In Bolivia and elsewhere, societies grapple with this important question: how can we protect forests without jeopardizing the livelihood options of forest-dependent communities? The challenge of insufficient inclusion of indigenous communities (IC) in decision-making confronts attempts to answer this question.

Yemi Adeyeye, PhD Student in Forestry

As a result of historic marginalization of IC in forest decision-making, management schemes to encourage IC participation in decision-making are becoming more and more prevalent in Bolivia. These schemes include forest decentralization, which is the cession of management rights by the states to local actors and institutions, and the concept of "community forestry" (CF) to encourage community-led forest management systems. As a result of these interventions, local actors are now involved in the management of an estimated 25% of global forests. Furthermore, considering that this challenge is a global concern, increasingly, there are international efforts that endorse community-level initiatives like CF in dialogue with national and international initiatives and objectives. The expectation is that this arrangement will foster cooperation between local, national and international actors, in the sense that actors at the different levels will be able to foster positive change when these actors interact and coordinate their scale-specific resources for joint goals. Illustratively, the advantage of the local actors will be their knowledge about sites, contexts and local institutions, and the advantage for international actors could be to mobilize capital to drive interventions.

A United Nation program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) is one of the efforts that mirror the ideals of cooperation between actors at the local, national, and international level. The objective is to mitigate climate change by providing incentives to developing countries to engage in environmentally sustainable activities, thereby reducing global emissions. Some examples are in Nepal, Tanzania and Bolivia. However, research has shown that the challenge of IC marginalization persists. Many IC have decried REDD+ as an initiative that further entrenches the problem of state control over rural communities’ rights, especially since the knowledge and concerns of IC are often not sufficiently included in the design and implementation of projects. This birthed the divorce between REDD+ and Bolivia, a country that was among the first supporters of REDD+ agenda when it was introduced.

This is our land!

The trend of IC viewing REDD+ with scepticism has been tailing REDD+ since its emergence. The violation of IC’s right over their territories has been widely reported as the primary cause of this scepticism. Consequentially, a region-wide resistance to REDD+ appears to be taking shape in Latin America, with countries like Brazil, Peru and Bolivia engaging in some forms of indigenous-driven interventions, which a coalition of some countries in that region, COICA, refers to as alternative REDD+.

In 2010, the Bolivian President announced Bolivia’s opposition to REDD+, stating that “developed countries have an obligation and it is part of their climate and environmental debt toward developing countries, to contribute financially to the preservation of forests, but not through their marketization. There are many ways of supporting and financing developing countries and indigenous communities that do contribute to the preservation of forests”. Consequently, the Bolivian government proposed an alternative program called Joint Mitigation and Adaptation Mechanism for the Integral and Sustainable Management of Forests and Mother Earth (JMAM). The expectation is that JMAM, being an indigenous-driven scheme is going to put the interests and concerns of IC in the forefront.

We will decide what we do with our land!

This slogan seems to capture the stance of Bolivia about REDD+. Bolivia has taken a stand to introduce an alternative intervention that could resolve the challenge of unpopularity. Developing JMAM similarly relies on the cooperation between existing actors, though with proposed and ongoing re-arrangement of that cooperation and responsible institutions. An important element of this cooperation is the efforts that JMAM has theoretically put in place to empower indigenous communities in driving the scheme. Notably, however, the financial sources to implement JMAM are coming primarily from international actors such as Green Climate Fund (similar funding situation with the REDD+ era). To what degree would the idiomatic expression, ‘he who pays the piper dictate the tune’, plays out in the context of JMAM? 

A review of the ongoing development of JMAM has shed light on some contradictions between the JMAM proposal and ongoing realities. The proposal posits that JMAM will privilege indigenous knowledge and strengthen local institutions to implement JMAM. However some responsible Bolivian institutions are still deemed to be largely centralized with politicized cooperation and the roles of IC in the functioning of these institutions are still unclear. These are potential pitfalls that could sabotage the goals of JMAM. Considering the foregoing, this question becomes relevant: Will JMAM be able to achieve what REDD+ could not, for the people of Bolivia?

Considering the foregoing

It is too early to evaluate the impact of JMAM in relation to REDD+. But it is not too early to examine the emerging JMAM in terms of how the roles of the different actors are established, and the extent to which IC’s interests, values and knowledge are (being) included in the emerging process. This is the focus of my doctoral research, where the ultimate aim is to provide decision makers with insights that can inform the development of environmental interventions that do not marginalize forest-dependent communities.

Feature Image Credit: Fundación Natura Bolivia