How Gabonese civil society is making benefit sharing happen thanks to multi-stakeholder dialogue
Imagine that you live in a country where 85% of the land is covered by forest. This is convenient because, like more than 220 000 people in your country, your livelihood depends on forests. Except that more than half of these forests are actually forest concessions set aside for exploitation. Years ago, your country passed a legal text which says that forest concession holders have to share the benefits coming from forest exploitation with you. The only problem is that this text does not give details as to how the sharing should be done and no one actually ‘knows’ how to implement it. Benefit sharing is therefore rare in practice. What can you do?
This is exactly the challenge Gabonese forest communities had been facing since 2001. In 2012, Gabonese civil society picked up this challenge with the support of ClientEarth. This is the story of how they turned things around.
A power imbalance
Though Article 251 of the Gabonese Forest Code said that forest concession holders had to share part of their benefits with local communities for community development projects, only some of them tried to do so, mainly those who were certified. Local communities complained about the situation but civil society’s participation in legal processes was then very limited because of a lack of legal knowledge and skills, which did not make relations with other stakeholders any easier.
Levelling the playing field
One of civil society’s priorities was therefore to make benefit sharing a reality in Gabon.
From there, with the support of ClientEarth and with the help of a local associate, a legal working group was set up to build civil society’s legal capacity. This was crucial in order for civil society to be able to engage in the dialogue on benefit sharing on a technical level. The legal working group gathered people with diverse profiles and who represented various factions of civil society like NGOs, local communities, indigenous people and academia.
To best adapt to a changeable political context, the legal working group received tailored legal training and ad-hoc advice so that they could better understand and use the law. They met regularly for months and put together a first draft of a decree governing the implementation of benefit sharing. It was then presented to the wider civil society platform called ‘Gabon, Ma Terre, Mon Droit’ and validated.
Giving a voice, lending an ear
Once civil society got on the technical side of things, they needed their contributions to be heard. Now, how can you be heard when you are perceived as an opponent rather than an ally?
In this regard, the ‘technical’ contributions made by Civil Society Organisations (CSO) helped in shifting the balance of power, as they started being increasingly perceived as constructive counterparts with unexpected mastery of technical matters. In 2013, the government therefore agreed to sign a partnership agreement with ClientEarth, committing to build on the technical input submitted by the civil society legal working group.
Now we’re talking
In February 2014, a multi-stakeholder workshop on Benefit Sharing was organised in collaboration with the Ministry of Water and Forests. It gathered more than 70 people from the government, the private sector and civil society.
The participants were split into groups to comment on the initial draft developed by the legal working group. The discussions went on in Working Groups, which had to shape the different components of a benefit sharing model:
- How should the local development fund work?
- Who should get a share of the benefits?
- Which development projects could be sponsored by the fund?
At the end of the event, the government promised to adopt the text reflecting the outcomes of the Workshop to make Article 251 work. This text was published soon afterwards, in May 2014.
By early 2015, the government had pledged to support the signature of at least 25 benefit sharing contracts between forest concession holders and local communities by the end of 2016.
The example of Gabon shows us that civil society can go a long way with a little legal knowledge. Together with coordination to speak with one voice, it can empower communities to make technical propositions in order to seize political opportunities as they arise…or to create them!
Blogpost and pictures submitted by: Clara Melot (Climate and Forest Project Assistant, ClientEarth) cmelot(at)clientearth.org
Blogpost uploaded by Enricka Julien