Could land reform succeed where conservation has failed?

Could land reform succeed where conservation has failed?

Conservation organisations have been making great strides towards recognising that protected areas must respect the rights of indigenous peoples as enshrined in international law, including the right to give or withhold their free prior and informed consent to the establishment of new protected areas in their customary territories. Yet in practice conservation organisations often continue to exclude local people from using forest and other resources, and only consult them after they have drawn up management plans rather than jointly writing them.

Conservationists admit that conservation is failing. Although eco-guards in Southern Cameroon arrest Baka for assisting others to hunt elephants, the same guards know that the Baka are being paid a pittance for this, and that they are forced to seek such employment because they are excluded from their own forest. During recent fieldwork, FPP talked to a conservationist who said that "the key issue is how to provide local people with economic benefit so that they buy into conservation."

This is directly refuted in Liz Wiley’s excellent 2011 study of the land ownership system in Cameroon - Whose land is it? The status of customary land tenure in Cameroon - where she points out that:

 “By depriving communities of recognition that they are the lawful owners of forested and rangeland resources, the law removes their greatest incentive to use these assets in sustainable ways, let alone adopt more active and policed systems which, as the local residential populace, they are best positioned to operate and sustain. Instead, affected communities are alienated. Government finds itself having to ‘buy back’ cooperation in return for benefits of access which affected communities consider their due right, creating further antagonism.” (Wiley 2011: 93)

Successfully conserving forests requires a remedy that is both much more straightforward and far more radical. Rather than imposing protected areas and seeking to buy local people into the process, the right to own and manage the resources upon which communities depend needs to be recognized and supported. For example, conservationists could provide eco-guards to help communities withstand powerful outsiders intent on extracting resources unsustainably. Instead, in seeking to exclude local people from the resources they depend on, conservationists destroy the only basis for long-term sustainability. As one Baka representative put it:

“We will only receive benefit if our rights are recognised. Rights not only to the land where we are living, but also to the forest that we have customary use of.” 

FPP is helping to organise a FLEGT/ REDD workshop in Yaounde (September 13-15th) to further examine how securing customary rights could be the basis for conservation, sustainability and development. This approach includes the equal recognition of customary land use patterns such as shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering. Without supporting rights to resources and lands, throwing all the money in the world at REDD will only further fuel forest destruction. 


For Liz Wiley's book - Whose land is it? The status of customary land tenure in Cameroon -

For WWF principles on working with IPs -


FLEGT stands for ‘Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade”. It is an EU initiative which seeks to develop Voluntary Partnership Agreements with timber-producing countries to prevent illegally produced timber from entering the EU market.

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. It is a proposed scheme to financially compensate countries that reduce such emissions by better managing forest resources.