Nathalie Faure is a legal expert in our forests team. She finds ways to both protect forests and to ensure the rights of people who depend on them for their livelihoods are recognised in law.
With her ClientEarth colleagues she explores how community forest rights are protected around the world, and identifies ways those rights can be secured in the Congo basin.
This week, Nathalie is travelling to Cameroon to share her findings with community groups, development organisations and governments.
How did you end up defending forests and community rights?
My background is in international law. I’ve worked in lots of different fields: formerly, I worked in humanitarian and criminal international law. I worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania, which judged the Rwandan genocide. And then I did some work with the UN at their peacekeeping operations in Cote d’Ivoire. I lived in both countries for some time.
So I have quite diverse experience both on the human rights and humanitarian fields. Now I’m working in Cote d’Ivoire in a different capacity. I already had an interest early on in environmental law as well, so I studied that a part of my Masters, and it has become my specialism.
The work I have been doing at ClientEarth for the last 8 years is really at the crossroads between human rights law, particularly indigenous people’s and communities’ rights, and environmental law.”
What’s the focus of your work?
I’m working mainly on two projects at the moment. In Cote D’Ivoire, I focus on capacity building – that’s making sure local groups have the skills, knowledge and information they need to take part in legal reforms around how forests are managed.
The second project is about reinforcing community forest rights. We look at how protecting the rights of communities to have access to their forest also protects the forests themselves, the broader environment, and society as a whole.
We’re presenting our findings of the last two years of research in Cameroon this week, but the report is relevant for many countries in the Congo basin and beyond– including where we work, in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Gabon, Liberia and the Republic of Congo.
I’m excited to visit again – I’ve always found the people in the Congo basin to be incredibly welcoming and open. And the fresh fruits are amazing.
What do you mean by ‘community forestry’?
There’s no single international definition. The one we use is that it’s the management of forests by a community, for the benefits of the community. So they’re managing the forests sustainably, but they also have benefits coming back to them.
Community forestry recognises that communities have been using these forest areas for generations. It recognises specific rights of use and access to the forest, and also that the communities have the right to choose how they want to use or exploit forest areas.
That might be only for subsistence purposes – using the forest for gathering fuel, picking fruits and medicine and so forth. But it could also be allowing communities to make an income, to actually commercialise the products of the forest. That’s a new approach in some countries, moving away from the single model of management of forests by the State or private companies.
How does providing enhanced rights for communities actually protect the forests themselves?
In general, communities have to apply to get rights to the forest in a certain area. When they apply they have to submit what we call a forest management plan. That’s exactly what it sounds like: it sets out how they want to manage a certain forest area. It explains not only how they want to exploit the forest, but also how they plan to manage it in a sustainable way. The government, authority or administration evaluating the request will assess how the community is contributing to sustainable management.
Beyond that, there’s lots of evidence showing that when communities manage their forest area, the health of the forest improves and the quality of the forest can be higher than when governments or companies manage them.
There are many human and social benefits: community forestry also allows women to become leaders in their community, giving them a space to participate, and it also contributes to create social cohesion. But effective forest management by communities is also good for the planet.
How do you reconcile community forest rights with the need to tackle climate change?
When it’s done well we can see lower rates of deforestation in forests managed by communities. That means a better impact on the climate, as well as contributing to better biodiversity.
It’s a link that’s not made often enough. There’s actually a really interesting report from the WRI which looks at how if you strengthen the rights of communities and give them formal access and format forest management rights, that in turn has a positive impact on the climate.
How do you know what approach to community forestry is effective and achievable?
Some of my colleagues gather information and expertise in our focus countries. They work directly with NGOs – for example in the Republic of Congo we’re helping groups who represent communities to intervene in forest law reforms that are happening right now. That’s crucial to our understanding of the challenge , but also to making a concrete change to integrate community forestry in the law.
It’s quite a new concept in the Congo basin – but around the world there are some positive models you can look at. Several countries – in Asia and elsewhere – have worked out how to better involve the people who depend on forests in their management. Some of them have been running since the 1970s so their impact and challenges are well established.
We’ve concentrated on three countries in our analysis: Nepal, the Philippines and Tanzania. We looked at how the models in those countries can positively inform the reform of forest laws in the Congo basin.
Are communities really better at managing forests than governments?
In most countries, the state manages natural resources including forests. In tropical countries in particular, historically the state maintains a large degree of control. Forest areas are treated as a national economic resource – but for thriving communities it needs to be a micro-economic resource as well. Forests also need to be managed as an environmental concern. Community-managed forests can balance those factors better. Of course, states have economic ambitions for the right reasons and they are seeing that outside their region initiatives of community forestry are working. They’re looking at moving towards that approach – that’s where we come in.
What’s next for this project?
We hope we can take our framework elsewhere across the globe – in particular south-east Asia. That’s another highly forested area where some good models already exist and ongoing legal reforms can be an opportunity to enhance communities’ rights – we’re hoping to run some workshops in the region.