09/09/2011 02:03 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

Embrace Complexity to Respect Community Rights

Something is happening out there at the coalface that you seldom hear about in public forums, very rarely in the press. Villagers do often fight to save forests but sometimes, they fight to have them cleared too! Yes, the reality is not always as simple as we like to depict.

Many in the NGO community think of villagers as victims downtrodden by large companies. They fight hard in the face of challenges to save their forests. Helpless and without power, they're cast aside as bulldozers hack, bang, smash right through what has been precious for generations. They're dispossessed and we're outraged.

It usually is the case that companies ignore villagers' wishes; there are many grim reports from around the world of such cases and their awful consequences. We saw over the weekend an interesting article in the Jakarta Post reporting how 17 villages in Indonesia's Jambi Province were fighting to get important forest areas converted into "hutan desa" or village forest.

CIFOR recently published findings highlighting strong evidence that annual deforestation rates were lower for community managed forests than protected areas. The authors

"consider that a more resilient and robust forest conservation strategy should encompass a regional vision with different land use types in which social and economic needs of local inhabitants, as well as tenure rights and local capacities, are recognized."

That's scientist-speak for "more community managed forests please!"

The evidence is there and certainly, from TFT's work; we would attest to excellent forest management by communities, often better than concessions and yes, even protected areas. It is an important path to forest conservation.

Yet the portrayal of villagers as victims is sometimes unfair; even demeaning and disrespectful of the villagers' right to an opinion. In some of our palm oil work we're hitting barriers created by local villagers concerned that efforts to conserve more forests will see them lose income generating opportunities.

Villagers are, in some cases, saying no. They certainly have the right to do that under the concept of Free Prior and Informed Consent and we respect that. It's interesting though that we generally expect the "no" to come as "no, you can't clear this forest". We're experiencing a different "no". Our "no" is "No, you can't come and do field work here because we're concerned your work will lead to less development, less palm oil, less jobs."

Part of the problem may be that the villagers who are saying "no" have no experience of negative impacts of land clearance operations. The Jambi villagers cited in the Jakarta Post speak of concerns over long term environmental and social damages inflicted on their communities. They argue that promised benefits never came; they have history. Granted they're speaking about pulp and paper plantations and our work is on palm oil, but there is certainly a need to help communities coordinate and better communicate together to share experiences. Like everything, there is nuance and subtlety in every interaction so sharing lessons could help communities and companies alike pursue win:win outcomes. TFT's Biso na Biso community radio station in the Republic of Congo helps dispersed Pygmy communities communicate together and collectively with the company; it's one example of how to progress here.

What is clear is that the whole community-company interaction thing is very complex. There is no black and white out there. What is OK for one community-company interaction will not work elsewhere - save the forest here, clear it there. Frustrating as it is, there are no quick fixes. The lesson really is that embracing the complexity, wallowing in it, to sit down with communities and companies to work through issues and aspirations, to resolve conflicts, is the only way forward.

Any effort to fast track such processes will undermine community rights and only end badly.