Forests are complex and vibrant ecosystems that support a diverse array of plant and animal species while also providing critical resources that sustain human life and livelihoods. However, many of the world’s forests face mounting threats from habitat destruction, overexploitation, climate change and other human-caused disturbances. To ensure the long-term survival of forests and secure the wide range of benefits they provide, innovative conservation and management approaches are urgently needed. Community-based forest management has emerged as a promising strategy that empowers local communities to serve as stewards of nearby woodlands while also enhancing their resilience to environmental changes.

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The importance of forests, is that it covers nearly one-third of the world’s total land area and harbours more than 80 per cent of all terrestrial biodiversity. These ecosystems contribute significantly to both climate regulation and carbon storage through photosynthesis and other processes. Trees and other vegetation take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and incorporate the carbon into their tissues as they grow. Globally, forests currently store more than one trillion tons of carbon, playing a vital role in mitigating human-caused climate change.

In addition, forests provide numerous other ecosystem services that are crucial for human survival and well-being. They help regulate local precipitation patterns and water flows, prevent soil erosion, harbour pollinator species and serve as a source of food, medicine, fuel, construction materials and income for more than a billion people worldwide. Many indigenous communities have cultural, spiritual and economic ties to nearby forests that stretch back generations.

Threats to forest ecosystems

Despite their importance, forests across the globe face escalating threats as a result of human activities like agricultural expansion, logging, infrastructure development and urbanisation. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that some 420 million hectares of forests worldwide were converted to other land uses between 1990 and 2020. Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for 12-20 per cent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. They also lead to declines in biodiversity and ecosystem services as habitat is lost and landscapes are fragmented.

In addition, climate change itself poses mounting dangers to forests through increases in drought, wildfires, pest outbreaks, extreme weather events and climate-related tree diseases. Forest ecosystems and dependent communities urgently need support to adapt to these changes. Sustainably managing forests is also one of the most cost-effective climate change mitigation strategies available.

The promise of community-based forest management and community-based forest management emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to state-controlled systems that tended to exclude local people. This approach directly involves forest-adjacent communities in decision-making and day-to-day management activities related to nearby woodlands.

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Common activities include implementing harvesting rules, patrolling protected areas, maintaining fire breaks, restoring habitat and monitoring biodiversity and forest health over time.

Community-based strategies are known to lead to equal or better outcomes for forest conditions and recovery compared to strictly protected areas or state-managed forests. Engaged communities have strong incentives to keep forests healthy over the long term since their livelihoods depend directly on ecosystem services like clean water, climate regulation, soil conservation and non-timber forest products. Involving locals also helps incorporate traditional and indigenous knowledge that is often lost under centralised government control.

Building climate resilience

As climate change increasingly threatens forest ecosystems, community-based adaptation and mitigation actions will be essential. Locals who interact with forests regularly are often the first to notice subtle shifts in species composition, water flows or weather patterns that may signal deeper changes underway. By channelling these observations into adaptive responses, communities can reduce climate-related risks to livelihoods and ecosystems.

Specific climate resilience strategies might include diversifying income streams beyond timber harvesting to decrease dependence on vulnerable species, integrating climate change projections into management plans, establishing local tree nurseries with heat and drought-resistant native species, implementing early warning systems for fire or pest outbreaks and restoring degraded habitat to enhance connectivity.

Protecting biodiversity

In addition to building climate resilience, community forest groups play a critical role in maintaining and monitoring biodiversity. They provide localised protection against threats like illegal logging, hunting and land conversion that drive forest species declines and extinctions globally. Community patrols have been highly effective at deterring poaching in participating forest areas around the world. Locals also possess in-depth knowledge regarding species abundance, habitat preferences and phenology that can inform conservation plans.

Many community forestry institutions have regulations regarding harvesting of non-timber forest products, grazing patterns, fire management and infrastructure development that help maintain ecosystems. Habitat restoration and enrichment planting efforts led by community groups have aided the recovery of threatened species populations in some areas. Participatory biodiversity monitoring engages locals in systematically tracking species trends over time using simple methods.

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Data gathered can identify priorities and can help assess the effectiveness of conservation actions. In India’s Mendha Lekha village in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, community-based forest management has led to both reduced deforestation and increased biodiversity. The indigenous Baiga and Gond tribes have stewarded the surrounding woods for generations. In 2009, Mendha Lekha became the first village in India to win government recognition of their community forest resource rights. This secured local control of over 1,800 hectares of forest.

Key ingredients for success

Realising the potential of community forestry requires careful attention to enabling conditions at local, landscape and national scales. Thorough participatory planning from the outset, helps ensure community support, incorporate local priorities and facilitate benefit sharing. Securing land and resourcing tenure rights provide incentives for long-term stewardship, while strong local institutions uphold agreements and equitable decision-making procedures.

Skills training around bookkeeping, forest mapping, sustainable harvesting methods, conflict resolution and more, empowers community members to fulfil important roles and responsibilities. Ongoing external guidance from NGOs or government agencies can supplement local capacity where needed.

At broader scales, community forestry’s success depends on functional governance systems, adequate financial resources, involvement of marginalised groups and integration with national policy frameworks. Regional networks allow the sharing of best practices while policy advocacy campaigns by forest community federations, pressure lawmakers for legal reforms.

Looking ahead

Community-based approaches have tremendous potential to address interlinked goals related to climate resilience, biodiversity conservation, sustainable development and poverty alleviation. While not a panacea, empowering local and indigenous communities to exercise self-determination in managing nearby woodlands offers a proven model for maintaining healthy, diverse and productive forests.

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Continued innovation, knowledge sharing, capacity building and policy improvements are needed to overcome persistent barriers related to insecure tenure rights, inequitable benefit sharing and lack of technical expertise in many contexts. With enabling conditions in place, locally-led forest stewardship efforts that blend traditional wisdom and scientific insights provide a pathway to securing forests and forest-based livelihoods in the face of growing environmental pressures.

The author is Founder, Creduce