Enhancing human rights through responsible community forestry: a case from Myanmar

Khin Moe Kyi, Khin Thiri, Kerry Woodward & Jeffrey Williamson – RECOFTC

On the 10th of December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR sets out the inalienable “economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights that underpin a life free from want and fear”. These rights are extended to “all people, at all times, and in all places”.

Human rights, though inalienable, are secured through various political, economic, cultural and social measures. Community forestry has played a part in supporting local communities to realise their rights. Strengthening land tenure, empowering women to assume leadership and decision-making roles in their communities, and facilitating livelihood activities have all contributed to the realisation of the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights of communities living in forested landscapes.

Moreover, community forestry provides us with an example of how secure community rights, local knowledge, and clear roles within forest management can enhance socio-economic development whilst concomitantly maintaining healthy ecosystems.

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Strengthening community land rights through community forestry

A community forest  (CF) can be established in any forested area, aside from protected areas. Ethnic communities can formalize their rights over traditionally managed land through securing CF certificates. Some ethnic groups in Myanmar have been able to demarcate the boundaries of their traditional land through establishing community forest boundaries and signs, and consequently have reduced the frequency of encroachment into their forests.

Securing fair land rights is the first step in voicing local needs within official fora. By obtaining CF certificates, local communities can pursue equity and justice through legal avenues. A path that has often been historically denied to these communities.  “If there is any land abuse by outsiders in our community forest, we can challenge them from a legal point of view, thanks to the CF certification,” reports U Mya Thin (CF chairperson, Taung Kan Kalay village’s CF, Bago region, Myanmar).

U Win Kyi, a Ranger from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, agrees that establishing CFs reduces illegal or unsustainable forestry practices from outsiders. “Illegal logging has been reduced in Ya Haing Bya village community forest area. Local communities are actively participating in forest management activities. They patrol their CF areas regularly to prevent illegal logging, hunting and wildfires,” he says.  In so doing, local communities have been empowered to fight for their rights.                                                                                                                                                                   Empowering women and securing rights through community forestry

Beyond empowering whole communities, CF also empowers integral stakeholders, including women. Inclusive participation of all stakeholders is crucial for CF establishment. Participation is ensured through capacity development trainings and awareness raising programs. Often, women do not participate in public events or local politics; if they do, it’s generally in a supporting capacity. CF programs, however, promote and create spaces where women can participate as decision makers. Consequently, women who may have traditionally remained silent in public spaces can share their knowledge and contribute to forest management programs. In addition to promoting the right to govern, women’s participation in decision making is vital – and a precondition – to securing other economic, civic and social rights.

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“In the past, women had no chance to participate in village development activities. After participating in training and awareness raising programs about gender mainstreaming by RECOFTC, women like me have become members of the community forest user group and decision makers in the community forest management committee,” confirms Daw Hlwe Kwee (CFUG member from Chin State)

Through the realization of women’s inherent right to participate in the governance of communal land, CF provides women with the ability to acquire additional access to resources. Equity of resources is important to the economic right of securing one’s own livelihood and contributing to one’s community.

Fostering income generation and economic rights through community forestry

Acknowledging and respecting local knowledge, wisdom and practices in resources extraction and preservation are vital to ensure the sustainable management of forests. In Myanmar, people have long practiced shifting cultivation. Combining these traditional land use practices with modern approaches can lead to effective and efficient forest management systems. For instance, in Chin State, cultivation of elephant foot yam – a traditional crop – on fallow land in agroforestry systems has increased cash income for local communities. By restoring community access to forests, CF provides the opportunity to engage in traditional farming practices, and facilitates opportunities to secure a sustainable livelihood. In securing this important right, CF helps enable further social and economic progress.

“We not only have a community forest certificate,” reports U Naing Shein (CFMC member, Par-Kon’s CF, Chin State), “but we have also finished natural forest conservation activities (silvicultural practices) for this year. So, we can see that valuable tree species have regrown in our community forest. I can say that local people can improve their forests and life by establishing a community forest.”

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In Myanmar, it is clear that through community forestry local people have been able to  secure community land rights, promote women’s rights, and foster income generating activities. Community forestry is both environmentally sustainable and facilitates the advancement of universal human rights.

Supporting local communities to secure land rights

Jonas Dahlstrom, Lok Mani Sapota and David Ganz – RECOFTC

Over half of the world’s land area is managed through customary, community-based tenure systems by local and indigenous communities that depend on these lands for their livelihoods. However, only 10% of the arable land is formally recognized as being owned by these communities. In addition, there is minimal recognition of the women that make up 43% of the global labour force for agricultural systems. Land ownership is central to providing food, income and savings for the future of women, local communities and Indigenous Peoples; yet, it is rarely equitably allocated or managed. Land security is also fundamental in stimulating investment and growth, particularly when trying to prevent land-grabbing and forced migration.

There is a gap between customarily held and formalized tenure of land which is undermining local, national, and global efforts to reduce poverty, deforestation, and food insecurity. Bridging this gap and recognizing the importance of land tenure is also needed to tackle climate change and gender injustice.

A recent conference in Stockholm brought together 300 people from around 60 countries to discuss: Reducing inequality in a turbulent world: scaling-up strategies to secure indigenous, community, and women’s land rights. The conference, hosted by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and its partners, highlighted that many countries face similar constraints to formalizing and securing the land rights of local and Indigenous Peoples. Scholars, including those gathered at the conference, have often suggested that these issues could be overcome through increased participation and better engagement among stakeholders to develop inclusive and mutually beneficial partnerships with local and indigenous communities.


Summarized in an RRI video, the conference set out strategies to understand the barriers that must be overcome to help secure land rights for communities and the power of convening a multi-stakeholder dialogue. The land rights movement is vital for identifying potential roles that stakeholders, particularly the private sector, can adopt in supporting local and Indigenous Peoples.

Two of the barriers identified are:

  1. Inadequate legal and regulatory framework (including women’s or Indigenous Peoples’ right to own land); and
  2. Limited capacity among stakeholders for effective collaboration (derived from social and gender injustices, and a lack of political will among government authorities and legal knowledge among communities).

Stakeholder involvement and collaboration have been identified as integral components to formalizing land rights. So what role can the various stakeholders play in ensuring that the voices of local and Indigenous Peoples are actually heard, and that they contribute to recognizing customary land rights?

Governments are key institutions in recognizing customary land rights. Governments, through facilitating development of appropriate policy, law and regulatory means, should ensure that communities have legal documentation and can enjoy clear rights and control of natural resources. More investment is needed in the capacity development of relevant agencies and the skills of their officials. Moreover, government actors should educate communities of their rights and encourage the private sector to follow relevant standards.

The private sector has emerged as a change agent in addressing land tenure issues and inclusive growth. Most notably by recognizing communities’ rights to land, including them in production chains, and providing jobs. Many private sector actors are portrayed negatively in the media for failing to acknowledge community land rights, risking their reputation and potentially incurring financial losses. A response for private sector actors should be to develop strategies consistent with international land standards and community needs through intensified communication with local and Indigenous Peoples. An increasing number of private sector actors are becoming aware that improved socio-economic conditions in communities can have positive business impacts. The private sector should also push governments for policy changes that are amenable to land rights justice.

Civil society can be instrumental in supporting governments to overcome capacity and resource gaps in ensuring community land rights. For instance, through working with government to overcome barriers in engaging with communities. Additionally, civil society can pressure policy makers by communicating land rights issues at national or even international levels, and disseminate knowledge to local and Indigenous Peoples about their rights. Civil society organizations should lead partnerships with governments and the private sector to develop sensitive and inclusive strategies for marginalized communities to obtain adequate support and fair internal distribution of benefits.

To scale up partnerships among civil society and the private sector, academia, researchers and practitioners should support other stakeholders by analyzing and highlighting successful examples of long-term business-civil society partnerships, such as the benefits of improved land rights to broader development goals. Communities are often unaware of their resources and land rights and are can be excluded from decision making processes. Still, communities should never be seen as passive bystanders. Through active participation in multi stakeholder dialogue they can work towards getting government, private sector and civil society to support their demands for land rights, and in turn, secure their livelihoods.

Supporting communities to secure land rights

Finally, the government, private sector and, in some instances, civil society would benefit from an improved understanding of communities and a forum to discuss recognizing customary land rights in an open and transparent manner. At the next Community Forestry Forum, RECOFTC- The Center for People and Forest and its partners (like RRI and those at the Stockholm conference) will facilitate a neutral gathering that promotes active listening between these various parties.

Active listening is essential to moving past traditional stereotypes of government, private sector, and non-government and civil society organizations. A safe environment for dialogue must be created for these parties to speak about how to move ahead with securing land tenure rights and opportunities to recognize customary, community-based tenure systems. Each participant has to feel that every other participant is acting openly and honestly in the dialogue, with the intention of truly understanding one another. Only in this way can trust between participants be built and a more just land rights system be realized.

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