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Making Forests Pay: Context

Today less than 4% of Ethiopia’s land is forested, compared to around 30% at the end of the 19th century (WBISPP, 2004).Poorly defined forest property rights and insecurity of tenure have contributed to this deforestation. In 1975 forests were decreed as state assets, shifting full ownership, management responsibilities and use rights from private owners and local communities that had managed forests since time immemorial to central government. This change in management regime was unable to stem the numerous threats that economic development posed on forests, which found themselves under a de facto open access regime.

Forests offer considerable potential for sustainable production of high value timber and non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as coffee, honey and spices. However a forest management system that prioritised forest protection over production stifled the development of forest-based businesses and further alienated communities from managing and benefitting from forests.

Redolent of Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the unmanaged[1] Commons’ (Hardin, 1968), individuals were incentivised to exploit forests unsustainably, or convert them to other land uses, without investing in proper land management, as future access rights remained uncertain. As forest use was deemed illegal, any product extracted could only be traded informally, at lower prices, making forest-based livelihood activities less attractive than alternative land uses. Communities understandably saw limited value or opportunity in conserving and managing forests, driving widespread and rapid deforestation.

In the meantime, Ethiopia has seen rapid population growth, from 18 million people in 1950 to 98 million today, with 80% in rural areas (UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, 2015). This population explosion has further exacerbated deforestation, through increasing demand for farm and grazing lands, settlement spaces, and wood for energy and construction. Yet millions still rely on the dwindling forests to fulfil part or all of their livelihood needs (Lemenih, 2012).

Various attempts to arrest the rapid decline in forest cover, including reforestation and afforestation projects, have proved unsuccessful largely because they failed to address private incentives. Only when local communities are recognised as key stakeholders and mutually beneficial management arrangements are in place can they be effectively engaged to fill the institutional gaps that appeared when forest management was centralised.

Participatory Forest Management (PFM)[2] emerged as a potential solution to this institutional vacuum and resulting deforestation. The model creates a framework for collaborative forest management between local communities and government forestry agencies.[3] Under PFM, the parties enter into mutually enforceable agreements that define their respective roles, responsibilities, benefits and authority in the management of forest resources. These agreements are ratified by all parties through a forest management agreement (Warah, 2008).

In sharp contrast with the old ‘command and control’ system of forest governance, PFM recognises local communities’ stake in managing and improving the condition of the forests, rather than characterising them as an inevitable destructive force.  PFM in Ethiopia has emerged alongside a broader global movement towards decentralised forms of natural resource governance (Larson and Ribot, 2004), that try and align environmental protection with economic development. 

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[1] Text in italics added by the authors

[2] ‘PFM’ encompasses diverse arrangements of shared rights and responsibilities between government and local communities. The spectrum ranges from full control by community (also called Community Based Forest Management), through Joint Forest Management (JFM) to Participatory Forest Protection.

[3] Where appropriate, it can also include private sector actors with a stake in the locale


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