Student - December 4, 2008

STATE MAKES LIFE HARD FOR BOLIVIAN FOREST DWELLERS

In theory, small farmers and villagers in Bolivia have the right to fell trees and sell the wood, but in practice big commercial companies take all the wood. This situation can be blamed on the complicated rules laid down by the government.

Commercial logging in Bolivia.
In 1996, a new forest law was passed in Bolivia, giving farmers and indigenous people the right to use trees. But this wasn’t as great as it sounds because before they are allowed to cut down a tree, the local people are required to submit a detailed and complex forest management plan that guarantees the sustainable exploitation of the forest. In practice, the local people’s small-scale village forest companies can only make and finance such a plan with the help of an NGO or big company. These are the findings of freshly published PhD research by Dr. Charlotte Benneker, interdisciplinary researcher in forestry and economics.

Villages which own forests containing valuable tree species are often approached by big logging companies to help draw up a forest management plan. The deal is that the company makes the plan and cuts down the trees, while the villagers are paid off for their rights to the trees. Benneker researched the transactions and negotiations between the villages and the companies, and concluded that the local inhabitants usually get a raw deal. ‘The company incurs expenses to make the plan and presents them to the villagers as a debt. The price the villagers get for the wood is low and it is often unclear quite how many trees the company has actually felled.’ The villagers invest nothing in the plan or in the felling. Their transaction costs are therefore low, but so is their profit.

Village forest companies can call on the help of NGOs. This way, the villagers can learn how to draw up a plan themselves and to negotiate with the government. ‘That’s a lot of work and the transaction costs go up, but so does the price they get for the wood. And these village forest companies seem to survive longer.' Other researchers often concluded that local inhabitants lacked the capacity or leadership to make good plans. ‘That may sometimes be the case, says Benneker, 'but the state also makes it far too difficult and expensive for them by demanding such detailed plans.' / Joris Tielens

Charlotte Benneker received her PhD on 2 December from Bas Art, Professor of Forest and Nature Policy at Wageningen University, and Ruerd Ruben, Professor of Development Economics at the Radboud University.

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