Unearthing Grassroots Power

Article excerpt

The fate of tropical forests has captured the imagination of the world for over a decade. Many studies have diagnosed the proximate and deeper causes of deforestation and sketched out policy proposals to stem, halt, or reverse the process. In this debate, the "shifted cultivator"--the poor, land-hungry people who invade the forests in search of subsistence living--often bears the brunt of the blame. Because demographic pressure and maldistribution of agricultural land throw these people onto the frontier in large numbers, policy prescriptions focus on family planning, halting colonization projects and road-building, and advocating land reform, all the while stressing the need for parks and reserves, and the capacity to manage them. This policy preference is often interpreted as an attempt to keep people from the forest in order to preserve it. As laudable as those goals are, serious questions remain. What will be the fate of people who inhabit the forest? Are they to be driven out? Are they to he blamed for deforestation as they seek to survive?

For some time, poverty has been perceived as a major contributor to environmental degradation, especially in rural areas. Consequently, in the latter half of the 1980s, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, the Brundtland Commission, focused on basic needs as a necessary component of sustainable development, in tandem with a redirection of economic growth along a more environmentally friendly path, population control, and citizen participation. How to balance economic growth, environmental quality, social equality, and participation remains a complex policy issue.

In forest policy, the grassroots development approach most directly addresses the livelihood concerns of economically and socially underprivileged forest dwellers. Under the assumption that forests are multiple use zones that can and do provide their inhabitants with a living, this approach promotes agroforestry, community forestry and reforestation, wood harvesting, the ranching of native fauna, extractive reserves, and ecotourism. Policies and projects based on this approach promote the conservation of forests at the community level. These policies encourage local self-reliance and control of economic resources, the use of appropriate technologies that mimic natural processes and emphasize the linkage of communities to markets.


The experiences of Mexico, Costa Rica, and Brazil over the past 15 years provide some insights into the politics of crafting policies and projects that promote grassroots development in the forest sector. In the 1980s, Mexico promoted community forestry among forest ejidos (communal farms that arose as a result of the Mexican revolution). Based on sound silvicultural practices, these grassroots development models show how communities organize to sustainably harvest forests, build human capital, provide employment at better wages, and generate, reinvest, and distribute profits to the community, Costa Rica developed a robust community reforestation program in the Pacific northwest. In accordance with a land tenure system based on private property rights, family farmers belonging to cooperatives avail themselves of government incentives to reforest with native or exotic species. The coopcrative mediates between the government and the farmers and provides members with technical and financial support. These cases show that community forestry is feasible under both communal and individual forms of land tenure rights. With the creation of extractive reserves--and a commitment to legalize Indian land claims--Brazil offers a case of explicit recognition of forests as multiple use zones, stressing its nontimber services: nuts, rubber, fibers, and other agricultural products.

Understanding the politics that influenced the movement toward grassroots development in forestry requires analyzing actors, interests, and power in the context of economically and culturally defined social groups, state institutions and actors, and external factors. …