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Challenges for Forest Governance in Africa

RRI has identified several key threats to improving forest tenure in Africa through a process of Listening, Learning, and Sharing and subsequent collaboration with Partners and Collaborators in the region.

Regular migration has long been a feature of African societies, but traditional movement patterns will be disrupted as climate change induces mass migration to more limited fertile areas. One study predicts a 50% reduction in the Sahel's rainfall and agricultural productivity by 2020. New inhabitants can complicate tenure relations and undermine stability, and customary practices for coping with inward migration are difficult to codify effectively.


Climate Change
Climate change has huge impact for drylands and savannah countries, where droughts lead to poverty and famine. Therefore, the development of adaptation strategies is essential for Sahelian countries, although the international community is more focused on mitigation strategies and on the Congo Basin.


REDD could be an innovative response to climate change, but it also presents several challenges to equitable forest governance:

  • High-level global discussions on REDD lack practical guidance on addressing social elements like rights, livelihoods and tenure.
  • Regional climate mitigation engagement has not yet developed steady avenues for community empowerment. A major challenge is how to push for pro-poor REDD without clear and established tenure rights.
  • African governments may see REDD purely as a source of finance. State governments often want to control funding and financial mechanisms tied to mitigation strategies and begin to recentralize forest management.
  • For REDD to work, it requires good forest governance nationally, provincially and at the community level.


Industrial Concessions Model
The dominant economic model for forestry has been state-controlled, export-oriented, industrial-scale concessions. This system dates from the colonial period, and it is increasingly clear that it does not promote balanced national economic growth. Under this model, exports remain concentrated in primary products. Alternative tenure and enterprise models have not received core support, despite incipient policy reforms related to Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT-VPA) and climate change. Recognition of customary tenure, combined with an enabling business environment for small-scale, locally-owned forest enterprises, could drive emerging local and domestic markets and better sustain equitable national economic growth.


Forest Governance
Forest governance in Africa is generally very weak, at once highly centralized and exclusionary, characterized by a pervasive disregard for customary laws and rights. In recent years, policy and legislative reforms have begun to overturn some of the colonial frameworks for natural resource governance inherited at independence. Although the rhetoric of decentralization is promising, government transfer of power has yet to become truly effective. Implementation of decentralization remains fiercely resisted in many quarters, and limited reforms do not adequately reflect customary management or concern for the most disadvantaged. Governments continue to centralize authority on strategic development issues such as commercial mining, forest concessions and schemes for climate mitigation, especially REDD.


Land Grabs and Economic Concessions
Forest governance in Africa is hampered by extensive land grabbing and elite capture of resources for industrial concessions, bio-energy, rice paddies, plantations and mining. Since 2008, a sharp increase in global demand for fuel, fiber and food has intensified pressure on African land and resources. According to the World Bank, more than 70% of the 45 million hectares of large-scale land deals are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Local communities’ customary agriculture and forestry practices frequently operate outside of the new industrial concessionary system and lack legal protection from land grabs. Because they increase the value of land, land grabs may also encourage the recentralizing trend of African governments.


Social Exclusion, Inequity, and Gender
Despite pro-poor forest reforms in several African countries, there is much less concern for the most underprivileged: women and Indigenous Peoples. Women’s tenure rights remain largely unrecognized under both customary and formal laws. Lacking adequate representation, their rights and concerns are insufficiently considered in policy and law reforms at national and international levels.


In the Sahel, pastoralist indigenous communities live in arid territories and dry forests where climate and population shifts affect economies. With weak political rights, they face increasing conflicts with farmers over water and grazing lands. Across Central Africa, the customary tenure rights and livelihoods strategies of Indigenous Peoples such as the Baka and Bagyeli are poorly understood and poorly respected in national policy and international processes affecting their traditional forests.