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UNECE/FAO: Report explains the complexity of forest ownership and tenure in the UNECE region


 UNECE/FAO: Report explains the complexity of forest ownership and tenure in the UNECE region

On 14 December, EOS has participated in the presentation of a study about the complexity of forest ownership patterns in the UNECE region (North America, Europe, Russia, Central Asia). The study is expected to be released at the beginning of 2019, but an extract is already available here.

Forests cover 42 percent of the UNECE region, which embraces countries of North America, Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Forests are not only the dominant type of land cover but also a critical element for ecosystem maintenance and sustainability. While studies and reports on the region’s forests undertaken so far provided extensive information on their state and functions in general, there is little information about their owners and managers.

To address this gap and to learn more about forest ownership, how it is changing, and the implications for management and policy, the UNECE and FAO, in cooperation with the COST Action FACESMAP as well as with support of the European forest owners’ organizations developed a study on the “State of Forest Ownership in the UNECE Region”, based on a survey of national data and expert opinion. Apart from Canada and the Russian Federation (where public ownership predominates) which share almost two thirds of the UNECE region’s forests, in the remaining part of the region the shares of public and private forests are almost equal, with private ownership prevailing in Western Europe and public ownership prevailing in Central-Eastern Europe. Within the two broadest categories of ownership, public and private, forests are owned and managed through a variety of tenure and institutional arrangements.

The FAO Forest Resources Assessment defines forest ownership as “the legal right to freely and exclusively use, control, transfer, or otherwise benefit from a forest. Ownership can be acquired through transfers such as sales, donations, and inheritance” (FAO, 2018).

The FAO definition implies that forest ownership conveys exclusive legal rights over the forest resource, such as the right to fully utilize, control (manage) the forest, and/or transfer those rights to others. However, forest owners seldom have the full range of exclusive legal rights to “use, control or transfer” when it comes to benefiting from their forest, in particular, since ownership rights pertaining to forests are always, to a lesser or greater extent, restricted by legal regulations and social customs associated with the forest land in question. This implies that forest ownership must rather be understood as a multi-layered system of relations between the legally entitled holder of the resource and the rights and duties involved in relation to the forest resource. Factors include the institutional setting, the allocation of property rights, the nature of ownership, the character of the owning entity and the regulation(s) and organisation of forest management (or stewardship). For all these aspects of ownership, the State has a role in conferring either a stronger or weaker public or private character, such as through regulatory laws or the allocation of jurisdictional powers.

Moreover, a binary categorization of public vs private ownership fails to capture the complexity of the forest ownership patterns. Below a summarizing scheme is provided.

Public ownership:

  • Public ownership by the state at national level
  • Public ownership by the state at sub-national government scale
  • Public ownership by local government

Private ownership:

  • Private ownership by individuals and families
  • Private ownership by private business entities
  • Private ownership by private institutions
  • Private ownership by tribal and indigenous communities
  • Other private common ownership

Changes in forest ownership can be categorised as:

  • Temporal and spatial changes within the respective forest ownership categories, such as changing shares of public and private forest land;
  • Changes in the meaning of forest ownership, in this case referring to legal frameworks and customary rules that restrict or encourage specific use of forest resources, such as the definition of property rights that differ substantially across the ECE region;
  • Change in values, or lifestyles, which may not be as easy to investigate as the preceding issues.

One important contribution from the study relates to the identification of different levels of governance of public forests, and the ways they are managed:

  • Most countries reported that decisions about management of public forests, whatever the scale, are almost entirely made by the forest owner (i.e., at the same spatial level as that at which the forest is owned);
  • Only a few countries reported that State-owned forests are managed by ‘others’, including State-owned companies, private management companies, and NGOs;
  • In most countries, municipal forests are more like private forests than the national public forests in that they are often free to operate autonomously. Indeed, in some countries they are classified as private, not public forests;
  • Where public forests are managed by a government forest agency (at any level), operations can be undertaken by agency staff or by private contractors.

Management of operations in private forest is more diverse than for public forest. There are several reasons for this, including the varied interpretation of the question on management responsibility by the national respondents:

  • Small-scale private forest owners generally undertake the work themselves;
  • Medium to large-private forest owners usually outsource operations to other companies. New forest owner types generally have limited forest skills and usually outsource the forest works to companies or become members of forest owners’ associations.
  • In some Central and Eastern European countries (e.g., the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia) forest works are mainly undertaken by the forest owners while in some Western European countries (e.g., Ireland, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland) forest work is mainly carried out by forest contractors;
  • Forest owners may hire different types of contractors according to the type of operations required.
  • Although fragmentation and parcelisation was identified by almost all authors of the study as a significant concern across the UNECE region, the data available is inadequate to provide a detailed picture of the situation.

The most common obstacles to effective sustainable forest management in the 28 countries covered by the FACESMAP enquiry include the following, from the perspective of the owners:

  • Lack of incentives and/or financial support to the implementation of innovative practices (reported by 11 countries).
  • Fragmentation of forest land (reported by 10 countries).
  • Insufficient profit from forest management (reported by 9 countries).
  • Restrictive forest policy framework (reported by 9 countries).

Many factors affect how forest owners decide to manage their forest holding(s), including, amongst other things, cultural, political, socio-economic and demographic issues. This effectively means that different forest owners also have varied individual priorities that affect the provision of Forest Ecosystem Services (FES) and/or Non-Wood Forest Products (NWFPs). It also means that forest use is significantly affected by the forest owner’s status (e.g., urban or absentee ownership) and perspectives (e.g., willingness to harvest timber and/or woody biomass). So, in addition to physical and biological attributes of the forest land, forest ownership and use are important determinants of provision of wood as well as NWFPs and other FES.

Forest utilisation (expressed as felling as a proportion of net annual increment) is an important factor to consider. Changes in felling rates reflect changing forest management practice, which in turn affect prospects for the provision of FES. Results from the FACESMAP/UNECE/FAO Enquiry demonstrate that most countries report felling rates between 50 and 100 per cent (for both private and public forest owners). Results from the FACESMAP/UNECE/FAO Enquiry show significant variations in the utilisation rate of the net annual increment depending on whether the forest land is privately or publicly owned. In general, this indicator is substantially higher amongst private forest owners (61.7 per cent) compared with publicly owned forests (36.3 per cent). The data also reveal differences between countries, in the way that felling rates have changed over time. For instance, for the 1990 to 2015 period, there are no significant changes in the Nordic region (e.g., Norway, Finland and Sweden) and in Luxembourg. However, amongst Central and Western European countries, changes in fellings rates across private and public ownership are seen (e.g., Austria and the United Kingdom). For Eastern European countries there are no specific trends, excluding cases such as Albania, which experienced sharp changes during the 1990 to 2015 period. Despite these variations, there appears to be no regional patterns in terms of forest fellings by forest ownership categories over time. This suggests that nationally specific conditions (e.g., restitution processes connected to the transition to market-based economies in Central-Eastern Europe and the general importance of the forest-based sector) influence changes in forest utilisation. Moreover, there appears to be a general increase in felling rates over time, in particular amongst private forest owners.

More information on the study will be available at the beginning of 2019.