Encroachers vs. Squatters

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


Encroachers vs. Squatters


In American style football, the penalty for offsides is 5 yards.  An infraction of the neutral zone also carries a 5-yard penalty.  When the referee blows the whistle for encroachment, the offending team gets a standard 5-yard penalty.  For all practical purposes, the infraction is the same regardless of what it is called.  Since everyone in the bleachers and on the playing field knows what offsides, neutral zone infraction, and encroachment mean, there is no need to debate the terminology or protest about the 5 yards as being excessive.  Football has rules and players learn to accept the penalties when they are violated.

When it comes to forest management, encroachment is also a violation subject to penalty. But what the penalty is, or should be, may never be common knowledge or properly understood. Encroachment as a violation of forest law does not rise to the level of uniform penalty, partly because few people inside or outside of forest management circles have an understanding of its meaning, therefore; are not ready, willing, or able to apply uniform penalties for an infraction that can range from insignificant to serious.  Dealing with poachers, one type of trespasser, raises its own set of problems.

Simple trespass unto restricted land is encroachment in its simplest form.  Temporarily standing in a restricted area is often overlooked, but if that restricted area happens to be beyond the national border of a country that enforces its laws strictly, the issue of trespass can be viewed quite seriously. Although the terms trespass and encroachment may be synonymous for some purposes, it cannot be assumed that it will be in all cases.



Land squatters affect forest administration in the long term


The legal terms for some words have more significance in regard to forest administration than can be witnessed in practice. An encroacher may be alternatively labeled as a trespasser if the violation is merely a temporal infraction.  In that sense, trespassing and encroaching may be used synonymously in everyday use, if not when it comes to legal issues. The problem is, in the administration of forest land, the players most often do not distinguish between temporal encroachment and forms of trespass that have long-lasting or permanent consequences. An encroacher crosses the line, but a squatter occupies the site. Yet, many forest administrators and bureaucrats do not make the distinction that they should; and may not even be aware of the implications. 

The primary reason why the issue of encroachers vs. squatters has become the subject of this chronicle is that a personal blog is a perfect place to express ideas that may have heretofore been overlooked, ignored, or overruled during the working career of the Footloose Forester. This is one place to put his views on paper.

An official who neither knew nor cared about the difference between an encroacher and a squatter was not in any position to assign value to policies that recognized the differential impacts between them. That was certainly the case during some heated policy-making discussions with his USAID supervisor in Malawi; and as regards the forest monitoring practices of the Malawi government.  The supervisor thought that clearing an agricultural plot deep within a restricted government forest was equivalent to encroachment.  An act of encroachment might last a few minutes, but clearing a site for the purpose of surreptitiously growing crops was squatting on the land; the consequences of which might last indefinitely.  For their part, the Malawi government kept count of the number of encroachments, but not the number of squatters.

Encroachment across a restricted border might result in a warning or a small fine, but squatting on forest land has ramifications that are truly world-wide.  There will always be at least two or three opposing viewpoints about the issue of squatting and the rights, cultural imperatives, and legal implications regarding the squatting and the squatters, themselves.

During the colonial history of many European countries, the “crown” lands were administered by government officials. Forest management policies were instituted and enforced in accordance with some preconceived notion that management practices, whatever they happened to be, and based on the ecological variables of the forests themselves, were subject to protection from outsiders.  For better or worse, throughout much of history, it was the colonial masters against the local inhabitants, when it came to the rights and privileges of merely being in the forest.  More important, the commercial value of forest products, the social needs of local peoples, and the usufruct rights given to them decades before colonial conquest and administration of national resources; were all impacted.  That is not to say that every country had similar problems and attitudes, but the panoply of issues concerning forest use was, and still are, worldwide.  

The Footloose Forester witnessed the overall problem of land management in many countries of the world during his career, thus has chosen to make this chronicle into a legitimate legacy story. He was an observer of land issues and the intricacies of competing uses of land, particularly in Third World countries where newly independent nations, or those with weak governments, had to grapple with responsible management of their forests and agricultural lands while simultaneously fending off those who wielded enormous personal influence and power.  For many decades since, it has been a world in which the moneyed interests have been able to buy up land and shut out traditionalists who had heretofore used forests to meet their daily needs.  Sometimes governments have been able to accommodate local forest dwellers and those with usufruct rights to forest land; and sometimes not.

The physiognomy or face of the forest has seldom stayed the same, especially in recent decades of post-colonial exploitation by rich developers; and even governments themselves. As examples, the creation of huge swaths of former forest lands to grow oil palms, cacao, bananas, or other industrial crops; is done primarily by private corporations.  Another example is the State-sponsored expansion of the Trans-Amazon Highway across Brazil. The decimation of tropical forest has forever changed the physiognomy of the Amazon region.  The point here is not whether the changes are good or bad, but that at each step we should recognize the differences between an encroacher and a squatter, and how their actions affect the parcels they visit temporarily or occupy for years.

 Accommodating local tribes and rural populations has been an ongoing policy problem in most of the countries in the tropical world largely because of lax or non-existent enforcement of property rights; lack of clear title to the land; and because most impoverished governments lack the enforcement capability to support their approaches to forest administration and land management. Inasmuch as squatters are viewed as uninvited occupiers of the land, there will always be a chasm between government foresters and land managers who want to abide by certain land use principles; and the squatters who almost always have their own personal objectives in their approaches to management.  The inherent conflicts may not ever go away, but in the interests of the continued well-being of forest dwellers and the continued productivity of forests, there should be a continuous and informed dialogue among all stakeholders.  Part of the discussion should center around the obvious and real differences between encroachers and squatters.

Walking In Godly Places
Bert Crosby – A Tribute to My Dad

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