Governance of Asia’s forests – Are we on the right track?

RECOFTC’s Manager for Capacity Building and Technical Services, Yurdi Yasmi, reports on yesterday’s plenary session on governance in forestry at Asia-Pacific Forestry Week.

The second day of Asia-Pacific Forestry Week (APFW) in Beijing started with a plenary on forest governance featuring five experts from various backgrounds, including myself. The first question posed was “What does governance mean to you?” As expected, most of the experts responded with various perspectives on how decisions are made and implemented, with an emphasis on forest law enforcement.

According to Mr. Yati Bun (Foundation for People and Community Development [FPCD], Papua New Guinea), “good governance needs laws and regulations; and equally important is the enforcement of those laws and regulations. Without enforcement it is difficult to achieve intended outcomes” he said.

Illegal logging represents one particular challenge of enforcement, but panelists noted achievements made over the past decade in reining in such activity. “Acknowledging that illegal logging exists is an important step to remedy the problem. In the past, many countries denied that illegal logging even existed, which had prevented efforts to address the problem,” said Ms. Ivy Wong (WWF Malaysia).

Mr. Tuukka Carsten from the World Bank added that there have been positive developments in terms of how the international community deals with illegal logging. Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), Voluntary Partnership Agreements, and certification, for example, have contributed positively in terms of ensuring timber being produced comes from legal and sustainable practices.

Innovative developments in technology, too, have contributed to improved forest governance. “Now technology has helped our society to become more open and transparent,” Mr. Carsten added. “Most of us now have mobile phones and engage in social media like Facebook and twitter, which can be used to share information regarding forest governance.” Information provided through these new media can be very useful and powerful for decision makers and other forest stakeholders, building a stronger community of people engaged in the practice of forest governance.

Social justice as a critical component of good forest governance

While enforcing forest laws and regulations is a key component of forest governance, I argued that governance is about managing multiple interests to ensure that we achieve ‘social justice’ in our society. Imagine governance and forest management without social justice: it will be beset by crime, conflict, and marginalization of weaker groups such as local communities, women, and other forest dependent people. Without appropriate incentives and direct benefits, local people will not be motivated to look after forests. Throughout the region, countries are increasingly realizing that to make sustainable forestry a reality, local people must be at the center of forest management.

Designing forest governance to respond to and support a community’s active participation in issues of potential conflict such as land use change can be done through an open and honest dialogue. It is critical for policy makers to ‘listen’ to local aspirations. There are tools and mechanisms to do so. For example, the involvement of civil society in bring local aspirations to the public is important. Additionally, the role of media is also critical in voicing what ‘matters’ to people at grassroots level. Both civil society and media should act as a watchdog.

Encouragingly, many societies have become more open to discuss issues that until recently were too difficult or sensitive to be brought up in public discussions. Not long ago, it was almost impossible for us to openly talk about tenure reform, decentralization and the rights of indigenous people. To ensure fair benefits to local people, discussions and decisions about forests must be participatory, transparent, accountable, and enforceable. Now, around 26% of the region’s forests are owned or designated to be managed by local communities – a trend that will continue to increase in the next decade – bringing local people directly into forest governance in important ways.

Ms. Nguyen Tuong Van (Government of Vietnam) reported during the plenary that more than 2 million hectares of forestland has been allocated to communities, households, and individuals in her country, one example of the extent to which governments in Asia are increasingly recognizing the important role devolved forest governance can play in the broader picture of national forest management.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

While the region has made progress, the panel identified a number of remaining challenges.

Corruption, lack of transparency and accountability remain an issue in the region. 50% of the timber from the region still comes from illegal sources. We continued to be confronted with social conflicts, as three quarters of Asia’s forest are affected by conflict and violence. Capacities of various stakeholders are still lacking in terms of how to apply sustainable forest management. This calls for increased attention to capacity building programs for all stakeholders to help them perform their tasks effectively. As a capacity building institution, RECOFTC is well placed to do contribute to furthering good forest governance throughout the region.

There are reasons to be optimistic about the future of our forests. There is an increased awareness of the role of forest in climate change mitigation and adaptation, and huge amount of resources have already been committed to support mitigation and adaptation efforts. There is now an exciting window of opportunity for our region to improve forest governance and ensure that local communities benefit from those schemes. We must, however, continue to push government institutions to address the basic fundamentals of good governance and social injustice.

As the Center for People and Forests, RECOFTC believes that it is important for all of us to work collectively to support social justice in forestry by giving the very local people, the stewards of the forests, an equal opportunity and voice in forest management. We must work to protect their rights and build their capacities for active engagement in sustainable forest management to ensure local people benefit from and contribute fully to good forest management.

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