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Saturday, 21 September, 2002, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
Community forestry takes root in Bolivia
Forest, WWF Bolivia

Indigenous communities in Latin America hold land-rights to huge territories.

Many of these territories are home to important tropical forests. Both the communities and the forests are under pressure from big logging companies and from displaced families looking for land to farm.


This management plan is for the future of our children

Raquel Guagua Subera Isategua
In Bolivia some communities are resisting these threats by implementing sustainable forestry management plans.

In a wooden schoolhouse, deep in the Bolivian Amazon, some 30 members of the Yuqui indigenous group gathered recently to discuss the first two years of their timber-management plan.

"Before the plan we would have destroyed the whole forest," explained Jonathan Isategua Guaguasu, vice-president of a local indigenous organisation and former cacique, or leader, of the Yuqui council.

"This is a great advance, one we never could have dreamed of before."

Nomads to landlords

The Yuquis traditionally lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Then five years ago they, and five communities of Mojeno, Mobima, Trinitario and Uracare were given the 300,000-acre Yuqui indigenous territory (TCO).

Now, they are using sustainable-forestry practices to conserve the forests and ensure their own survival.

That these communities reached this position is down to organisations including the Worldwide Fund for Nature. WWF has launched a regional campaign reaching from Bolivia to Mexico to promote community forestry as an important preservation tool in Latin America, where half the world's tropical forests are located.

Forest, WWF Bolivia
At first, the Yuquis were sceptical about the management plan
"In the last two decades, indigenous communities throughout Latin America have received millions of hectares of forested land that is important from a conservation standpoint," said Nils Hager of WWF's Program for Forestry Certification.

Compared with Mexico or Guatemala, Bolivia is new to community forestry. But the country has made strides to improve forestry practices. Since the 1996 enactment of a new forestry law, Bolivia has become the world leader in Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of natural tropical forests, with nearly 2.5 million acres certified.

Another 10-million acres are being operated under management plans that meet many certification requirements, such as 20-year extraction cycles and diameter limits for exploitable trees.

Bolfor, a non-governmental group funded by the US Agency for International Development, helped draft the new law and improve standards at timber companies.

Now, with Bolivian and US Government backing, Bolfor has shifted its focus to community forestry.

Sharing the benefits

Initially, the Yuquis wondered why they should give up unrestricted forestry methods to meet the demanding requirements of Bolivia's forestry law. But having decided to try the new approach, the community is warming to the benefits.

The first timber sale, organised through a public tender, raised $40,000. In a move that was completely foreign to the communities, the money was placed in a bank account.


There is starting to be social control over the leaders

Raul Lobo
The idea was to break the grip that community leaders had over timber income.

"It was very important to put the money straight into a bank and to ensure it didn't pass through the pockets of the leaders," says Raul Lobo, a Bolfor official who works closely with the Yuqui TCO communities.

"There is starting to be social control over the leaders. They are beginning to act more democratically and understand that the TCO and the resources in it belong to the whole group."

Bright future

Over half the money deposited was spent in payments to each family, wages for timber workers and purchases of communal items ranging from metal roofing to outboard motors.

And there was still $3,000 left to pay for a timber census in the next area slated for exploitation.

Apart from these direct benefits, having a legally respected forestry plan has consolidated the territorial rights of the six communities and given a point for these distinct ethnic groups to unite around.

Forest, WWF Bolivia
The first timber sale paid for communal items ranging from metal roofing to outboard motors
This year, earnings could top $50,000, and the communities are hoping that over a few years they will save enough to buy a sawmill so they can add value to their wood by selling lumber instead of raw timber.

The communities could also certify their concession, which might improve prices and broaden the variety of wood species they sell.

WWF is offering financial support in this area. But Hager says certification will be of no benefit unless the wood can reach US and European markets that place a value on green seals.

And for this to happen the wood will have to be transported, processed and sold by companies that are themselves certified.

Whatever happens concerning certification, indigenous residents believe the forestry plan is helping ensure their place in the TCO.

"This management plan is for the future of our children," says Raquel Guagua Subera Isategua of the Yuqui community. "So they don't have to leave the community and become beggars, like others we know who don't have land."


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20 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
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