In many countries, forest governance has remained a centralised and top-down process. Policies ignore the role of forests in tribal livelihoods and cultures, violating the overlapping laws protecting the rights of these communities. Premises and procedures for identifying and defining forests are poor, resulting in land use conflicts, unclear boundaries, legal disputes and inappropriate management objectives for lands wrongly classified as ‘forest’. Forest User Groups (FUGs) represent one mechanism for decentralising forest management and increasing community-based responsibility and authority. FUGs are based on the three principles of participation, collective action and long-term sustainability. They are formed through democratic processes whereby local residents are elected as community representatives to work as an autonomous body alongside existing government authorities to manage forest resources and to articulate the needs and priorities of local people. FUG members may receive training in resource management and participate in multi-stakeholder forest management mechanisms, develop land-use plans in line with national forest laws and regulations, and undertake forest patrols and awareness-raising with the aim of curbing illegal activities (Ensor and Berger, 2009) (IDS, 2006).
According to Mohan et al (2003) there are four principal phases to implementing a FUG:
- Baseline information assessment of forest users and introductory community meetings to discuss and define objectives and processes, identification of forest boundaries and local needs and priorities;
- Preparation of a forest user group constitution (roles and responsibilities) and a forest management operational plan, in liaison with local government authorities;
- Election of Forest User Executive Committee;
- Formal authorisation of the elected Committee and FUG by local/district forest office and commencement of operations.
FUGs provide a platform through which communities can directly participate in the identification of local problems, needs and possible solutions to climate change and disaster risk. If local communities have systematically assessed their situation and know clearly what they need to best adapt to climate change impact, they can then effectively contribute to district level plans. These in turn can inform regional and national adaptation plans and programmes (Regmi et al, 2010). In some contexts, FUGs can also provide an effective vehicle for collective community action on a broader range of development activities. These activities include initiatives for improved education, health, sanitation, rural infrastructure and safe drinking water ─ all of which build the capacity of a community to adapt to future challenges and opportunities presented by climate change.
Advantages of the technology
Where FUGs are recognised by local government authorities, restoration of land and forest rights can provide indigenous communities with vital access to resources to strengthen and diversify livelihood activities thus building their resilience against possible impacts of climate change. Environmental benefits can include increased biodiversity and ecosystem resilience through local species conservation, reforestation schemes and decreased rates of illegal logging. Environmental improvements have also been experienced in cases where common property systems for forests have been introduced, leading to more sustainable use and collection of forest products (IDS, 2006).
Disadvantages of the technology
Limitations of FUGs emerge when groups only consist of powerful community members and the poorest and most marginalised members receive the fewest benefits (IDS, 2006). Conflicts can arise where resource use amongst local residents is factionalised and diverse (Eagle, 1992). In communities where there is less tradition of working communally, motivation to participate and to understand the benefits of joint-action can be difficult to stimulate and sustain (Ensor and Berger, 2009).
Financial requirements and costs
The financing of each of these stages and subsequent activities will depend entirely on the local context and the content of forest management plans. However, it is the responsibility of the authorities to finance the necessary training programmes and technical services to enable villagers to develop skills to successfully operate FUGs (IDS, 2006).
Institutional and organisational requirements
When setting-up a FUG it is important to understand the dynamics of the local communities and to ensure participation from a representative range of community members. A full forest resource assessment should be carried out, preferably using two methods: a participatory appraisal involving community members cross-referenced with quantitative data logged with GIS technology. This inventory can then be used for monitoring purposes (Richards et al, 1999). Knowledge of livelihood activities, labour inputs, forest products flows (including sources, species, and the timing of sales and expenditure), is vital for understanding the potential benefits of FUGs, for identifying FUG objectives and for making a basic economic calculation of the return from local forest resource management (Richards et al, 1999). Undertaking a financial analysis of a FUG system, in which the benefits and costs to different stakeholders can be calculated, can make equity issues more transparent and can be used as a tool for consultation and negotiation within the FUG. Financial indicators can also be used to ensure ongoing accountability and transparency of the FUG process, thereby empowering poorer members of the FUG. Awareness about forestry policy and procedures is also a fundamental requirement as understanding land rights is essential for formulating appropriate livelihood and conservation strategies. For example, a landless farmer is likely to be more interested in generating an income from cash-crops rather than investing time and effort into practices (such as agro-forestry) that yield benefits over the longer term. Likewise, understanding local markets and the demand for forest products is essential for establishing an effective FUG strategy.
A sound understanding of cultural, social and political dynamics is required to accompany this process. FUGs will be easier to implement and more likely to succeed where communal working arrangements already exist. In addition, community members will need to be willing to accept the responsibilities of forest resource management and governments must be willing to allocate management responsibilities to local authorities and villagers (IDS, 2006). FUGs will best function where decentralised forest policy supports assignment of authority or certification to the forest user group to manage local forest resources. Knowledge of existing forest policy, boundaries of authority and local legislation processes will therefore be crucial to facilitate FUG establishment and ensure sustainability.
Where conflicts over forest uses are present, these should be discussed proactively in participatory FUG formation and management phases in order to mitigate future conflicts and ensure adequate representation of diverse community needs and priorities. Regular monitoring of consumption of forest products, resource allocation and distribution, the income of different users, inter-group relations and categorisation of rich and poor community members should be undertaken annually in order that the socioeconomic characteristics of user groups are understood by the Executive Committee. Understanding these characteristics should be used to form the basis of fair and transparent management plans that meet the basic needs of users and prioritise benefit-sharing based on the relative economic status of users (Dahal, 1994).
Barriers to implementation
A critical barrier to effective implementation of FUGs can occur where issues of forest ownership and management responsibilities are confusing and conflicting. In Nepal, for example, National and Local Government Acts assigned responsibilities for forest management to different bodies which created confusion over final rights of ownership and led to ambiguities in the implementation of FUG activities (Mohan, Shin and Murali, 2003).
Weak skills and capacities of disadvantaged groups and poor representation of marginalised community members may limit equitable benefit distribution. To address these issues, there is a need to build the skills of these groups in areas such as literacy, decision-making, and planning. FUGs should be created on the basis of equitable representation of all community groups, including women.
Opportunities for implementation
Potential opportunities include:
- Social: strengthening of decentralised coordination and governance mechanisms, democratic and transparent decision-making, monitoring and fund management; improved relationships and networks (social capital); political empowerment of communities including rights awareness; strengthened tenure, capacities, welfare and security.
- Economic: access to non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and timber for direct household use; income from the sale of NTFPs, agro-forestry yields, timber and environmental service markets; employment in forest management activities; pro-poor benefits of community forest use. A benefit-modelling system (to show who gives and gets what, and who could potentially give and get what, based on wealth-rankings and needs) can be a useful tool. Small enterprise development and marketing will also improve capacity to identify and create new livelihood opportunities. Investment of profits in local infrastructure.
- Environmental: maintenance of environmental services (biodiversity, soil health, agricultural productivity, carbon sequestration, air and water quality).
- Dahal, D. R. (1994) A Review of Forest User Groups: Case Studies from Eastern Nepal, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, Nepal.
- Eagle, S. (1992) Experiences with a Heterogeneous Forest User Group in the Far West of Nepal, Rural Development Forestry Network Papers, 13 e-iv, Overseas Development Institute, London, UK.
- Ensor, J. and R. Berger (2009b) Community-based adaptation and culture in theory and practice in Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values, Governance, eds. W. Neil Adger, Irene Lorenzoni and Karen O’Brien. Published by Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press.
- IDS (Institute of Development Studies) (2006) Forestry, IDS21 Natural Resources Highlights No.2, Sussex, UK.
- Mohan, A., N. Shin, and A. Murali (2003) Decentralisation, Local Institutions and Forest Management in Chitwan District of Nepal, paper submitted to the XII World Forestry Congress, 2003, Quebec Citry, Canada.
- Regmi, B. R., A. Morcrette, A. Paudyal, R. Bastakoti and S. Pradhan (2010) Participatory Tools and Techniques for Assessing Climate Change Impacts and Exploring Adaptation Options: A Community Based Tool Kit for Practitioners, Livelihoods and Forestry Programme, Nepal.
- Richards, M., K. Kanel, M. Maharjan and J. Davies (1999) Towards participatory economic analysis by forest user groups in Nepal, ODI.