In the midst of President Obama’s much anticipated visit to Southeast Asia, RECOFTC Communications Officer Ann Jyothis describes how community forestry could align with and fulfill many of the objectives that the US has outlined for its potentially growing involvement in the region.
As expected the media flurry of political and economic analysis of the Obama administration’s rising interest in Southeast Asia is raising speculation about the “true agenda” of his visit to Thailand, Myanmar and the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia this week. How will an emerging Myanmar, set to be the chair of ASEAN next year, affect the geopolitics of the region? What will be the economic and social impacts of ASEAN’s free trade zone proposal? These are a few of the important questions raised by many in and around the region. But here, we ask a relatively simple question: What could community forestry mean to Obama’s view of possibilities, in this region?
Essentially this question would arise from a more nuanced dialogue on climate change adaptation and mitigation. Given the current global outlook on the climate, it is pertinent to ask whether the US administration will raise climate issues in its discussions with Southeast Asian leaders this week, since, in reality, the scope of US foreign policy and trade interests are critical to the future of several forests and forest communities in the region.
In fact, almost every issue that Obama is expected to discuss during his visit is strongly connected to the forests of Southeast Asia, specifically, increased trade partnerships, energy and security cooperation, human rights and job creation.
The State of the World’s Forests report from 2012 emphasizes the historical connection between forest, markets and the expectation of higher living standards. Forests have always had a key role to play in trade, beginning with long timber for shipbuilding which enabled global trade, to guitars from Gibson Guitar Corp., which violated the US Lacey Act by purchasing and importing illegally harvested wood materials into the United States from Madagascar and India. Community Forestry is based on this connection between forests, markets and people; it embraces a sustainable livelihood system that enables caring for the forest as a livelihood production system rather than a finite resource base for windfall commercial gains.
Although the enforcement of laws such as the Lacey Act demonstrates the willingness of US lawmakers to take illegal wildlife trade and deforestation seriously, it has largely overlooked the human rights aspect of environmental degradation. The link between local people’s rights, natural resource management, and climate change adaptation and mitigation is widely missing in dialogues on climate. This brings us back to the question: What could Community Forestry mean to Obama?
The ASEAN region is endowed with rich natural resources and a strategic location providing economic advantages for international shipping and foreign trade. According to a report published by RECOFTC – The Centre for People and Forests and ASEAN Social Forestry Network (2010), millions of people across ASEAN countries depend, directly or indirectly, on a range of economic, environmental, and socio-cultural services derived from forests. With 49% forest cover in the region (FAO 2010), forest-based industries contribute significantly to economic growth, providing employment, raw materials, and export revenues. These natural resources play an important role in the economic and socio-cultural sustenance of the over 50% of the ASEAN region’s population who live in rural areas (FAO 2010). In effect, any trade and energy policies in this region must take into account that local communities and indigenous peoples view their assets and culture as an integral part of resource management (RECOFTC 2010). Disregard for this will lead to and has led to conflict over natural resources, especially land tenure.
Issues intrinsic to biodiversity conservation, deforestation and climate change are addressed within the scope of community forestry, which is a decentralized and democratic process, enabling a sustainable relationship between forests and the needs of human beings. Community Forestry can play a significant role in supporting economic stability while ensuring that local people’s rights and share of benefits are protected and strengthened. At a deeper level community forestry offers a reinforcement of governance processes in countries where democratic institutions are young or fragile. Over the past decade, several ASEAN countries, including Cambodia, have begun to realize the importance of giving land tenure to people and forests. As a result, some ASEAN governments have begun to officially recognize the role of local people in managing their forest resources.
Community forestry is symbolic of a people based approach to poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability. As the US agenda for Southeast Asia unfolds, it is hoped that initiatives such as community forestry are given due significance in regional policies and agreements that will have an impact on climate change adaptation and mitigation, and human rights in the region.