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Community forest enterprises boost development and conservation in tropical regions but regulatory barriers need to be reduced if they are to succeed, according to a new report.

The report — commissioned by the International Tropical Timber Organisation — was released last week (16 July) at an international conference in Rio Branco, Brazil. The conference covered community forest enterprises, which are small business projects using local resources, owned and run by local communities.

Its conclusions are based on current research and 20 case studies of successful community forestry enterprises in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

"The benefits to communities range from simple, more tangible benefits like income and land, to larger and more intangible benefits like dignity and human rights," says Andy White, co-author of the report.

Community forestry also plays a role in conserving biodiversity, and because the projects harvest wood on a sustainable basis, they conserve natural resources too.

For example, in Guatemala, community enterprises have invested more than US$150,000 in protection against and control of forest fires.

The report emphasises the huge potential of community enterprises. "The studies collected in this report demonstrate that once these people are able to use and benefit from their forests, they invest their returns in schools, in health clinics and in social security systems," White told SciDev.Net.

Dinesh Paudel, a member of a community enterprise in Nepal that produces juice from the Bel fruit, told SciDev.Net, "Our enterprise is a shareholder enterprise, so the community benefits directly. We are also now using a resource that before was being wasted."

He added that he would like to see their forest recognised as collateral to improve their financial situation, and says they would benefit from an international agreement making it easier for community enterprises to compete with larger companies.

At the conference, environment ministers Marina Silva from Brazil and Didace Pembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo promised to increase support for community forest enterprises.

Silva said that a new plan for the use of public forests in Brazil would make the needs of local inhabitants a priority, and she also proposed the creation of a dedicated fund to be managed by the International Tropical Timber Organisation, supported with resources from member governments.

Pembe proposed an agreement between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazil to allow the two nations to learn from each other's experience of community forest enterprises.

Community forest enterprises employ over 110 million people worldwide, with communities having the right to own or manage 22 per cent of natural forests in developing countries. Most harvest wood and other natural products from the forests to increase local wealth.

Link to full report from the International Tropical Timber Organisation