in the past few years.

This is good news. Community-based forest management has been touted as a one-stop solution for everything from improving forest health to reducing poverty. As rigorously designed studies grow in number, it might become easier to predict when and where a CFM programme is likely to work and to design programmes to maximise the benefits and minimise the drawbacks. But to achieve this, researchers might need to reach a consensus about what outcomes to measure, and which methodologies to follow. Only then will a clearer picture emerge.

This article was originally published by Mongabay and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license.