Who Conserves the Worlds Forests

Tuesday, January 1, 1980

Who Conserves the World's Forests? Community-Driven Strategies to Protect Forests and Respect Rights, Forest Trends

by A. Molnar, S. J. Scherr and A. Khare, 2004

original paper pdf


There is a growing recognition of the extent of human presence in the most biodiverse regions and of the fact that a large portion of this population are some of the world’s poorest people. More than 1 billion people (at least 25% of whom are malnourished) who live in the 25 global biodiversity "hotspots" identified by Conservation International subsist on less than one US dollar per day (Conservation International 2004a). Population growth in the world’s last remaining wilderness areas is twice the world average (Cincotta and Engleman 2000). Recognizing this changing reality, the recent Durban Accord from the World Parks Congress endorsed an approach to biodiversity conservation that moves beyond protected areas and seeks to address root causes of biodiversity loss and to promote biodiversity at a landscape scale. The Accord also recognizes the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples and forest dwellers over forest areas considered part of the public domain and their key role in determining categories of use and protection more flexibly. The Accord has been developed in line with the Millennium Development Goal Project, which is committed to reducing poverty by 50% by the year 2015 and enhancing existing livelihoods.

At the same time, the current system of public protected areas continues to be severely underfunded while not including enough of the world’s priority biodiversity and natural habitats. At the present coverage and quality of protection, biologists estimate that only 50-70% of the existing species will be conserved (Myers et al. 2000). Moreover, current proposals for expanding public protected areas in many of the developing countries continue to be made without adequate appreciation of their impacts on human rights, their social, economic or political costs, or an adequate understanding of alternative choices. Just as expanding public protected areas significantly is not an option in most developing countries, effective exclusion of population from many parks is neither viable nor affordable. This is particularly true given the real costs of compensating for lost livelihoods or resettlement and the growing recognition of local rights.

An earlier Forest Trends analysis, Who Owns the World’s Forests, examined global tenure trends and found that at least 420 million hectares or 11% are legally owned or administered by communities. This constitutes some 22% of the forests in the developing countries and three times as much forest as is owned by private individuals or firms (White and Martin 2002). This new analysis takes a different tack—identifying the amount of the world’s forest that is being actively conserved by Indigenous Peoples and other communities with or without legal protections. It also assesses total investment in forest conservation, including estimates of local people’s investments in conservation. The analysis reveals that community-driven biodiversity conservation covers significant areas of the world’s forests and that those communities invest an important amount in their conservation. The analysis summarizes the lessons learned from this experience and identifies necessary steps to enable this approach to contribute more—to both conservation and communities. The report is based on a longer paper entitled Who Conserves the World’s Forests? A New Assessment of Conservation and Investment Trends by the same authors, available at Forest Trends.

To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to produce a global estimate of the scope of community conservation. Given the limited quantity and quality of the data, this analysis should be viewed as a first step, and we hope it will encourage others to examine this issue and improve our collective understanding of community conservation.


Community conservation is clearly not a panacea for biodiversity conservation any more than are public protected areas. Indeed, although the two do produce similar ecosystem protection functions, it would be erroneous to directly compare them to or suggest that one be universally superior to another. They can operate in different parts of the landscape and be complementary. Community conservation clearly entails more active land use than public protected areas. On the other hand, the high conservation-value ecosystems in what are now public protected areas are the products of past land use by Indigenous and other communities. Given the history of the conservation community’s focus on protected areas, this analysis does suggest that it is becoming increasingly important for conservationists to treat communities as allies, refocusing their efforts on assisting communities to achieve their own development and conservation goals.

Communities offer new institutional models for conservation that should be strengthened. Some traditional communities in large intact forests (Type 1) require more secure tenure rights, legal rights to actively use their forests, and support for building local institutions and skills for better conservation outcomes. Others require stronger partnerships with their government or private partners where their presence and control of boundaries are under threat from outsiders. Successful community managers in fragmented forest landscapes (Type 2) have developed organizational structures that have competitive advantages that outside models too often seek to change, rather than replicate. Communities in newly settled forest areas (Type 3) tend to require clarified and stronger tenure rights and more outside assistance to develop their management structures and seek viable enterprises. Communities that are actively restoring forested landscapes or agriculture-forest mosaics (Type 4) may already have secure tenure rights, yet policies or regulations often place formidable barriers and create disincentives for these communities to undertake conservation activities or economic activities that are compatible with and supportive of their conservation goals.

Technical assistance and support is helpful to strengthen such efforts and should be provided on local terms. Local community actors can play lead roles in research and monitoring, setting management goals, and implementing and developing economic activities that generate financial and subsistence returns from the resource base while conserving that resource’s multiple values. The more that local community managers, and the next generation of community leaders, are able or supported to perform these roles, the more effective and sustained forest conservation will result.

In parallel, policy makers and governments should re-examine global forest conservation conventions and mechanisms to ensure that these foster and support community conservation. Exciting new markets for environmental services are emerging, but few of these are sensitive to equity issues or to the access of local communities to these markets and market players. Controls on trade in illegally harvested timber and forest products are an important initiative, but without parallel regulatory or policy reform, community actors find that their subsistence and commercial activities are not recognized or permitted, thus undermining their incentives for long-term management and conservation. Community voices have been introduced into international fora, but are often limited to a few representatives and still have insufficient resources to enable communities to form respected opinions or exchange views within and across regions.

The analysis suggests some important enabling conditions which would help increase the chances for successful community conservation. Without the minimum enabling conditions in place, communities will continue to find it difficult to maintain conservation in the face of the myriad counter pressures, including the need for increased incomes and livelihood stability. Key enabling elements include:

  1. Secure tenure rights and resource access, respecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights and development aspirations
  2. Adequate institutional regulatory and policy support and the flexibility to strengthen local community institutions
  3. Fair access to markets, including green markets, that value community products and the multiple values that come along with these products
  4. Finance channeled in a flexible way to complement local initiatives, rather than planning or designing models from outside or governing from above
  5. Engagement of communities in conservation science and as research partners The opportunities will differ for different types of community-driven conservation, and sustainable strategies to support local initiative must be tailored to local conditions.

A large area of the world’s forest is managed and, to varying degrees, conserved by forest communities. This presents both a unique opportunity and a unique challenge to governments, international organizations, the private sector and civil society all fostering more sustainable forest conservation. With global and forest populations increasing, it is timely—indeed urgent—to assist these communities in achieving their development—and conservation—goals.