Anne Larson, scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Julissa Caceres

A scientist’s bias toward social justice

In discussion with CIFOR’s Anne Larson

Before becoming a scientist and expert on community rights to forests, Anne Larson was an activist – but not a very good one, she says. “To be a good activist, even if you understand the complexity of things, you have to be able to put it in simple terms, and run with ideas that are catchy: things that can be said in a few lines, or a few words, and which can be put in a headline.”

To Larson, such deliberate simplification does not come naturally. As a social scientist, she is all too aware that reality can never be captured in sweeping statements. The answer will always be: “It depends.”

Now working at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) with further wide-reaching collaborations, she says her work is ultimately about achieving social justice. Here, she speaks on the different ways researchers and activist NGOs can – and should – approach the topic of community rights to forests.

Does your history as an activist still ring through in your work as a researcher?

“I am a social scientist. I can’t say that it is possible to approach social science – or at least the kind of social science I do about equity and justice – completely neutrally. I am interested in these topics because I believe in social justice, so I am a bit biased… And fundamentally I don’t have a problem with that. I think that when science no longer takes ethics or morality into account, then we have a problem. Especially when we are talking about the future of the planet. This doesn’t mean that you don’t do the best science you can, laying out your questions and assumptions and goals clearly in your research.”

A woman dries candlenut in Sumbawa, Indonesia. Aulia Erlangga, CIFOR


There are activists who argue that giving local people greater control over their forest will automatically result in forest conservation. In reality, Larson says, it will depend. She understands that NGOs use the argument as a strategy, but she fears that it might be counterproductive. Sometimes the recognition of rights does not lead to conservation, and governments might use such examples as an excuse to stop tenure reforms or even take rights away from local people.

What is the problem with the ‘rights for conservation’ argument?

“There is some truth to it. There is evidence that Indigenous peoples are doing a much better job at conserving forests than the rest of us… and Indigenous peoples will be key to helping us find solutions to the crisis we have generated. But there are also Indigenous peoples who deforest.

“As a scientist, the problem I have with the argument that rights alone will lead to conservation is related to what forest officials see on the ground. People who know the regions, and know the places where Indigenous peoples are living, also see that sometimes those places are not necessarily being managed sustainably. In fact, sometimes Indigenous peoples live in the so-called agricultural frontier areas, where the deforestation drivers are strongest. So, some of the most important people you need to convince are not going to be convinced by that simplistic argument. They might be convinced by a more complete argument, that says: They [local people] are more likely to conserve forests if they have secure rights over their resources and if they receive technical and economic support for sustainable forest management.”

To achieve sustainable forest management, we have to look at more than just rights, thinks Dr. Larson. The deeper problem is not the lack of formalized rights, but the dominant economic development model. It is the development model that drives both deforestation and the marginalization of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Even if local people want to conserve the forest, they might not be able to, because government policies and private investments are not supporting them.

Local restoration work in northern Cameroon. Abdon Awono, CIFOR


Putting it in black and white, a government implementing forest tenure reforms has two broad options. It can grant partial rights, which means a community is allowed to use the forest, but only under certain conditions. Or it can grant full rights, which means a community can do what it wants on the land.

Which right is appropriate when?

“It’s going to depend on the situation. In some places, Indigenous peoples should have rights to their lands simply because of their ancestral claim. I think there are clear ethical and historical reasons for us to support the rights of Indigenous peoples to their land.”

When Indigenous peoples can claim formal rights based on their indigenous status, this raises all kinds of new problems, such as: What is an Indigenous community? 

“This is a complicated issue, even more so in Africa. But it’s not impossible to solve. It is also backed by international conventions. Governments often create definitions of who qualifies as Indigenous and thus who qualifies for rights to a customary forest. For example, in Peru there are definitions to distinguish between native and peasant communities. The categories and the rules don’t always make a lot of sense. But these are political and policy questions… These are things that need to be discussed, negotiated and fought out. It is not a reason to deny the validity of ancestral claims.”


According to Larson, it might sometimes be necessary to distinguish between communities simply because some will have clear historical claims to the land while others do not. At the same time, she makes a strong plea for a level playing field between communities on the one hand, and commercial companies on the other, especially when it comes to government restrictions to the ways the forest can be used.

Are restrictions sometimes necessary?

“I am not against restrictions. Restrictions may be needed to protect the public good and the future of the planet – and it is high time we talk about the future of the planet. But I am against the unfair distribution of restrictions. Neither Indigenous peoples nor local peasant communities should have restrictions being placed on them if these are not being placed on everyone else. Why should an Indigenous community get the rights to a forest, but then be unable to do anything in it, while a private company that buys up a forest next door can clear it and put in oil palm? Why are the same standards not applied to everybody?”

What is the answer to that question?

“It is the dominant development model that gives privileges to actors who have more power and wealth than others. That’s what we would need to change.”

This story also appeared on Tropenbos International, as part of its series on forest tenure. This series will be continue to be co-published on Landscape News in the lead-up to the 2019 Global Landscapes Forum Bonn, 22-23 June, highlighting the forum’s theme of rights.

Article tags

Center for International Forestry ResearchCIFORconservationgenderGLF Bonn 2019indigenous peoplesindigenous rightsland tenurelocal communitiesrestorationtenure



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