Community Forests in Tanzania 

By Liz Alden Wily 

Tanzania, government documents often boast, is blessed with enormous forest resources, more than 30 million hectares. The trouble is, these resources are disappearing. Several hundred thousand hectares may be lost in any one year, swallowed by new farms or expanding urban areas. A great deal disappears more slowly through over-harvesting. Where ten years ago an intact forest stood proud, today there may be bare land, not always useful even for farming.    

Forests, as classically perceived, are found only in the mountainous areas of Tanzania. These are the moist montane forests of the Eastern Arc, famed for their biodiversity and representing one of the world’s 25 identified ‘hot-spots’ of threatened concentrations of biodiversity and endemism.     

However, ninety-five percent of Tanzania’s forest resource is dry woodland, and mainly of the miombo class. Although this is a lower canopy and less dense forest type, it too is invaluable, known throughout the southern third of Africa for its multitude of wood and non-wood products and other services, including pasture for livestock and a main habitat for wildlife. Woodlands also are critical for water catchment. In Tanzania, this is particularly clear where woodland exists in hilly zones. People settle and farm lower areas, and depend upon the streams that originate from springs rising in the wooded hills above them.     

Time after time, villagers experience the same losses when these woodlands lose quality or are cleared. Not only do forest products, pasture and wildlife habitat diminish, the springs dry up – and remarkably quickly. With the rainy season, floods tear down bare hills, bringing soils with them. A classic cycle of degradation results. Seedlings can gain no grip in the exposed soils, regeneration slows, temperatures rise, and, villagers claim, rainfall also declines. Development programmes enter, exhorting communities to plant more trees on their farms.     

Of course there is nothing exceptional in this pattern. It is the case all over Africa, where total losses of forest run into millions of hectares annually, and where millions of people lose resources and the social and environmental services on which they rely. Whole rural populations may be affected. In most of Tanzania’s rural areas, some forty percent of household fuel consumption comes from forests and woodlands, and whole district populations lose water when forests in their area are degraded. 

Forest reform 

The crisis in the natural resources that underpin society and economy in agrarian Africa has not gone unnoticed. For several decades now, government after government has searched urgently for ways of halting forest and catchment loss in the face of expanding populations and demands for land and products. As the new century opens, a plethora of new national forest policies are being rushed through political cabinets, and new laws are being placed before parliaments. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have important new forest laws already enacted or in draft: Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia. And all of these countries have new important initiatives underway in the field, trying to find practical ways forward toward a healthy future for forests.    

While each country is following its own path, there is a good deal of commonality in emerging strategies. Most common of all is a new willingness to involve ordinary citizens in the processes of securing and managing forest and catchment resources.     

The immediate approaches towards this vary widely. At one extreme, laws and new practice seek the co-operation of forest-local communities by offering them new economic opportunities to reduce their forest dependence, or a share in cash benefits being generated by commercial forest users, or new legal access to certain forest resources. As time passes, these strategies are proving expensive to sustain, and do not really change the way in which the forest is actually managed or the level of burden upon hard-pressed government forest administrations. 

Community Forest Reserves 

More recently, a more radical approach has begun to be adopted. This looks to forest-local citizens not as co-operands of government management regimes, but as potential forest owners and managers themselves. The framework for this is an entirely new class of protected forest - Community Forests.     

New forest laws in Mozambique, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, The Gambia, Cameroon and Tanzania provide directly for these Community Forests to be created by forest-local communities. The common aim is that with the incentive to control local forests, communities will be less willing to see these disappear into private farmland to the benefit of a handful of households, or degraded through intensive use to the benefit of a handful of commercial users. Instead they will determine to retain the forest intact, to the benefit of the community as a whole. So too, it is argued, the chance to establish community jurisdiction weakens the risk of these forests being co-opted by the state as its own Reserves - a dominant trend throughout the 20th century.    

In eastern and southern Africa, such community-based strategies have so far emerged most strongly in Tanzania. As is often the case, a single development may break new ground and set the pattern for subsequent developments. In Zimbabwe for example, this proved to be the catalytic Campfire woodland wildlife-centred programme, and in Mozambique, the Tchuma Tchato project, both of which focused community participation along lines of benefit-sharing. In Tanzania, the Duru-Haitemba case had a similar flagship effect, but in this case, brought forest future issues firmly into the realm of addressing the underlying questions about who in society is best placed to sustainably protect and control forests in the first place? 

Duru-Haitemba Forest 

Duru-Haitemba, a 9,000 hectare miombo woodland in Babati District, was one of a number of intact forests surveyed and demarcated by central government in 1989-91 to become a new National Forest Reserve, the government being correctly concerned to protect as much forest as it could. However, this meant extinguishing local tenure over the forest. Affronted at the threatened loss of the forest, members of the eight communities surrounding the forest took this development as a signal to extract as much as they could from the forest before it was lost to them. Felling and charcoal burning flourished, and farms were extended into the forest on all sides. Outsiders joined in, arguing that as Duru-Haitemba was now going to be public property they had as much right as anyone to use it.    

By 1994 the forest was almost entirely degraded, and all but one or two of the critical springs that rose from its many hills had dried up. Grass in the forest glades disappeared and fuelwood became scarce. Bee occupancy in the many log-hives in the forest declined sharply as swarms left for more bountiful woodlands.    

Concerned senior foresters offered the villagers access rights but could not accept the lengthy list of  ‘essential needs for livelihood’ indicated, which now included the right to fell trees for timber and charcoal production and to strip bark for making grain store containers - all activities that local leaders in the area had not previously permitted. During heated discussions, villagers argued that they could protect the forest much more effectively than Government anyway, pointing to the failed efforts of the Forest Guards that government had posted to the forest. The breakthrough came when foresters responded to this challenge by giving the villagers the chance to demonstrate their boast, and holding out a tentative promise that the gazettement process might be suspended if they succeeded. 

The management plan 

The community responded with alacrity. Within a matter of weeks they had divided Duru-Haitemba Forest among themselves as eight distinct village forest management areas, each village taking on responsibility for protecting and restoring that part which fell most logically within its own village area sphere. Through community meetings, rules as to how the forest would be used were agreed and village youth appointed to act as patrolmen. Over half of each village forest area was closed off to all use to allow it to recover, and grazing was restricted to certain zones and months of the year. Access by outsiders, even those from neighbouring villages, was banned. Encroachers were ordered to leave the farms they had made in the forest. Perimeter boundaries were marked. Springs were shored up and the surrounding areas of two replanted. Many of the very uses that the villagers had claimed a mere month earlier as indispensable to their livelihood were now totally disallowed. Leaders simply explained that “it is different if it is made our forest, not government’s.”   

Within the space of a few months, it was obvious to foresters and villagers alike that at no cost to government, Duru-Haitemba was on its way to recovery. By no means all villagers were enthusiastic however. In early 1995, a group of large cattle owners were disgruntled at the majority decision to restrict forest grazing and took their case to the local court, demanding to know who had given the Village Forest Committee the power to fine them when they took their cattle to the closed areas. A group of pit-sawers followed suit, claiming they had been given a permit by the original Forest Guards to harvest. Both won their cases.     

This led to several critical changes in the management regime established by each of the eight communities. First, they altered the way in which Village Forest Committees were formed, making them the elected representatives of the whole community, and defining them as formal sub-committees of the Village Council, from which source they could then gain firmer authority to manage the forest. Second, each village decided to put their management regimes into a formal Village By-Law, approved by the village membership and by a full meeting of the District Council. Each of the eight Village By-Laws so approved in June 1995 set out exactly how each Village Forest was to be managed, the permitted and banned forest uses, and the rate of fines that would be levied upon those breaking the rules. Crucially, once approved in this manner, the terms of each Village By-Law would thereafter have to be upheld by local magistrates. Just as important, once entered into law in this way, the rules did not only apply to members of the village itself but to outsiders. “Even the President must obey our forest rules now,” the communities claimed. 

Expanding the approach 

By late 1995, the Duru-Haitemba approach was extended by government itself to a larger and more valuable miombo woodland known as Mgori (44,000 ha) which had also been earmarked for gazettement as a National Forest Reserve. Today both Duru-Haitemba and Mgori Forests are managed successfully as Village Forest Reserves. Moreover, these reserves are now recognized as owned by their respective communities.     

With one variation or another, this community-based strategy has since been adopted in eighteen districts in Tanzania, mainly within the context of donor-assisted forestry projects in five regions. By late 1999, more than 500 Village Forests had been declared, averaging 465 ha, and some 26 smaller group-owned forests declared, averaging 38 ha. In addition, in two regions, more than 800 households had created ‘private forests’ out of residual woodland on their land, with the support of their local communities. By 1997, foresters in a number of districts were applying some of the principles of the approach to National Forest Reserves (NFR) introducing adjacent communities as either co-managers with themselves or as autonomous managers of agreed parts of those Reserves that lie next to their own community areas. Today parts of at least seven NFRs are community-managed.    

Even though this development is less than seven years old, it has been an important influence on the shape of new National Forest Policy (1998) and now, in more exact ways, upon the character of a proposed new forest law. Accordingly, a main objective declared by the Forest Bill 2000 is to devolve “responsibility for forest management to the lowest possible level”. Three clear constructs for this are provided in the draft law.   

First, any village community may identify, demarcate and declare a Village Land Forest Reserve (VLFR) out of any of its common land within the recognised village area, or adjacent to it, in lands that are locally agreed as falling under that community’s jurisdiction. This directly affects up to 19 million ha of still unreserved forest.. VLFR will be autonomously managed by the community, using committees that they elect as the managers.     

Government foresters at both central and district level are to act as technical advisers, and may step in when the community is demonstrably failing to meet the commitments it has set itself in the Village Forest Management Plan. Indeed, where the community has embedded its management plan in a formal Village By-Law, any citizen or forester could take the community to court for breaking its own law.   

Second, legal provision is being made to enable smaller groups of citizens such as women’s groups, clans or ritual societies to earmark and manage their customary property as Community Forest Reserves (CFR). The regime for recognizing VLFRs and CFRs is to be decentralized to the district level to encourage communities to undertake this development and to help them avoid the costs and tasks of formal national gazettement. National level gazettement is still retained as an option that communities or groups may take after several years of demonstrated successful management.     

Third, the law proposes to make it possible for communities adjacent to forests owned and managed by either central government or local governments (district councils) to be formally appointed as their managers or to work with government foresters in co-management arrangements. The area placed upon community jurisdiction will be named a Village Forest Management Area (VFMA), distinguished from VLFR mainly by the fact that government continues to own the estate and to hold ultimate authority over its future. 

Enabling Factors 

In each country in Africa where community participation in forest futures is getting underway, there is a range of local factors that influence the kind of development emerging, and may aid or constrain success. In Tanzania, one factor above others has positively conditioned the democratic response of the state to forest degradation and in ways not afforded so widely elsewhere on the continent.  

Modern local community as a socio-legal institution 

This is found in the fact that in Tanzania, local rural communities have a highly unusual degree of socio-institutional cohesion and form and indeed exist not only as social groups, but as self-governing entities with considerable powers at their disposal to organise local level developments and regulate and enforce their decisions.    

This arises from the 25 year history of village-making in Tanzania, through which traditional hamlets were reconstructed (sometimes with movement involved) as named and registered villages, each with its own described ‘village area’. Adult members of each of these villages were then permitted to elect their own governments, still known today as Village Councils. As governments, these bodies, elected every five years, have executive and legislative powers and duties, including, as we have seen, the right to devise local by-laws, and which enter state law under the provisions of local government law (Local Authorities/District Councils Act 1982). Village By-Laws may be made on virtually any subject that directly affects the members of the village or its resources - if a majority of the village membership agrees.    

With this capacity at hand, communities in Tanzania are able not only to declare and secure their authority over a local forest but to exercise enforceable management. In Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and many other states, the lack of any route through which a community may form itself into a legally-recognised self-management unit and make rules and then enforce them, has come to represent a real constraint to significant state-people power sharing. To overcome this, new forest acts in such states are being forced to devise new local level institutions which might aid community-based forest management. The legal associations offered by such laws are not always seen at the local level as fully legitimate. 

The strengthening construct of village lands 

Integral to the notion of village as modern community, is the increasingly defined notion of ‘village area’. This is a discrete sphere that includes not only the private homesteads and farms of individual households in the community but the often expansive common lands in the locality. Especially in mountainous parts of the country where land is densely settled, these may be limited in scale. Over most of the central and western parts of the country however, village area may sometimes include thousands of hectares of open pasture, swamps, rivers and woodlands.     

Now, with entirely new land laws enacted in Tanzania (1999), the idea of village lands as locally owned and administered is gaining more concrete and legal form. The Land Act 1999 recognizes these as a special category and the Village Land Act 1999 makes it a matter of law that each community may formally declare its village area (Certificate of Village Land) to be under its own jurisdiction. That law designates the elected village governments as the Land Manager, charged with adjudicating, registering and entitling all lands within the Village Area.    

However - and this is very important for community-based forest conservation – villagers may only proceed along this route after they have first identified and declared the lands like woodlands that they potentially own together in common. These they are to register in the Village Land Register as Common Lands, owned by all members of that community. They could even issue themselves a commonhold title deed. 

Statutory commonhold 

This introduces into Tanzanian law an entirely new form of land ownership: commonhold, which gives legal weight and form to the customary capacity to hold certain properties like forests as group-owned private property. This development could not be more important to estates like forests which are not always appropriately owned by remote central governments, and which are not well suited to the subdividing tendencies of individualized tenure.    

In fact, of all developments occurring in African land reforming movements at this time, it is this simple (and long overdue) facility that will most enable community-based forest conservation in the 21st century. Uganda and Mozambique have also noted its utility for the future security of natural resources, and have included similar provision in their new land laws. Swaziland, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi have given the notion their consideration in current drafting of new land policies and laws.     

Meanwhile developments in Tanzania offer increasingly practical experience, demonstrating to a widening range of foresters and communities in the region that a main route forward to greater security of forest and catchment resources could well lie in the still emergence of Community Forests. 


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