From the NEPSUS Series by Stefano Ponte
A central controversy is hampering plans for sustainable natural resource management in many Tanzanian villages: who owns and controls the so-called ‘open areas’? Open areas are designated village lands that can contain extensive forests. However, they have not been allocated to any specific use. Villagers consider these lands to be their collective property to be used for conservation or consumptive activities. On the contrary, the government agency in charge of forest management (Tanzania Forest Service, TFS) claims that trees in open areas fall under their management. Through timber harvesting, TFS uses these forests as a source of revenue. A Village Land Forest Reserve (VLFR) on the other hand, is a village forest land with de jure management plans, it is a portion of village forest land which is solely managed by the community of a village(s) council.
The ambiguity about forest property rights arose when TFS was established in 2011. Back then, it was given a mandate to manage state forests and forests which are neither governed by communities nor are privately owned. The problem is that the organization’s mandate to control forests in open areas is still not clearly defined, due to a contradiction between TFS and Village councils. Both, The Land Act (1999) and the Forest Act (2002) vest forests on village land in the village council, however, TFS seems to take control of forests on village land too.
When TFS was established, Tanzania had already seen twenty years of challenges related to public forest governance. This had led to the introduction of Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM), propagated since the early 1990s. Currently both CBFM, which assigns forest management duty to village government authorities, and central government forest management co-exist in some areas. The TFS seems to operate in National Forest Reserves and in many areas where actors’ responsibility for forest management remains undefined. TFS is thus claiming responsibility for managing all forests, except those under community governance or private ownership.
In one of the villages we visited, CBFM is not practiced. TFS is thus in charge of the forest on village land (called ‘open area’). If TFS fells trees on this land, the village is meant to obtain 10% of the total harvest value. However, the village has no commercial control of trees located in open areas. This rule applies to all villages with and without Village Land Forest Reserves (VLFR). Contrary to open areas, VLFRs are village forests lands with de jure management plans while “open areas” are village forests with de facto management plans, both under village lands.
When walking through one of the villages we did our fieldwork in, we observed piles of harvested timber along the roadside. Surprisingly, none of the village leaders had been aware of the timber harvest and they were not able to tell us who may have been responsible for it. One of the members of the village natural resources committee had accompanied us on this walk, and he seemed to be baffled because the committee had not issued any permit to harvest timber. And even if someone had a permit from TFS, he/she should have requested clearance and a permit from the village government first. Such a permit is issued after an agreement is reached at a village general meeting. The village leaders blamed TFS for what had happened, given that it is their responsibility to ensure that timber harvest activities only take place if officially permitted. Additionally, village representatives complained that TFS had never disbursed the 10% of the revenue accrued from timber harvest that should be transferred to the village.
Our observations suggest that the legal controversy is affecting forest management in many open areas. A considerable part of the benefit from timber harvest to be shared with the villages by TFS seems to be missing. This not only makes valuable trees in open areas susceptible to illegal harvest, but it also prevents the local government from providing necessary security or investing in other sustainable practices. Consequently, villagers lack a feeling of ownership with regard to forests in open areas, and thus are not likely to contribute to their sustainable management.
Community-Based Forest Management and its limits
Although CBFM was devised to curb the challenges encountered in state forest governance, there are still unanswered questions regarding its effectiveness. In one of the villages we worked in, CBFM has been practiced since 2004 – yet the sustainability of the forest is in jeopardy. This village has a diverse mix of dalbegia melanoxylon (Mpingo) trees, both in their Village Land Forest Reserve (VLFR) and in the open area. In the VLFR, Mpingo (the most valuable tree species because of its harvestable size) has been almost completely depleted. As a matter of fact, the village is now planning to expand its VLFR to attract more harvesters of Mpingo trees in open areas – where timber harvest is also taking place under the TFS regime. Furthermore, we were informed by local villagers about cases of harvesters in open areas felling volumes beyond their permit and thereby taking advantage of the lack of proper control.
Even in CBFM villages, forest sustainability is under threat, as the availability of harvestable-sized trees of timber value is already limited, especially among Mpingo trees. The main concern among local leaders is that if the VLFR stops generating revenue for the village government, CBFM could fail to support local livelihoods and eventually put conservation efforts at risk. This could become the case if one of the alternative uses for forest land, especially the establishment of lucrative new sesame seed farms, start to gain more relevance.
The experience we made during our fieldwork calls for forest experts to revisit forest governance structures and allow quick establishment of a VLFR. The current process and procedures are time-intensive and involve expenses which the villages cannot afford. The establishment of a Village Land Forest Reserve in another village where we carried out research is a good example of this problem. After more than 20 years and around €400,000 of investment, the forest reserve is still far from operating. Second, the presence of a forest reserve does not mean that villagers are now keen on biodiversity conservation. Instead, the VLFR is more likely to be perceived as a gold mine for the rural population, given that timber harvesting is their main income source.
Both village land forest reserves and open areas face sustainability challenges. Villages are seeking to expand their forest reserves because they want to increase the possibility of harvesting trees. If these lands generate too little revenue, the pressure to use them for other purposes will be increased. Open areas seem to be treated as if they were available for everyone. The NEPSUS project is seeking to provide some answers to these dilemmas.
Who owns and controls forests in open areas? A legal controversy and challenges for sustainable forest management in Tanzanian villages.