A growing body of evidence points to the effectiveness of indigenous territories in reducing tropical deforestation, and global development goals call for increased legal recognition of indigenous land tenure. Yet indigenous land tenure systems are typically complex and multi-layered, and as such remain poorly understood in terms of the pathways through which embedded layers, rules, and norms influence the use and maintenance of forests. This paper illustrates one example of this multi-layered tenure in the case of indigenous communities in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, a semi-autonomous, shared territory in western Panama. While the comarca holds one formal collective title, research across five communities reveals an informal system of forest ownership that influences how forest resources are managed, and that has implications for longer-term forest conservation efforts. The findings show that indigenous households use and manage a wide range of plant species, but that access to forest resources is uneven, and pressure on existing forests continues to increase, even from within the comarca through population growth. Mature forest surrounding the communities is held in de facto ownership by individuals and families who restrict access to resources, and this informal tenure system appears to be slowing deforestation, at least over the short-term. Many of these forest stewards wish to protect at least part of the forest over the long-term, while several forest parcels are being kept in reserve for the next generation of farmers. This hidden form of forest tenure, embedded within the communally-held lands of the comarca, highlights an important research need for those looking to improve the effectiveness of forest conservation programs in reducing deforestation and improving indigenous livelihoods.

Additional Metadata
Keywords forest conservation, indigenous peoples, land tenure, Ngäbe, Panama, tropical forests
Persistent URL dx.doi.org/10.1505/146554817822272358
Journal International Forestry Review
Smith, D, Holland, M.B. (M. B.), Michon, A. (A.), Ibáñez, A. (A.), & Herrera, F. (F.). (2017). The Hidden Layer of Indigenous Land Tenure: Informal Forest Ownership and Its Implications for Forest Use and Conservation in Panama's Largest Collective Territory. International Forestry Review, 19(4), 478–494. doi:10.1505/146554817822272358