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Do You Know What a Local Forest is?

Fattening pigs in oak forests is a traditional and important use of non-wood forest products in some parts of Georgia. (Photo Stefan Michel)
Small forest areas in the agrarian landscape represent local forests which, however, legally are considered as shrub and tree vegetation outside of the forest fund. Azerbaijan (Photo Stefan Michel)
In the region of Kharagauli, Georgia, small forest parcels, arable fields, hay meadows, gardens, and orchards form a functionally interconnected cultural landscape. (Photo Stefan Michel)
The location of the ancient Fudznari church in the forest area of Dusheti Municipality (Mtkheta-Mtianeti Region) shows the close linkages between the ancient culture of the locals and forests. (Photo Stefan Michel)
Pine forests colonize abandoned agricultural lands in Ukraine (Lviv Region), forming new local forests which should be included in the “communal” forest fund. (Photo Stefan Michel).

FLEG II Study “Governance of Local Forests in the ENPI East Countries and Russia” investigates the definition of “Local Forest”

For this research, Local Forests are defined as forests located in close distance to rural and urban settlements and of special importance for the wellbeing of the respective local people in terms of provision of forest resources and ecosystem services

When is a forest? This question may seem simple to answer, but the concept of forest cannot be pinned down easily. Forests are complex entities, and an operational definition cannot be exhaustive. However, definitions play a crucial role in shaping the policies which regulate the forest sector and set forest management objectives. The recent FLEG II regional report on Governance of Local Forest in the ENPI East Countries and Russia investigates the forest governance systems in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine. The report focuses especially on the governance of local forests, but what is a local forest?

In the Soviet times, most forests were administrated by centrally-ruled state forest enterprises. However, the Soviet system also identified some forests of local importance, which were administrated by agricultural cooperatives and state farms, called kolkhoz and sovkhoz. Usually those forests were located close to settlements and all products and profits obtained from them belonged to the collective farms.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries went through a phase of reorganisation of their legislative and administrative structures. The countries inherited a similar Soviet style forest management system and governance structure, but, during the transition period, each of the countries developed new institutional architectures, which resulted in diverse and, in some cases, contrasting systems.

Interestingly, most of the countries do not mention local forests in their national legislations, with the sole exception of Georgia. In this Caucasus country, the new Forest Concept acknowledges the existence of forests of local importance and of local forest owners and managers (i.e. local communities), but it falls short in giving a clear operational definition that would clarify the role of local communities in the administration of such forests.

In spite of the absence of a definition, local institutions and local entities, such as villages and households, are still partially involved in some aspects of forest management, especially in areas where Soviet agricultural units previously existed.

In Ukraine, for example, “communal” forestry enterprises manage (in some cases only de-facto) some of the former Soviet kolkhoz and sovkhoz areas, even if the transfer of responsibility to state forestry enterprises was decided in 1999. However, these “communal” forestry enterprises are actually administered at district region level, and the local communities do not have a stake in their governance.

Similarly, in Moldova, since its independence, the tendency of the official policies went towards centralizing the forest administration. However, many former kolkhoz forests are now managed by communal entities, and the state forestry agency Moldsilva, in part, supports this development of communal forest ownership.

In contrast, community forestry programs are officially included in Armenian policy, but Hayantar, the state forestry agency, does not encourage further development of community forest management.

In addition, the analysis undertaken in the FLEG study reveals that the understanding of ‘local forests’ by forest sector stakeholders goes beyond the former borders of Soviet agrarian forestry units. Shelterbelts, windbreaks, and new afforestation areas are often in the grey zone between non-forest and forest, and between locally and nationally-governed forest areas.

“The concept of local forest is multifaceted and very difficult to define” said Stefan Michel, IUCN-FLEG Regional Consultant who authored the report. “In the seven ENPI-FLEG countries, local forests include diverse areas and must be understood as a broad and flexible concept”.

In order to carry out this study, it was necessary to agree on a comprehensive definition of local forest in order to analyse and compare the management and governance systems in FLEG countries. For this purpose, local forests were defined as forests located in close distance to rural and urban settlements and of special importance for the wellbeing of the respective local people in terms of provision of forest resources and ecosystem services.

“The application of the term and concept of local forests is very diverse in the region” continued Mr. Michel, “However, a common finding is that the absence of a clear definition can hinder the effective management of the forests which represent an important economic resource to local communities”.

“In some cases, the absence of a definition results in the absence of an applicable regulation” said Ekaterine Otarashvili, ENPI-FLEG II Project Officer for IUCN, “Therefore, the ultimate consequence is that management responsibilities are not well-determined, which then creates problems between national and local level authorities and stakeholders”.

A clear definition of local forests is important for improvement of the management and governance in these areas as well as increasing the level of participation by local populations in making decisions about their surrounding forests. This is why the ENPI-FLEG II Program encourages the adoption of a definition of local forests in each country and the development of specific governance systems of these forests.

“The implementation of these measures will foster the practices of sustainable management and multi-functional use for forests of local importance,” concluded Ms. Otarashvili. “Local communities are the first to benefit tangibly from a more effective administrative system”.

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