Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/2020/Community-based forest management and forest tenure in Honduras

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While 87% of Honduras’ land is designated for forestry, only 58% are currently covered by forest [1]. Honduras has experienced significant deforestation due to the conversion of forest to agricultural production, cattle ranching, human and industry settlement. Honduras has established a legal framework to support three critical regimes of community-based forest management: a) recognize collective rights of Afro-Honduran and Indigenous communities on customary lands; b) management and perpetual user rights granted to private smallholder forestry; c) granting user rights to agroforestry associations and cooperatives in or around national or municipal (ejidal) forests [1]. But the performance of these regimes has been lower than expected in terms of social, institutional, and financial capital improvements. Women, the poor, and other marginalized populations are often left out from participating in smallholder forestry. Along with the weak government forest sector, these factors have limited the effectiveness of community-based forestry in the country.

Key Words: Honduras, Community-based Forest Management & Tenure.

Background Information on Honduras

Map of Honduras

The Republic of Honduras is a Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, situated between El Salvador and Guatemala to the west, and Nicaragua to the south and east, and is the most forested country in Central America, second in line to Mexico [2][3]. Honduras has a total land area of 11.2 million hectares, and 58% percent of which are forest (6.4 million hectares) [1]. The forests include mangroves, coniferous forests, moist and dry broadleaf forests [1]. Honduras is preserving some of the last remaining intact tropical forests in Central America [3]. However, the country is continuing to experience significant deforestation, with 37% of its forest cover being lost between 1990 and 2005, and 54,000 hectares of forest were lost each year on average [1]. The reasons for deforestation and degradation include cattle ranching, agriculture practices, human settlement, and industry expansion [1]. It is estimated that 87% of Honduras' land is not appropriate for intensive agriculture, while it is suitable for forestry [4]. The land managed under community-based forest management regime is increasing over the past few years, but the support, as well as the performance of such management practices cannot meet the expectation regarding improvements in social, financial, and institutional capital.

Tenure Arrangements

Formal Tenure in Honduras

Regarding formal ownership of forest lands, it includes national lands managed under the central government, ejidal lands managed under the municipal government, and private lands managed by legal entities or individuals. Communal and inter-communal forests managed by Indigenous communities also belongs to the category of private tenure. The table below provides a general overview of different types of tenure and the associated bundle of rights in Honduras.

Table 1: Different Types of Tenure and Associated Bundle of Rights in Honduras

National Forests Ejidal Lands Private Tenure Communal and Inter-communal Forests (Under Private Tenure)
Access Restricted access to contracting third parties and local communities who live close [1][5] Accessible to local residents and contracting parties [1][4] Restricted to owner Perpetual collective ownership granted to Indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities [1]
Withdrawal/Use 1)     Restricted to contracting parties (permit required) [1]

2)     local communities – “traditional use” only [5]

3)     Use rights can be acquired by agroforestry cooperatives (formed by local communities) [1]

Usufruct rights can be granted to local residents by dividing land into parcels for each household [4] 1)     Owners can use forest to support production goals, but need to protect and reforest the area [1]

2)     Exploitation need to base on pre-approved forest management plan [1]

1)     No governmental restrictions for harvesting [1]

2)     Use rights can be acquired by agroforestry cooperatives [1]

Exclusion The State hold rights of exclusion N/A Owners retain exclusion rights (except for the case of public interest [1]) Communities hold rights of exclusion[1]
Management Assigned to third parties through contracts, including agroforestry cooperatives [1] 1)     May belong to municipality or shared with other municipalities [1]

2)     Assigned to third parties through contracts, including agroforestry cooperatives [1]

Owners may manage forests in accordance with pre-approved forest management plans [1] 1)     Communities need to manage and protect the forest in accordance with forest management plans [1]

2)     Management rights can be acquired by agroforestry cooperatives [1]

Alienation N/A Municipalities do not have the right to alienate forest lands [1] Owners may alienate their forest land Communities are restricted from alienating their land [1]
Duration Perpetual rights N/A Perpetual rights assigned to owners [1] 1)     Permanent ownership rights granted to Miskitu people [1][5]

2)     Extension of titles allowed with approval [1]

Bequeathe Permanent ownership N/A N/A Permanent ownership rights granted to Miskitu people [1][5]
Extinguishability N/A N/A The State may exercise its expropriation rights in the case of public interest, with prior and fair compensation provided to owner [1] Free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) allows communities to refuse land expropriation or to be compensated [1]

N/A: Information not available.

National Forests

30% of the total forested area (1.9 million hectares) of Honduras is managed by the National Institute for Conservation and Forest Development (ICF) and other public entities of Honduras [1]. In most cases, ICF would establish management or co-management partnerships through contracts with third parties, including logging enterprises, families claiming user rights on public lands, organizations responsible for the management of protected areas, and agroforestry cooperative and associations [1]. All the third parties involved must acquire permits for resource extraction, pay taxes for harvested forest products, and abide by forest management plans all at their own cost [1].

Ejidal Lands

9.9% of the total forested area (634,312 hectares) of Honduras are categorized as ejidal lands [1]. Ejidal lands are still national lands, but have been granted to municipalities in Honduras [4]. Municipalities own these lands, but its management rights could be within the municipality, shared with other municipalities, or assigned to third parties through contracts [1]. Third-party agreements are usually with private sector companies, and they need to submit their forest management plan to the ICF for approval [1]. Municipalities have the power to impose limitations on third-party rights, but they do not have the power to alienate forests [1].

An example of Lepaterique, Honduras, may illustrate the complexity of Honduras’s land tenure system. The Municipality of Lepaterique granted the usufruct rights to local residents by dividing land into parcels for each household [4]. Customary rights of local parcel holders (parceleros) are recognized by municipalities, but these customary rights are not recognized by the state [4]. The unsecured resource tenure lowers the extractor’s incentives for forest conservation and reduces their livelihood security [6].

Private Tenure

20% of the nation’s total forested area is private lands (approximately 1.3 million hectares) [1]. Owners of the forests would manage to support the production goals, but under the obligation, they need to protect and reforest the area [1]. With this regime, the forested lands secured by the registered title would be assigned to legal or natural persons with perpetual rights [1]. And all the extraction will be based on the management plan [1]. ICF needs to check and approve the management plan and continue supervision afterward [1]. Owners have the right to use wood and non-wood forest products (NWFPs) for subsistence or commercial purposes, but tax must be paid [1]. The state may exercise its expropriation rights based on public interests, but fair compensation to the owner is required; otherwise, the owner would keep its exclusion rights [1].

Communal Forests and Inter-communal Forests

Communal and inter-communal forests belong to the private tenure type. These forests occupied 2.3% of the total forest area [1]. Under this regime, perpetual collective ownership rights were granted to Indigenous and Afro-Honduran people on their ancestral and traditional lands [1]. Communities are restricted from transferring or alienating their land [1]. But for the proposed expropriation, the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) under Indigenous rights would allow the community to refuse expropriation of their traditional lands or to be compensated [1].  

Agroforestry Association and Cooperative Contracts

Communities may form agroforestry cooperatives or associations for forest management. Agroforestry associations and cooperatives may acquire forest management and use rights on national, ejidal, and Indigenous forest lands through contracts [1]. These contracts comprise 444,346 hectares of the total forests [1]. The duration of these contracts may vary, and rights for the harvesting of NWFPs for commercial and subsistence use would be specified in the contracts according to the individual forest management plans [1]. If the contracts are revoked, the agroforestry cooperatives or associations are not entitled to compensation [1]. This indicates that the communities have a low level of influence, and their rights are limited.

Informal Tenure in Honduras

Informal tenure mainly points to those that are not eligible for the title due to the irregular occupation of public land or private land encroachment [1]. This mainly refers to specific groups of national and ejidal land users: Campesinos (Latin American peasants) involved in subsistence agriculture; non-Indigenous ladino (Mixed Spanish and Indigenous descent) communities who inhabited the land belonging to Indigenous populations and used the land as grazing areas; people who occupied the protected areas for agricultural production and artisanal mining; and lands that are acquired by powerful outside interests for mega projects such as mining, hydroelectric dam construction, and biofuel [1].

Administrative Arrangements

State Level

In 1974, the government of Honduras established the Honduran Corporation for Forestry Development (COHDEFOR) in response to large scale overexploitation and mismanagement of the forest resources, and this agency then became the exclusive owner of the Honduran forests (1974 Forestry Law) [4]. In the same year, all the trees were declared to be the state property, while the soil could be owned nationally, municipally, or privately [4]. COHDEFOR has the power to control all aspects of forestry, including forest management and product marketing [4]. Their perception of forest resource use is that forestry should be in compliance with environmental norms [4]. The 1974 Forestry Law also introduced the Social Forestry System (SSF), which granted management and harvesting permits to farmers or Indigenous people organized as agroforestry cooperatives [7][8][9].

In 1992, the Law of Agricultural Modernization was enacted and returned private forests' control to landowners from COHDEFOR [4][9]. This law also devolved the ownership of ejidal forests back to the municipalities [9]. In this way, the role of COHDEFOR was reduced to draw up forest management policies and regulating forest management [4]. The 1992 Law granted ownership rights to de facto owners of national forests, which has been under agricultural management for at least three years prior to 1992 [9].

In 2007, the new Forestry Law was approved, and the COHDEFOR was abolished [10]. The Law on Forests, Protected Areas and Wildlife (LFAPVS) was the new law to govern the forestry sector [1]. It incorporated Indigenous lands and ejidal lands as additional forest tenure categories [1]. The law reinforced private landowners’ rights and specified the obligations in terms of protection, needs of reforestation, and rights to benefit [1]. The National Institute for Conservation and Forest Development, Protected Areas and Wildlife (ICF) was established and being designated as the leading body responsible for forest management in Honduras [1]. The new law also reaffirmed the legal mandate of SSF, eliminated the restrictions on harvestable volume, and introduced protocols for granting long-term community forest management contracts (up to 40 years) [7].

Municipal Level

The situation of administrative management at the municipal level is varied based on location. The Law of Municipalities was established in 1992, which increased the municipal government's autonomy, and municipal governments were assigned the responsibilities for forest management on municipally owned lands [4]. Several municipalities chose to establish municipal forestry offices to advise forest management and protection plans and provide capacity-building and other sorts of support to forest users and local enterprises [9].  

In Lepaterique, Honduras, a popularly elected Municipal Corporation would administer the Municipal Government of Lepaterique, and the Mayor is the leading figure for legal representation and municipal administration [4]. The Municipal Forest Office is in charge of developing the forest management plan and offering technical assistance to local forest users and community forest enterprises [4][9]. The Lepaterique Forest Management Fund is a local non-profit association actively involved in thinning, reforestation, and other non-commercial forest management activities [4]. The Environmental Unit of the Municipal Forest Office and the Forest Management Fund would work together to monitor the illegal forest clearing, forest fire control, and the management of protected areas [4][9].

Affected Stakeholders

Indigenous Communities and Afro-Honduran Peoples

There are seven groups of Indigenous Peoples whose customary territories are in Honduras: the Nahua, Miskito, Pech, Lenca, Maya-Chortí, Tawahka (Sumo), and Tolupan [3]. Along with seven Indigenous Peoples, there are two Afro-descendant peoples (PIAH Communities)—the English-speaking Black communities and the Garifunas [3]. Based on the official 2010 census data, it is estimated that approximately 6.5% of the total population (496,000 people) in Honduras are Indigenous or Afro-descendant [3]. The legal framework of Honduras recognizes the collective rights of Afro-Honduran communities and Indigenous people on customary lands [1].

But titling to Indigenous communities has been extremely limited in reality [5]. Indigenous communities and Afro-Honduran peoples have a high level of importance, but their influence is limited. At Mosquitia territory, a resource-rich area, the Honduran government has titled lands to COHDEFOR while Indigenous people considered the land belongs to them [5]. At Tawahka Biosphere Reserve, only 5100 hectares out of 230,000 hectares of lands were titled to Tawahka people, and the rest still belongs to COHDEFOR [5]. But the situation for the Miskito people is better, as the permanent ownership rights for their traditional land were granted by the ICF [1].

Local Inhabitants/Agroforestry Associations or Cooperatives

Communities are actively demanding the right to forest tenure in Honduras. Communities have a high level of importance, but their influence is low. The Forestry Law maintained that the forest land could not be titled [5]. This continues to generate tension between the state and the rural population, as communities would have limited rights to resources without the title. Local communities are only being granted rights to the “traditional uses” in the area they live [5]. Communities may form agroforestry associations or cooperatives to gain more secure rights, but with the 1992 Law of Agricultural Modernization which returned forest ownership to landowners, concession holders on municipal or private lands need to deal with new challenges [5]. Their contracts are not likely to be renewed, and municipalities would prefer to sign new contracts with big logging companies as they can pay more and pay upfront [5]. And small loggers are usually unable to access bank loans due to the absence of the legal title and, therefore, they cannot make advance payments [5].

Moreover, even when agroforestry cooperatives are able to obtain usufruct contracts for logging, extraction limits are imposed [5]. On the other hand, big logging companies do not need to deal with these extraction limits [5]. The timber market is also being controlled by oligopolies: the market is dominated by four large timber companies who also fix the price [5].

Interested Stakeholders

National Institute for Conservation and Forest Development, Protected Areas and Wildlife (ICF)

In 2007, the Law on Forests, Protected Areas and Wildlife (LFAPVS) designated the newly-established ICF as the leading forestry authority responsible for Honduras forest management [1]. The ICF was put in control of promoting, arranging, and strengthening the SSF as a method to engage the communities living in or close to national forest areas for use, management, and afforestation of the forest [1]. ICF, along with other public entities, administered the national forests [1]. ICF is responsible for approving all the forest management plans and maintaining supervision responsibilities [1]. The ICF also holds the authoritative power to issue titles based on Convention 169, and Miskito People were granted permanent ownership rights for their traditional lands by the ICF [1].

However, the ICF has limited influence over the forest sector's political decisions [1]. The coordination between various ICF regional and local offices is inadequate, especially regarding ejidal and private forests [1]. While the ICF was being designed as the principal body for Honduras forest management, it is too under-sourced to fully offer all assigned services. Therefore, the ICF is considered high importance but low influence organization due to its weak institutional capacity.    

The Honduran Corporation for Forestry Development (COHDEFOR)

This agency was the exclusive owner of Honduran forest with the establishment of the 1974 Forestry Law. The COHDEFOR was given the power to control all aspects of forestry, including forest management and product marketing, by the Honduran government [4]. The Honduran SSF encouraged small-scale farmers to establish small agroforestry cooperatives for forest exploitation, but the COHDEFOR granted logging concessions to big companies during the 1980s [4]. Therefore, before establishing the 1992 Law of Agricultural Modernization, COHDEFOR was an agency with a high level of importance and high influence. However, with the establishment of the 1992 Law of Agricultural Modernization and the Law of Municipalities, its importance and influence were both reduced to some extent. The Law of Agricultural Modernization returned forest ownership to landowners from COHDEFOR, and the Law of Municipalities has increased the autonomy of municipal governments, with responsibilities for forest management on municipally-owned lands being assigned back to municipal governments [4]. In this way, the role of COHDEFOR was reduced to the formulation of forest management policies and forest management activity regulation [4]. And the COHDEFOR was abolished in 2007 with the establishment of the new Forestry Law, and this decision received unanimous support [10].  

Sustainable Management and Utilization of Coniferous Forests in Honduras (MAFOR)

This is a project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and operated in Lepaterique, Honduras, from 1992 to 2003 [4]. The objective of this project was to integrate forest activities into the peasant economy through an environmentally and financially sustainable way [4]. This project wished to connect poverty alleviation and environmental conservation through decentralizing the forest governance and developing communal logging business [4]. With MAFOR’s support, the residents of Lepaterique were able to establish small-scale logging operations started form 1992, and 12-15 local microenterprises were also engaged in timber cutting. MAFOR is a medium to high-importance project considering the short-term changes the project brought to the community, but its influence is only at a low to medium level, as these changes did not last long. This project has a relative success initially, as Lepaterique became a national and international forest management model with training programs being organized within the community [11]. Household income doubled between 1992 and 1997 for those involved in logging [4]. But with the new rule established by the municipal government, an advance payment of 50% of the timber value to be logged is required to cover the COHDEFOR administrative fee [4]. Community microenterprises, who do not have legal title and therefore, unable to access bank loans, were gradually replaced by nine individual contractors in early 2004 [5][4].

Assessment - Success or Failure?

The goal of community-based forest management in Honduras is to reduce deforestation and land degradation, improve forest-dependent livelihoods, and encourage sustainable forest management. Honduras has a relatively good legal framework for forest management, but this framework is poorly adapted to the community-level or small-scale farmers and too expensive for them. According to FAO[1], government support for the small to the medium-sized forest is mostly absent. This framework is being designed for large-scale corporations. Honduras community forestry should not be considered as “successful,” nor “failure,” but rather a country with lots of potential for the future development of community forestry with multiple strategies that can be used to enhance the effectiveness of the system.

In Honduras, the formal rights holders have strong tenure rights, but processes to secure such rights are costly, complex, and lack transparency. The Honduran forest authorities are extremely under-resourced to provide relevant services and have very limited regulatory capacity. For ejidal forests, while support is being offered to strengthen the municipalities and community organizations, technical and monitoring support is mostly deficient—contractual co-management obligations are not fulfilled by forest authorities [1].

And local communities’ or private smallholders’ access to forest resources are extremely limited as well. As discussed in section 4, communities are actively demanding the right to forest tenure in Honduras. But it is not enough. Take the “Lepaterique Model” as the example again, researchers found out that even granting access to forest resources to local people does not guarantee the success of forest management; they continue to feel insecure regarding their access to natural resources [12]. An assessment of formal forest tenure system alignment with tenure principles in Honduras done by FAO[1] indicates that private smallholders have weaker rights regarding prevention of disputes and weaker rights of recognition, protection, and provisions of enjoyment of rights compared to agroforestry cooperatives and PIAH communities.

Indigenous and Women Empowerment

On a broader scale in Honduras, women, the poor, and other vulnerable populations are often left out for tenure registration, forest management contracting, and other decision-making processes [1]. Therefore, women are usually unable to participate in smallholder forestry or agroforestry [1]. But there are still successful stories. Recently, an all-Indigenous-women cooperative called Cosagual Lenca was formed to grow organic coffee under the shadow of fruit-yielding and timber trees by following the traditional agroforestry practices [13].

The agroforestry field belongs to the Lenca Indigenous group, which practiced agroforestry for over a thousand years [13]. This idea is from a gender equality workshop hosted by the Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (ASONOG), supported by a charity called Heifer International [13]. The goal of the cooperative, or the project, is to bring the women out of their houses and empower them by developing their potential [13]. The Cosagual Lenca coffee is now globally recognized with organic and fair-trade certification [13]. Without the cooperative, farmers had to sell the coffee to intermediaries and earn way less money. Some women even got the chance to fly to Budapest to participate in an international trade fair and was able to find new business for the cooperative [13]. They are also very sustainable as nothing is being thrown away for their coffee – processing waste was transformed into compost and then distributed back to the community [13]. The cooperative also organizes training on agroforestry techniques and host discussions on gender equality [13].

Assessment of Honduran Governance

While the policy, institutional, and legal framework of Honduras supports community-based forest management, the ICF as the leading forest management institution is too under-resourced to provide technical support to community-based forest management areas. The financial situation also constrained the community-based forestry to prepare for the forest management plans. The FAO[1] Assessment indicates that there is some reduction in the volume of wood produced in community-based forest areas, but the detailed information on revenue generation and harvest levels remain unclear.

Lack of institutional presence in most areas also led to widespread illegal logging, which is another major issue in Honduras. It is estimated that in Honduras, more than 70% of the processed tropical hardwoods are from illegal sources [14]. Illegal logging, as well as the illegal trade, significantly affect the small-scale producers, leaving them vulnerable to economic capture from illegal timber traders. The inflow of illegal wood into the market would lead to lower prices and unfair competition in the end. A wide range of actors, including forest owners, squatters, sawyers, professional foresters, industries, timber truckers, public officials, and community leaders, are involved in the illegal timber production chain [15]. The intermediaries dominate the decision-making level and maintain extremely tight control of Honduras' production chain [15]. Illegal logging is firmly associated with the corruption of forest authorities at the national level and is too weak to fulfill its responsibilities.

The bureaucratic and corrupted system can also be reflected through the term of office of the former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. On the first day of his tenure, he stated that 1% of the state budget would be distributed to reforestation and protection, and the Honduran army would assist with the enforcement [10]. The budget declaration has been repeated a few times, but only one-sixth of the amount was disbursed in the end [10]. Military absorbed 70% of the forestry sector's effectively distributed resources, but no evidence was provided for the improvement in enforcement [10]. Some sources suggested that the military is more likely to use their power to benefit from the illegal logging instead of combatting it [10]. The military example shows that the enforcement structures in Honduras are not efficient, and it is hard to improve compliance with the regulatory framework. Corruption is quite common in developing countries, but it needs to be addressed to further develop community-based forestry in Honduras.



1)    Stipulate all community-based forestry rights, including agroforestry contracts, and Afro-Honduran and Indigenous communal and inter-communal forest lands across Honduras.

2)    Consider reducing or remove taxes on the selling of NWFPs and wood for community-based forestry enterprises.

3)    Prioritize fair resolution of tenure for the country’s forest land that currently lack tenure information.


1)    Establish strong mechanisms to ensure the transparent and fair participation of all stakeholders.

2)    Regularize consultation and participation procedures and further strengthen advisory councils.

3)    Promote the participation of women, the poor, and other vulnerable populations who are often left out to participate in community-based forestry.

4)    Review usufruct contracting and rights registration procedures to make sure they adapt to different populations and their varied cultural and educational background.  

5)    Enhance the dispute resolution system and make it accessible at the local level.

Building Institutional Capacity  

1)    Strengthen the ability of ICF and lobby for more budget to fulfill its technical and administrative responsibilities.

2)    Decentralize the governance system to promote and support all community-based forestry regimes.

3)    Establish more effective legal mechanisms to prevent and combat illegal logging and other resource extraction.

4)    Enhance the ability of administrative units to provide effective technical and legal support for communities.

5)    Set up a local resource user committee at the municipal level with representatives chosen by residents to prevent the bureaucratic top-down supervision system. And this committee could be responsible for monitoring the extraction of non-timber forest products and issuance of timber harvesting permits.  


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