Indonesia can deliver on its social forestry targets with participation of sub-national actors

by Yosef Arihadi,  Indonesia Country Program Coordinator, RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests

The Indonesian government is moving further away from achieving CF targets, according to an article on, which highlights Indonesia’s CF budget cuts in 2017 to nearly half of its 2015’s budget. RECOFTC’s Indonesia Country Program Coordinator, Yosef Arihadi, offers another perspective, arguing that as long as people and communities are at the center of development, there is hope.


Two years (2014-2016) have passed since the creation of the now Ministry of Environment and Forestry, during which time there has been a two-year freeze from any expansion in Indonesia’s social forestlands.  During this time, the ministry aimed to streamline forestry bureaucracy and simplify policies and procedures for more efficient delivery of social forestry licenses.

The (central) government budget cut for social forestry into half of that compared to 2015 may seem like it is counterproductive toward achieving its social forestry target of 12.7 million hectares in 2020. However, there is still great opportunity for the forester Indonesian president to deliver on social forestry targets.

Implementation of the national target is moving down to provincial-level governments, where autonomy often lies and where more budget from the provincial sources must be allocated to support and achieve targets in each province. Likewise, donors, the private sector and CSOs can be more effective working with governments at sub-national levels, and develop more piloting with communities in the forests, and share and learn within forestry working groups to improve achievements toward social forestry targets.

Decades of top-down forestry sector decision-making from the central-level to the forest farmer level has ended, as it is clearer now that social forestry is not about forests but about people and their livelihoods, social and cultural needs and beyond. Forestry programs must have long-term development plans that are owned by local people and with finances to and from local sources at village, district and provincial levels. Decision-making must include participation from the provincial and below levels, with people and communities always at the center of development.

On 30 December 2016, Indonesia’s President Jokowi announced legalization of nine customary forests in Jambi, North Sumatra, and West Java provinces, totaling 13,100 hectares. Central and South Sulawesi provinces have also made good progress toward recognizing the customary forest initiatives developed in districts and provinces. For example, the first step of mapping 8.1 million hectares of customary forests (out of a total 12.7 million hectares allocated for community forests under the Jokowi presidency) has already been achieved.

The legalization of the nine customary forests is a result of planned processes from communities and legislators at the district and provincial levels.  This included a series of discussions resulting in drafts and agreed policies for Governor’s Decrees or Provincial Regulations on recognition of Customary Forests. These bottom up processes arising from the community level were able to happen after the landmark Constitutional Court ruling.

Constitutional Court ruling no 35/2012 – which excluded customary forest from state forest – still has a way to go toward becoming more effective.  At the same time, other policy changes also occurred between 2012 and 2016, related with decentralization and local governance. Decentralization law No 32/2004 was replaced by law No 23/2014, which switched locus of local decision-making from district to provincial level. The legalization of customary forest under this new law is in the hands of governors through provincial regulation or governor’s decree.

From 2012 to 2016, after the constitutional court ruling, no single customary forest legalization was made for Indigenous Peoples. The transformation of the Ministry of Forestry into Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which took place during 2014 – 2016,  was the cause of the temporary halt in progression of social forestry models (Hutan Desa, Hutan Kemasyarakatan and HutanTanaman Rakyat).  With the new decentralization law, a lot of work still must be done to effectively formalize customary tenure in forests. Pressures on president Jokowi must continue to ensure effective implementation of central policy to achieve the 12.7 million ha social forestry target through adequate actions and resource allocation from provincial governments.. Initiatives from CSOs to map and document customary forests, and at the same time assist provincial parliament to draft provincial regulations, are essential.

We know social forestry cannot be achieved instantly, but there is great hope that we will reach Indonesia’s social forestry target as long as we continue to ensure that forest decision-making includes participation from the provincial and below levels, with people and communities always at the center of development.

Learn more about RECOFTC’s work in Indonesia: 

How can FLEGT truly address illegal logging?

David Gritten, RECOFTC Senior Programme Officer, discusses how FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) provides a great opportunity to address illegal logging IF it is based on strengthening the rights of local communities.

My grandparents used to have a stuffed alligator that stood on a teakwood stand beside the gas fire in their living room. As a child I never thought anything of it, never asking where it came from. It is the same about so many of the things in our homes. We never think to ask: where did they come from? who made them? who benefited from their purchase? and who may have suffered in the process? These questions are particularly important for goods coming from tropical countries, including the Asia-Pacific region. This is especially the case for tropical wood products – with many coming from unknown and often from illegal sources.

Knowing the source of the wood products in your home is important because:

DSC_0382Millions of people rely on forests for their livelihoods. According to the World Bank, more than 1.6 billion people around the world depend to varying degrees on forests for their livelihoods. In the Asia-Pacific region this number is estimated to be between 481-579 million. Considering 70 percent of the region’s poor live in rural areas, this is significant.

Illegal logging is a massive problem and destroys the lives of many forest dependent people. In Indonesia it is been estimated that roughly 60 percent of all logging is illegal, in Lao PDR and Papua New Guinea rates are as high as 80 percent and 70 percent respectively.

Thankfully, numerous initiatives are trying to address the blight of illegal logging. One initiative is the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. The Action Plan aims to reduce illegal logging by strengthening the sustainability and legality of forest management, improving forest governance and promoting trade in legally produced timber.

The Action Plan has two main pillars:

  1. The FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) which is an agreement between the European Union and a timber exporting country to ensure that an effective system is in place to ensure that only legal timber products are imported into the EU.
  2. The  EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) requires timber importers and traders within the EU to take appropriate steps to ensure legal supply chains.

RECOFTC, along with many of its partners (governmental and non-governmental), recognises that FLEGT-VPA can provide benefits on many levels beyond addressing illegal logging. Positive dimensions are highlighted in a recent review of the effectiveness of the FLEGT Action Plan initiated by the European Commission and coordinated by the FLEGT Facility of the European Forestry Institute. The evaluation finds the Action Plan is a relevant and innovative response to the challenge of illegal logging and has improved forest governance in all target countries.

RECOFTC works on FLEGT-VPA projects in four (Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam) of its target countries. For example, in Cambodia and Thailand RECOFTC, with FAO support, is working to create an environment where those doing the illegal logging, those affected by it and those trying to control it are able to discuss ways to stop it in an effective way that, that does not penalise local communities. One key area is through providing capacity development to civil society organisations to support effective participation in VPA processes. In Myanmar, RECOFTC, also with FAO support, works with International Alert to develop the capacity of key stakeholders, particularly government staff to manage forest conflicts in a sustainable manner. FLEGT provides a window of opportunity for efforts such as these. Governments and companies realise that Europe will no longer be a market for timber products if they cannot prove the legality of these products. They also realise that to do this, they need to strengthen forest governance.

The starting point of RECOFTC’s work in this area, as with all our work, is that any efforts to achieve sustainable forest management in the region must be based on recognising and promoting the rights of forest communities, including smallholders. This comes from the basic understanding that local communities know the forest best, depend on the forest the most, are the most effective forest managers and most importantly, have rights to their forests. The VPA process provides a great opportunity to address illegal logging if it is based on strengthening the rights of local communities. However, if it marginalises these rights, as many initiatives in the past have, then it will be surely doomed to fail, and will result in continued devastation for forests and forest communities throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

For more information on RECOFTC’s FLEGT-VPA projects, visit

Community forestry and joint mitigation and adaptation: bridging old and new with a tool from Nepal

By drawing on simple tools and existing institutions, practitioners can design projects that both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. One simple tool, known as the community forestry-based climate change adaptation (CF-CCA) framework, was developed by RECOFTC in Nepal.

Until quite recently, climate change observers were concerned with the potential tradeoffs between mitigation and adaptation. They were often wary that discussions on adaptation would derail mitigation efforts. However, given the growing urgency of the climate change problem this discourse has changed. Now, more than ever, adaptation is gaining traction in global climate change discussions. In the recently established Paris Agreement, adaptation is understood as on par with mitigation.

The two responses to climate change – mitigation and adaptation – have been understood in distinct silos. Mitigation, one the one hand, has referred to efforts to limit the amount of greenhouse gases in th (3)In addition, a growing emphasis is being placed on breaking down the silos that divide mitigation and adaptation and finding synergies between the two. This is perhaps clearest in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, which promotes the concept of Joint Mitigation and Adaptation (JMA). JMA advocates for the integral and sustainable management of forests to simultaneously sequester carbon and adapt to climate impacts.

However, for many with experience in community forestry in Nepal, the concept of JMA doesn’t sound so new. It could be argued that JMA has been practiced for quite some time across the country’s 18,900 formally recognized Community Forestry User Groups (CFUG). In fact, research shows that community forestry in Nepal has already generated a carbon stock of more than 180 million tons over 1.6 million hectares (WRI, 2014). And given that about one third of the country’s total population has been directly affected by the institution of community forestry(Ojha et al. 2009), it is safe to say that it has played a strong role in influencing local adaptive capacity.jma-cf-cca_block_2

So, to facilitate JMA in the context of community forestry in Nepal, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Rather, we need to provide simple tools that build on the resources embedded within existing institutions and ensure that benefits accrue to most marginalized populations. To realize that goal, RECOFTC has developed a framework that enables CFUG members to lead initiatives that address both climate and non-climate vulnerabilities in the context of integrated forested landscapes.

Known as the community forestry-based climate change adaptation (CF-CCA) framework, this three-part guide enables practitioners to assess local climate vulnerability, evaluate potential climate change adaptation interventions, and implement adaptation projects. It provides tools to consider the ways in which climate change impacts interact across sectors, and it places the poor, disadvantaged ethnic and caste groups, and women at the center of all of its activities.

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RECOFTC’s most recent practitioner’s brief walks through the CF-CCA framework, and provides detailed explanations in order to facilitate its implementation on the ground. In addition, we provide important insights into how the framework was developed in Nepal, and best practices and lessons learned from the piloting process.
We believe that this framework can contribute to JMA both within and outside of Nepal, given its emphasis on sustainable forest management, maintaining ecosystem services, and building adaptive capacity. But, for that to be possible, communities must have strong rights to their forests and a voice in deliberative and democratic climate change decision-making processes.

For more information on RECOFTC’s community forestry-based climate change adaptation framework, click here:

For more information on the Paris Agreement, click here:

For more information on RECOFTC’s recent training on JMA, click here:


Stevens, C., R. Winterbottom, J. Springer, and K. Reytar. 2014. Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change: How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Climate Change. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Accessible at

Ojha, H., L. Persha, A. Chhatre. 2009. Community Forestry in Nepal: A Policy Innovation for Local Livelihoods. Washington, DC:  International Food Policy Research Institute.


People and mangroves – towards a changing future in the Ayeyarwady Delta

Mélanie Feurer, RECOFTC Myanmar intern from 2014-2015, makes the case on why mangroves are vital for coastal communities in adapting to climate change. Her internship was part of her master’s thesis at the Bern University of Applied Sciences, School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences HAFL. Ms. Feurer is set to defend her thesis on 12th August 2016 in HAFL.

“The mangroves sustain us. We need to find ways to protect them so that they can protect us. Not only do we depend on them, but so will our children in the future,” U Hla Thein said the last time we met as I was coming towards the end of my fieldwork. He is a community forest (CF) chairman in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta – where the devastating storm surge from Cyclone Nargis killed many thousands of people, and destroyed infrastructure, properties and the livelihoods of many in 2008. One reason for the destructive impact of the Cyclone was the loss of mangroves along the coast. However, since 1999, the initiation of various mangrove restoration programs coupled with community forestry (CF) have helped the communities of the Ayeyarwady Delta to benefit from the mangrove products, as well as potentially reduce the impacts of future storms in the area.

Working as an intern at RECOFTC’s Myanmar Country Program office, I had the opportunity to closely observe the interactions between the people and their mangrove forests, and learn from them. What struck me the most was the seamless integration of people’s daily lives with the mangrove ecosystem. From the houses built mostly with materials from the mangrove forest to the fuelwood it provides – the proof was overwhelming.

Household producing dani sheets in Oke Pho Kwin Chaung village

Household producing dani sheets in Oke Pho Kwin Chaung village

War Kone villagers drawing changes in natural resources

War Kone villagers drawing changes in natural resources

Nowadays while fuelwood is mainly used for household consumption, mangroves provide other vital livelihood sources – mainly crabs or dani leaves (Nypa fruticans) which the villagers collect daily to sell at a local market. Mangrove products are also part of their daily diet — providing a range of vegetables and fruits as well as protein sources in fish, shrimp, crab and snails, which are all used in delicious local curries.

Sorting crab according to size for trade

Sorting crab according to size for trade

But like many areas in the world, the Ayeyarwady Delta and its local inhabitants are at risk of climatic changes. Temperature increase, irregular rainfall patterns and sea level rise have already manifested their increasingly negative effects on agriculture, particularly in rice production in the Delta. Adapting to these changes is a must for the 6.2 million people living in the Ayeyarwady Region, especially for the most exposed communities along the coast who depend on the mangroves for their daily needs.

Here are some benefits that make mangroves key for local communities in adapting to climate change:

Mangroves represent a resilient ecosystem. Mangrove trees are resilient because of their ability to restore their functions after disturbances. Mangroves can also stabilize sandbanks and prevent erosion. Well-preserved mangrove stands can build an important buffer along the coastline and in the estuaries, minimizing the impact of wind and storm surge. In Myanmar, it is believed that mangrove deforestation and forest degradation in the past contributed to the devastating impact of cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Mangroves along the estuary

Mangroves along the estuary

Mangrove forests provide major contributions to local livelihoods. In the study area, 25 percent of the total income is from mangroves. The main product is crab (80%), followed by timber, fuelwood and dani. Income from these products is especially important for community members ranked as very poor because they derive 34 percent of their income from the mangroves – with potential extra earnings of as much as US$3 per day from selling crabs. Dani thatching (used as house-building material), can also bring daily extra earnings for women. These incomes are on par with the daily labor rates of US$2 – US$3. However, labor opportunities are low in the region.

Girls preparing dani sheets for their livelihood

Girls preparing dani sheets for their livelihood

CF member showing me a caught crab

Community Forest Management Committee member showing me a caught crab

Studies suggest that forests are more sustainable when managed by local communities. In the Delta, I have learnt to understand the importance of mangroves for the local people and have seen their concern about illegal logging and forest degradation. Because of the local people’s long-term interest in maintaining and managing the mangrove ecosystem, they will protect their forests given the right tools and support. Therefore, commitment for sustainable forest management paired with clear rights and alternative income opportunities is an effective way to ensure lasting forest resources and services.

Taking measurments in a mangrove plantation

Taking measurments in a mangrove plantation

CF mapping in War Kone village

Community Forestry mapping in War Kone village

Local communities need mangroves not only in times of natural disasters, but more so in their daily lives. To ensure long-term benefits, we need the commitment of all stakeholders and stronger policies that will support the communities in protecting their forests from illegal logging and other disturbances causing degradation in the still young mangroves. We need to value the mangrove forests both for their products and their protective functions — and more importantly, for the people whose lives are harmoniously intertwined with them.

To achieve the SDGs, listen to the voices of the forest

David Gritten, RECOFTC Senior Programme Officer, makes the case on how it is imperative to listen to those who know the forest best – local communities living in and around forests – to achieve the SDGs.

“The strongest voice is the one based on truth” so my (Yoda like*) grandmother once told me. Well, my grandmother would have heard the voice of Ms. Yuliatin, a 29 year-old preacher, from the village of Jember, Indonesia, loud and clear thousands of kilometers away in Scotland as Ms. Yuliatin requested the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission to hear her voice, and the voice of her fellow villagers.

At RECOFTC, we advocate for strengthening the voices of those living in and around the forests. This is based on the simple understanding that they know the forest best, depend on the forest the most, have proven to be the most effective forest managers and most importantly, have rights to their forests. This is why we feel it vital these voices are heard.

The recently concluded Asia-Pacific Forestry Week (APFW), organised by FAO and DENR in the Philippines, brought together over 1300 people (mainly government officials, and NGO staff) to discuss the challenges facing forests in the region and share stories of success. At the event, RECOFTC together with the ASEAN Social Forestry Network (ASFN) organized a series of sessions on the topic of “Serving society: forestry and people”,  focusing  on the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Stream included sessions covering areas of how community forestry can support achieving the SDGs.

During  the APFW, each of the organisers had the opportunity to share their  findings and a single recommendation with the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission (APFC). It was a great opportunity to encourage the Commission to support community forestry.

Enter Yuliatin, a participant in RECOFTC’s regional project on Grassroots Capacity Building for REDD+. Speaking in Indonesian language, with only powerpoint slides  translating her message, she more than captivated the Commission members. Her story is one that is felt by millions in the region – the importance of forests for her village, her family and for her. She expressed her desire for people throughout the region to understand this, to hear her voice and to hear the voice of her fellow villagers. She  wants people to understand the insecurity that she and the rest of the village feel about threats to their forests, including  threats driven by the lack of clarity in the tenure and rights they currently have for their forests.   

Looking at the SDGs, one can  see how  community forestry can help us achieve all the Goals, not only only Goal 15, which focuses on ecosystems. Hearing the voices of Yuliatin, of those living in and around the forests, is vital if we are going to achieve the SDGs.  Listening to Yuliatin’s story and heeding the call of those living in and around forested areas is critical to the achievement of the SDGs. After all it is they who hold the knowledge to sustainably manage forest resources and just as importantly the desire to do so.

*She isn’t small and green and talked backwards, it was more that is she is all knowing like all grandmothers.

For my forest, for my people: Women preachers of Meru Betiri, Indonesia

yuliatin 2

Hear Yuliatin speak at Asia-Pacific Forestry Week 2016 at 1.30pm,  Tuesday , 23 Feb 2016, Lily room, Fontana Convention Center, Clark, Philippines.  For more information, see

Yuliatin is a 29-year old female preacher who grew up near Meru Betiri National Park in East Java, Indonesia, an area known as one of the last habitats of the Javanese tiger. One day, Yuliatin, who regularly conducts an Islam study class with other women in her village, receives important news. “I’ve been invited to a training,” Yuliatin tells her friend Paini. “I’m so surprised – it’s usually only men who get these opportunities. But this training is different – it’s for Islamic women preachers to learn about climate change.”

She marks the training day on her calendar – 5 September, 2011. When the day arrives, Yuliatin and Paini, who is also invited, go to another village where the training is held. Yuliatin is very excited, especially because the facilitators are from the national government’s Center for Forestry Education and Training, RECOFTC and LATIN (Lembaga Alam Tropika Indonesia). She also feels nervous about being able to follow the lessons, as her formal education ended at a young age.

Twenty women preachers from five villages participate in the training. Yuliatin is one of the youngest; most of the women are senior preachers. She tries not to feel discouraged, and keeps in mind that her aim is to simply learn something new.

“I would like you to draw what your forest looked like back in 1999, after all the illegal logging,” the trainer asks at the start of the meeting. As Yuliatin thinks about her drawing, her mind flashes back to that time, 13 years ago… “Boom!” Yuliatin could clearly hear the sound of a tree hitting the ground.

As she lived very close to Meru Betiri National Park, she heard the sounds of falling trees almost every day, from morning to evening. It seemed that everyone was felling trees – even her own family. Yuliatin’s father helped support her family by selling firewood, and as a teenager, Yuliatin often went to the forest with her family to gather wood. Next, the trainer asks them to draw “the forest of your dreams.” Cherished memories from Yuliatin’s childhood flood back – she is six years old, swimming in a small river with her friends. The forest is full of big trees, fruits, tall bamboo and singing birds.

As Yuliatin compares the two drawings, she feels a sense of responsibility. She also took part in illegal logging back in 1999. She wants to help bring back the forest of her childhood. Yuliatin learns about climate change, REDD+ and Islamic perspectives toward forests. It is an unforgettable two days – not only does she gain new knowledge, but new feelings when, at one point, she is wrapped in plastic to demonstrate how the impacts of climate change feel!

Inspired by the training, Yuliatin is motivated to share what she learned with others and encourages fellow villagers to plant more trees to rehabilitate the surrounding degraded forest. Her husband is the first person she shares with, “I learned a lot from the training. Now I know what climate change and the role of our forest is. I know why floods have been happening more frequently – it’s because our forest has been badly degraded. We must plant more trees!”

Her husband doesn’t react as she had hoped, “You know that planting more trees will reduce our harvest – our rice, our corn. You talk like you’re smart. But I’m not sure a woman should talk about such issues. Don’t worry about our forest, as a woman you just need to take care of our kids.”

“I’m not against being responsible for domestic work. But this shouldn’t mean that I can’t do other things,” she responds. “If we plant stinky bean, jack fruit or durian trees, we can sell the fruit and earn more income at the same time. If we don’t plant more trees, floods will wash away our crops, and we will lose everything. Do you remember the floods in 2001, 2002 and 2007? Read this if you don’t believe me.” Yuliatin gives him a booklet on climate change and REDD+.

Yuliatin sees that convincing her husband is only the first challenge, and that she may well face more rejection from other people when she talks about climate change. “This is important to me, and I’m prepared to face challenges,” Yuliatin says to Paini. She confides to her friend why it’s so important to her:

“After junior high school, my family could not afford to pay for my education. So I went to Malaysia to find work to send money to my parents for a new house. I was only a teenager, and I was sure that city life would be better than living in a village – instead it turned out to be the hardest experience of my life. For three years, I was a domestic worker. The family I worked for treated me terribly. They didn’t allow me to communicate with anyone, not even my family. I worked from 5am to 2am every day. One time I was accused of stealing clothes and beaten until I was unconsciousness. Another time, I was locked in a storage room for five days, while the whole family was away. They didn’t leave me any food, and I survived on snacks I found in the room. That was the loneliest moment in my life – alone and starving. So that’s why I’m so grateful to be home. Here I have a small patch of land from my father, and I can generate some income for my family. I want to preserve my forest and my home.”

One day after the training, she asks four other women preachers to come to her house to discuss what she learned at the training and how they could teach others. “I want to show you something from the training. I will wrap you in this plastic and ask you how you feel,” Yuliatin says as she copies the activity from the training. The women preachers try it and an interesting discussion ensues.

“Taking care of the forest will reduce flooding and erosion, and will give us more sources for water. Water plays a very important role in our worship – Muslims need water to clean their body and soul before praying,” says one of the preachers. At the end, they all understand they must protect the forest and plant more trees, and they agree that the lessons are worth sharing, especially together with the Islamic perspectives.

One day, Yuliatin’s friend Paini tells her, “Some people are gossiping that during the training you were ‘looking for chicken’. They say you’re dressing differently and using make-up.”

Yuliatin knows that when a married woman goes outside of the village without her husband, people suspect the woman of having an affair – this is what is meant by ‘looking for chicken’. “Women participating in a training is so uncommon – people just aren’t used to it. But my belief is this: when you keep something smelly, it will smell bad. But if you keep something good, it will always be good. I am doing something good for my forest and my people. They will understand this eventually,” Yuliatin says, “I’m  not worried about what people think. My father always told me ‘don’t be afraid to fight for something right’.”

The women preachers arrange their first training and invite 35 women. They soon realize that participants have varying levels of understanding – and agreement. Some question why they are learning about forests during Islamic class and cannot understand the connection. For the next training, Yuliatin develops a new strategy – she plans it together with a religious leader from her village, and also invites a facilitator from RECOFTC’s partner, LATIN. She knows that they are well-respected by the community, and that people will listen to them.

She conducts the training, with back-up from the two. She finds that this time, the participants are in agreement with the lessons. However, she finds that some participants are illiterate, so Yuliatin gives the handouts to their adult children, and ask their children to explain to their moms. Yuliatin also shares the lessons beyond members of her Islamic class.

She conducts a training for 20 community health volunteers in her village, who quickly grasp the  concepts and in turn share with their husbands, asking them to plant more trees. She holds a training for 40 children in primary and junior high school. Yuliatin shares her knowledge in casual conversations with people she meets – during community meetings, or with other parents at school.

Though she still faces challenges – sometimes people say she is ‘showing off’ because she participated in a training – Yuliatin feels she is not alone. She has a network – the other women preachers – that is supportive of each other. She’s also very selfmotivated, “When you are going to war, you need a weapon. My weapon is my big heart for my community. If the government will allow us to keep managing the forest, I can generate more income so my kids can become better educated.”

Now she sees that slowly, people have started to believe in her, including her husband. People are starting to plant more trees. They understand that when they plant trees, they can receive multiple benefits, including non-timber forest products such as stinky beans, mangoes, jack fruit, and more.

Yuliatin’s friend Paini recently told her the latest gossip, “People are saying that you are an important person. They are impressed that you were invited to Jakarta to share your experiences in a national event with RECOFTC.”

With this recognition, Yuliatin feels proud and strong enough to pursue her dream – to see her childhood forest again.

Story and photography by Gabriella Lissa


While the international debate on REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) has evolved rapidly during the last few years, most discussions on REDD+ and climate change have been limited to policy makers, international organizations and academics, with little or no input from the diverse grassroots stakeholders. Since 2009, RECOFTC has been implementing a regional project on Grassroots Capacity Building for REDD+ with the aim of promoting the effective engagement of diverse grassroots stakeholders in the climate change and REDD+ dialogues in the Asia-Pacific region.

From 2009-2013, the project has raised awareness on REDD+ and developed the skills of grassroots stakeholders through a variety of capacity development activities in Indonesia, Lao PDR, Nepal, and Viet Nam (and recently Myanmar). The project has developed training materials, including manuals, flyers, booklets, posters, radio programs and short videos in national languages of the project‘s target countries, and organized street plays and puppet shows. More than 700 events such as training of trainers, awareness raising, mass rallies and expert seminars at national, subnational and grassroots levels, reaching more than 35,000 stakeholders, where one-third are women. As a result, more than 50 percent of the project stakeholders have gained explicit knowledge on climate change; can explain links between forests and climate change, and the concepts of REDD+; and are aware of potential benefits from and challenges of REDD+.

Success of COP21 Paris Agreement depends on equity for local communities

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, explores the findings of a new RECOFTC report Equity in forests and REDD+: An analysis of equity challenges as viewed by forestry decision-makers and practitioners in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam.  She finds that the viability and success of any agreement emerging from Paris requires that equity extending to local communities form an essential component of process and outcomes in tackling climate change.

Read this blog originally published in the Bangkok Post:

An army of country delegations, civil society, scientists and journalists are descending on Paris this week to participate in, and try to influence, an expected global climate agreement. There is much at stake as the implications of a 2 degree global temperature increase pose an increasingly frightening specter. Despite this, and efforts by many to push for a temperature increase cap of 1.5 degrees, global commitments thus far to reduce emissions fall far short of what is required to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

Impressive global progress has been made on a number of fronts related to the Millenium Development Goals since their initiation in 1990:  the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries has fallen similarly, as has the number of out-of-school  primary age children.  Under-five mortality has fallen by more than three times and the proportion of women in parliament has nearly doubled. Despite this progress in other areas, the world has yet to make tangible, significant progress on addressing climate change. This is due in part to the fact that the global community has rarely, if ever, faced a collective problem as complex,  and requiring such far-sighted leadership, as climate change.

The forests and the land use sector account for a quarter of global carbon emissions, concentrated mainly in tropical countries, and efforts to target the emissions from this sector have had only limited success to date. The forest sector’s role in mitigation remains a focal point of discussion at the climate meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – offering both potential emission reductions, but also a minefield of social, political and environmental concerns.

However, while political and economic considerations have guided the negotiating strategies of many countries, there is a growing body of compelling work suggesting that incorporating social concerns are not just critical to the success of climate change solutions, but they are within the best interest of broader society as well. We know that equity, also referred to in some fields as equality, has significant impacts of a range of development outcomes. With regards to income equality, we know that societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor tend to have worse outcomes on a number of indicators, including for the well-off. While greater equality yields the greatest benefits for the poor, the benefits extend to the majority of the population.

Studies suggest that in contrast to less equal countries, more equal countries have, amongst others: higher levels of education, more trust and community involvement, higher well-being among children, longer life expectancy, lower levels of physical ill health, less violence and higher scores on environmental indicators such as recycling.

What does this mean for forests and climate change?  It means that in countries where equity is strong, we can anticipate less need to degrade environmental resources (including forests critical for climate change mitigation) because poverty and livelihood options are improved. Increased and more equitable rights for land tenure and resource access will strengthen sustainable land management. In countries where equity is strong there is also increased visibility and voice in consultation and decision-making processes, leading to more realistic and fair planning and management processes, thus, rural communities have a greater balance of resources, rights and influence, as opposed to disproportionate influence and wealth in urban centers. All of this combined can be expected to lead to favorable outcomes for forest management and climate change mitigation.

In advance of COP21, RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests has been working to better understanding of  issues related to equity and forest governance in the Asia-Pacific region. RECOFTC’s new report,  Equity in forests and REDD+: An analysis of equity challenges as viewed by forestry decision-makers and practitioners in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam, presents an analysis of findings from national pre-COP consultations in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam as well as learning from the USAID GREEN Mekong programme, the Norad Grassroots Capacity Building for REDD+ programme and the ASEAN Social Forestry Network. The report looks at differences in equity and equitable outcomes as understood at national and local levels, and related barriers to the achievement of equitable outcomes.

Given that national governments as well as international partners have limited financial and human resources to draw on, the analysis is designed to present priority forest governance equity challenges and solutions proposed by national-level policymakers and non-government stakeholders. The associated recommendations are intended to support realistic and targeted capacity development for forest equity in the region. With this in mind, the analysis identified four key areas for achieving forest equity: Participation in forest decision-making by local communities, access to information, clear benefit sharing mechanisms, and clear land tenure rights.  The evidence shows that social equity does not only benefit marginalized people, but rather all of society.

RECOFTC’s experiences with national policymakers and government partners in the Asia-Pacific region demonstrate that they value equity in forest governance and are potentially powerful partners in identifying barriers and solutions for improved equity.  The viability and success of any agreement emerging from Paris requires that equity extending to local communities form an essential component of process and outcomes in tackling climate change.

For more information:

Southeast Asian forests are being seen as a key strategy to halt climate change – what will this mean for vulnerable forest communities?

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, argues that the national plans to reduce carbon emissions, submitted in the lead up to COP21 taking place in Paris this December, must not leave forest-dependent people worse off. 

Southeast Asian nations raced to submit their national carbon emission targets last month in the lead-up to the global climate change meeting to take place in Paris this December (known as COP21), where an international agreement is expected to become one of the most significant milestones in climate change history.

From Southeast Asia, these submissions (called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) were made by Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam – many of which clearly prioritized forests as a key sector in helping to reduce carbon emissions. The INDCs are a centerpiece of the upcoming agreement in Paris. They provide a concreteness to commitments missing in previous COPs and seen by many as the critical hoped for difference between COP21 and previous failed agreements.

Especially within Southeast Asia, the land sector is an essential part of any strategy to respond to climate change. It represents around 25 percent of total global emissions and is unique among sectors (such as industry and transport) in that it has the potential to not only reduce emissions but also to capture and sequester them. Poorly managed, the land sector can be a source of up to 80 percent of emissions in some countries. If lands are managed sustainably, reducing global emissions and protecting areas that can absorb greenhouse gases becomes possible.

However, it is essential that strategies to reduce emissions do not leave forest-dependent people worse off. In Asia there are 450 million people in Asia who depend on forests, and who are also among the poorest, with the least access to livelihood options and basic services including education and healthcare. While it’s good news that countries in this region are prioritizing forests in their INDCs, it is essential that countries ensure that the principle of equity underlies their climate change strategies. Viet Nam is one country that has included livelihood development and income generation for communities and forest-dependent people in its INDC. But for others to succeed in sustaining forests and meeting their national carbon emission targets, they too must ensure that local forest communities are included in forest decision-making.

The following is a round-up of INDC submissions from countries in the region.

Cambodia: Conditional (on international support) reductions of 27% will be made in emissions by 2030. While these reductions take place explicitly from energy, manufacturing, transport, and other industrial sectors. Land use and forestry are highlighted as one of the primary mitigation strategies with a target of increasing forest cover to 60%.

Indonesia: Ambitious unconditional reductions in emissions by 26% by 2020, 29% by 2030. If international support is provided, these reductions commitment rise to 41% by 2030. Emission reduction strategies cover 5 sectors: energy, industrial processes and end product use, agriculture, land use and forestry and waste. Promisingly, commitments will be implemented through strategies including effective land use planning and sustainable forest management including social forestry.

Lao PDR: Outlines key sectoral actions to be taken (with estimated reductions in tons of CO2 rather than percentages). The forestry sector features strongly – primarily through the key action of increasing forest cover to 70% land area (implementing its national Forest Strategy to 2020). RECOFTC applauds the high profile of an enhanced forest sector, and encourages Lao PDR to undertake measures to increase forest cover through participatory and socially acceptable approaches.

Myanmar: Similar to Lao PDR, Myanmar emphasizes the global value of its forests as net GHG sinks. The forestry sector takes center stage in Myanmar’s INDC, namely actions associated with reaching forest cover targets (National Permanent Forest Estate Target at 30%, Protected Area Systems at 10%). REDD+ and forest law and timber legality programs are listed as key strategies to conserving and expanding forest cover.

Thailand: Unfortunately there was no inclusion of the land use sector or forestry in Thailand’s submission, though it explicitly reserves right to include at later point. Emission reduction strategies aimed at reducing emissions by 20% from projected business-as-usual (BAU) levels by 2030 through actions in transportation and industry sectors.

Viet Nam: Conditional emission reductions to 25% by 2030, unconditional reductions of 8% regardless of international support. The forestry sector and REDD+ are central to Vietnam’s emission reduction strategy with priority sectors for reductions focusing on: energy, agriculture, forestry sector and waste. One of the unconditional emission reduction activities features an increase in forest cover to 45%. Particularly positive is that Viet Nam’s emission reduction strategies include managing and developing sustainable forests, enhancing carbon sequestration and environmental services; conservation of biodiversity associated with livelihood development and income generation for communities and forest-dependent people.

While including the land use and forestry sectors as an emission reduction strategy has proven a technical challenge for many countries in the region, the fact that it features so prominently bodes well for global efforts at halting climate change and for the forest sector – but to succeed vulnerable local communities cannot be left out.

Land sector left out of 2020 targets

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, explains that forests and the land sector must be included in national climat change mitigation plans. 

In coming to their own nationally determined emission targets that will come into full effect in 2020, many countries are choosing either sector-specific or economy-wide emissions targets. The final deadline for inclusion in the Secretariat’s synthesis report of INDCs in the Paris agreement was Oct. 1. In Southeast Asia, only Singapore has submitted to date. Countries in Asia are active parties to the UNFCCC and in many respects are leading the way in progressive actions to curb or respond to climate change. A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that some developing countries are producing more ambitious and robust emission targets than industrialized countries. However, as details of these drafts emerge, one sector is often limited or conspicuously absent: the land sector. Land use is defined as how the land is used, whether it be forest land, agriculture, settlements and any other uses.

Globally, and particularly within the region, the land sector is an essential part of any strategy to respond to climate change. It represents around 25 percent of total global emissions. It is unique amongst sectors (such as industry and transport): It has the potential to not only reduce carbon emissions but also to capture and sequester them.

In addition to the positive role in reducing emissions that the land use sector can play, poorly managed, they can be a major source of emissions: up to 80 percent in some countries.

While no magic bullet exists to resolve global warming, the land use sector will need to be an important part of any long-term responses to addressing climate change. If land is managed sustainably, equitably and effectively, balancing multiple goals including reducing global emissions and protecting areas that can absorb greenhouse gases becomes possible.

Despite support from various state and non-state actors following COP20 in Lima, inclusion of land use in country contributions has not played out as envisioned by many observers. Complex accounting methodologies for the land use sector have been a hurdle. In addition, the sector does not have a single unified body of advocates (instead a set of domestic agencies responsible for agriculture, forestry, water and land use planning) and cannot compete with industry in lobbying clout or establishing a coherent agenda.

Political and social sensitivities are high when facing land use targets where large or vulnerable constituencies such as forest-dependent indigenous groups are affected. Finally, within the region, ministries responsible for climate change and the national emission target development process traditionally have weak links and collaboration with national forestry and other land use agencies.

Despite being at various stages of economic transition, many Asian countries remain fundamentally agrarian and dependent on natural resources and would benefit from more strategic, sustainable land use. The region serves as a phenomenal potential carbon sink, containing some of the largest and most biodiverse tracts of forest in the world.

Poor representation of the land use sector to date in national contributions is not deterministic or inevitable. One of the few countries to include explicit forest targets to date, Lao PDR, like many others in the region, lacks detailed forest sector baseline data. Lao PDR has instead opted for forest sector-based policies and programs as a means of expanding and improving the forest base for carbon sequestration — an approach that other countries in the region could adopt.

With support, vision, and especially encouragement from civil society, the countries in the region need to find ways to include the land use sector in their national targets. Failure to do so will represent a missed opportunity for a scenario where global emissions are reduced, high quality forests return, ecosystem services and biodiversity prosper, and rural communities in the region see livelihoods improved and resilience against climate change impacts strengthened.

With COP21 on the horizon, it is not too late for countries to submit and refine the actions they will take to limit GHG emissions. We thus call on countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the global community to work together to make this happen.

This article was originally published in the Bankok PostThe Jakarta Post and The Malaysian Insider 

Who are the drivers of change in sustainable forest management?

Tint Lwin Thaung, Executive Director of RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, explains the importance of including local people in forest decision-making in order for sustainable forest management to be successful. He argues that investing in local people will sustain our forests, and thus, our future. 

In several weeks, on September 7-11, the world’s forestry stakeholders will gather in Durban, South Africa for the XIV World Forestry Congress (WFC). This year, the Congress will focus on how to invest in a sustainable future through forests and people. The event, held only once every six years, will be a vital opportunity to promote the fact that local people must be included in forest decision-making in order for sustainable forest management to move forward.

Sustainable forest management has been a key concept in forestry circles for decades and continues to become more accepted, especially in the advent of climate change: if we sustain our forests, we both retain a key tool for adapting to and mitigating climate change and ensure that the vast quantities of carbon stored in forests are not released into the atmosphere. Moreover, with an increasing societal demand for timber and non-timber forest products, expected to triple by 2050, there is an equally increasing urgency to manage forests sustainably.

But even though forestry stakeholders agree on the need for sustainable forest management, the answer to the question of how to achieve it continues to be debated.

In thinking about how to go about managing forests sustainably, it is important to keep in mind how many people live near or in forests and depend on them for their food and livelihoods. Globally, 350 million of the world’s poorest people depend almost entirely on forests for their subsistence and survival, and 1.6 billion people depend on them to some extent.

These are staggering numbers, and they should not be ignored for two reasons. The first is that the rural people who live in forests are actually the ones who know the forests best and have been effectively managing their forests for decades. To put this point another way, there are already 1.6 billion potential effective sustainable forest managers in place around the world.

The second reason is that these people are the essential drivers of change in sustainable forest management, capable of either making sustainable forest management effective or derailing it entirely.

Natural capital is high in rural areas, and rural people are the world’s poorest group of people. They are thus greatly in need of accessing the natural capital. But whether they value the natural capital they access – attempting to manage it properly and sustain it – depends on four key pillars being in place: clear and strong tenure, strong governance facilitating effective participation, rights to use the forests for benefiting livelihoods and key stakeholders having appropriate capacities.

If rural people have clear and strong tenure rights, are enabled to participate in forest decision-making, are allowed to benefit their livelihoods by accessing forest resources, and they and other key stakeholders have appropriate capacities, they will value and sustainably manage the forests in which they live.

We at RECOFTC thus believe that community forestry – a framework which enables rural people to manage their forests – is not only the best framework to achieve sustainable forest management – and is already in place and successful in many parts of the world – but is also the only framework that is viable. And for us, investing in a sustainable future can only mean investing in local people.

Our side event at the WFC, “I am the forest,” will illustrate just this, and it will do so through presentations by local people themselves. Their presentations will highlight how local people are delivering on sustainable forest management in the region, and specific actions and investments needed to scale up community forestry in Asia.

This year’s WFC prompts the world’s foresters to determine how to invest in a sustainable future by focusing on forests and people. It is by investing in people that we sustain our forests, and thus, our future.

How are local communities in Asia delivering on sustainable forest management? Find out at the World Forestry Congress side event I am the Forest, where smallholders, community forest members and indigenous peoples in Asia will present how they are delivering on sustainable forest management in the region, and actions and investments needed to scale up community forestry in Asia, in an innovative multimedia presentation developed with the internationally recognized creative director Rojana Chuasakul. The event will take place on Tuesday, 8 September in Room 11CDE, in Durban, South Africa. For more information, please visit

Capacity development: Coming into the spotlight in a new climate era?

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, explains the benefits of the international climate change negotiating community now recognizing the importance of capacity development as REDD+ implementation gets underway. Successful implementation, she argues, rests on capacity development efforts. 

Capacity development has long been the less glamorous sibling in the suite of climate change topics typically discussed at the meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Once sidelined in favor of more dramatic negotiations on REDD+ safeguards, climate finance and agreement on global emission reduction targets, the tables may be turning for capacity development. Corridor talk at the Bonn Climate Change Conference revealed a shift in perspective beyond REDD+ design to what will come next. After 10 years of development, a landmark achievement has been reached with the finalization of the REDD+ framework during the 42nd session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 42). RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests applauds the breakthrough consensus and welcomes the positive implications for local communities of further safeguards guidance, non-carbon benefits and joint mitigation and adaption – though stronger safeguard provisions including reference to participatory processes are still required. The anticipated climate agreement in Paris will set the foundation for the next few decades of climate action: moving the global community beyond the design and negotiation of frameworks and firmly on the path of implementation. Yet, for those involved in piloting and other readiness activities to date, it is clear that a major gulf exists between capacities required for implementation and current capacities on the ground. RECOFTC understands this first hand, regularly receiving requests from national REDD+ task forces and working groups for training on the basics of REDD+.

In a side event held jointly with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) during SBSTA 42 in Bonn, Germany last week, RECOFTC emphasized the evolving role of capacity development in the international climate change arena. The RECOFTC presentation emphasized the need for capacity development in order for the UNFCCC Convention principle of equity (Article 3, and reiterated in the draft negotiating text) to be met. While legitimate questions were raised by panelist Michael Bucki, EU REDD+ negotiator, on compelling reasons for donors to concern themselves with equity in results-based REDD+, RECOFTC takes the position that equity, particularly in forest-based mitigation solutions, is a prerequisite for the sustainability and effectiveness of interventions. As CIFOR’s Grace Wong argued, donors should incorporate equity if for no reason other than ethical imperatives.

Capacity development status and frameworks

The Non-Annex 1, or developing, countries are more than aware of their own capacity limitations. A 2014 Subsidiary Body for Implementation synthesis report on capacity-development implementation included self-identified capacity gaps such as lack of adequate policy frameworks, greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory strategies, national adaptation plans and technology action plans (TAPs), NAMAs and development of meteorological systems and models.

In 2001, the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties adopted two capacity development frameworks that address the needs, conditions and priorities of developing countries and of countries with economies in transition. These frameworks lay out a set of guiding principles and approaches to capacity development that has been widely advocated by Non-Annex 1 Parties and which RECOFTC also supports and expects to be included within the Paris climate agreement – namely, capacity development ought to be country-driven, involve learning through action and build on existing activities.

Capacity development in the new climate agreement

The Geneva negotiating text contains capacity development as one of its key substantive sections.  While options proposed for the text remain bracketed, all of the referenced options under capacity development institutional arrangements refer to the establishment of an international capacity development mechanism. RECOFTC lauds the attention and ambition that capacity development is generating in the draft climate agreement. However, words of caution are warranted. As mentioned above, existing national capacities may be considerably thinner than imagined as a starting point for some of the ambitious capacity development programs being envisioned. Balanced attention to national stakeholders is required; and not only attention to senior officials or grassroots communities alone, but towards entire stakeholder chains, including sub-national officials, other line agencies and the next generation of policymakers. Finally, for climate solutions to be sustainable, capacity development must be undertaken equitably. And, as CIFOR’s Maria Brockhaus noted in her presentation, there are significant differences in how equity is reflected in national and local-level discourses. More work needs to be done on developing context-based understanding of what equity and equitable capacity development will mean for countries involved in REDD+. Lofty principles of equity as laid out in the Convention ultimately need to be operationalized and made relevant on the ground.


To what extent has women’s rights to access and control over forest resources been recognized and addressed in forest policies and laws in Asia and the Pacific?

By Ratchada Arpornsilp, Country Program Coordination Officer, RECOFTC

Gender report coverInternational Women’s Day is 8 March. This year RECOFTC is launching the new report ‘Mainstreaming gender into forest policies in Asia and the Pacific’ which was developed as a part of the regional initiative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. It aims to shed light on how gender perspectives are being integrated or mainstreamed in the forest policies of eight countries – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The report and policy briefs for each of the eight countries included in the study are available at

While countries in Asia and the Pacific have made progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment, women’s participation and representation in forest management structures and decision-making process still have a way to go. RECOFTC’s new report asks: to what extent has women’s rights to access and control over forest resources been recognized and addressed in forest policies and laws?

All of the studied countries are signatory to key international instruments that promote women’s rights – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Fiji is the only country that has not signed UNDRIP. While a number of national efforts have been developed in each country, with regards to gender concerns in forest policies, the key findings from the report are as follows:

  • Cambodia – The Forestry Law provides a legal framework for the involvement of user-groups in forest management and protection but different needs, priorities, capacities and customary practices of women and men have not been recognized. Although the Sub-decree on Community Forestry (CF) Management encourages women’s participation in CF Management Committees, no specific quota is guaranteed.
  • Fiji – Inclusion of women in the Forest Decree and National Forest Policy Statement is unclear due to an absence of gender-specific guidelines to enhance women’s participation and representation in forestry.
  • Indonesia – The President Instruction in 2000 instructs all government agencies to mainstream gender throughout the development process of policies and programs. But it is far from being adopted in any specific forestry regulations or laws.
  • Nepal –Nepal commenced to acknowledge women’s inclusion in community forestry in its Master Plan for the Forest Sector, forest law and regulation. A Gender and Social Inclusion Strategy and associated monitoring framework were developed, following by an amendment of CF Guidelines which mandate the composition of 50% women represented in CF Users’ Groups executive committees.
  • The Philippines – The National forest strategy and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act are people-oriented and have recognized the rights of people living in forest lands, ensuring access to forest resources for forest-dependent communities, including women. The Community-based Forest Management strategy mandates 30% representation of women in its committees.
  • Sri Lanka – The Forest Sector Master Plan emphasizes the empowerment of people and rural communities to manage and protect forests for multiple uses, but has no specific recognition of gender differences. The Forest Department so far has no gender strategy to facilitate women’s inclusion in forestry planning and interventions.
  • Thailand – Recognition of women’s rights, participation and representation, as well as gender differences, in forest management and decision-making remains absent in laws governing forest protection and management. In implementing some of these laws, such as the National Parks Act, women’s subsistence and income generation are hindered with the denial of access to forest resources.
  • Viet Nam – The Law on Forest Protection and Development provides equal land rights to men and women and the National Forest Strategy acknowledges the need for promoting a gender focal point unit, gender-sensitive research and capacity development of forestry officials.

In general, the report considers Nepal and the Philippines to be relatively progressive. Nonetheless, all countries still face common challenges, including 1) lack of legal framework or implementation gaps if the laws have already incorporated gender considerations; 2) lack of evidence-based research on gender and gender-disaggregated data in forestry; 3) limited technical expertise and resource availability for effective implementation and advocacy; 4) imbalanced representation of gender in leadership and decision-making positions; 5) deep-rooted gendered norms and cultural prejudices that reinforce male domination in forestry activities.

These challenges seem to always be present and there is nothing new about them. The assessment simply unpacks and supports them with more evidence. It is time to implement some practical steps to move forward. Recommendations include:

  • Hold national and sub-national consultations and dialogues to discuss and keep abreast of the issues and gaps in existing policies and practices as well as facilitate multi-stakeholder exchanges and platforms for advocacy.
  • Knowledge generation and understanding on gender rights, roles and responsibilities among forestry officials and communities.
  • Gender working groups and women’s representation with clear functions and obligations to raise women’s leadership roles and participation in decision-making.
  • Gender-sensitive monitoring and evaluation systems to develop gender-disaggregated data necessary for policy planning and implementation.
  • Gender-responsive budgets that provide specific budget allocation for gender relevant activities.

It is important to note that gender mainstreaming is not an end in itself but a process toward gender equality. One small action from each of us can aggregately make a difference. RECOFTC strongly believes that women’s empowerment is a key component of sustainable forest management. Thus in collaboration with its partners, RECOFTC continues working to strengthen social and gender equity in all aspects of community forestry.

How China succeeded in addressing rural poverty through community forestry in Zhejiang province

On 2-8 December 2014, RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests hosted “Application of Community Forestry in Rural Forestry Reform: China’s Experience,” a community forestry champions network regional workshop held in Lin’an Zhejiang Province, China. Marlo D. Mendoza, Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Forestry and Forest Governance and Associate Dean of the College of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, reflects on the positive land tenure reform made in Lin’an.

I am very thankful that I was one of the participants in the RECOFTC’s workshop: “Application of Community Forestry in Rural Forestry Reform: China’s Experience.” Those working in the forestry sector are aware of the role that forest landscapes play in national development, especially in poverty reduction. Secure tenure rights and equitable access to resources by people living in and around forest areas play an essential role in addressing rural poverty, which in turn benefits sustainable forest management: rural poor will manage forests sustainably if their livelihoods are ensured.

And what I saw in Lin’an, China was exactly that: a successful working model based on the villagers having both tenure and access rights to their resource, as well as flexibility in how to use them. Through interviews with villagers, local government officials, members of farmers’ cooperatives and private business owners, I learned that the principles of FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure (VGGT) were vigorously pursued.

The Chinese government specifically instituted various policy and institutional reforms to help motivate the farmers to productively manage their land: land-use rights certificates, responsive extension services, livelihood support services, insurance coverage and  the securitization of land resource assets, among other key innovations. These reforms, moreover, were supported by the private sector, all branches and levels of government, particularly the local government, as well as all stakeholders involved. The forestry bureau was also redirected and retooled and its role was expanded to respond to the new land tenure policy conditions.

The positive outcome of the tenure reforms was amazing to see. The villagers’ ability to benefit from their resources was greatly enhanced by the possibility of raising loans based on the projected value of those resources. By receiving loans, the villagers can in turn improve the productivity of their resources by investing the loans into improving their resources. Prior to the land tenure reform, the state and village-owned lands were unproductive and degraded; but following the reforms, they were transformed into productive and profitable micro and small-scale agroforestry enterprises.

With the new wealth created by the rural population, the local economy significantly improved, creating jobs and allowing Lin’an to invest in other critical infrastructure and support services to encourage further investment in the community by the private sector. This, moreover, created further downstream opportunities and economic growth on a much larger scale: the establishment of several forest-based industries such as bamboo shoot processing, nut processing, furniture-making from wood and bamboo, and most notably, the China Roasted Nuts Food Mall, a multibillion yen, multi-use complex providing services to the growing Lin’an nut industry.

Secure tenure rights and equitable access to  forest resources supported by all branches and levels of government helped villagers make the most from their resources. Effective tenure governance reform should not only be limited to Lin’an, however. We should push such reform not only in my home country, the Philippines, but also across the Asia-Pacific region.

Why the private sector belongs at the table in climate change negotiations

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, argues that the private sector should be involved in international climate change negotiations. By partnering with local communities, the private sector has the ability to develop solutions not only to climate change challenges, but also to the economic and overall development of the world’s most marginalised communities in the process.

On 19 December, the Bangkok Post published “Time to take the power away from the polluters,” an op-ed piece written by Dorothy Grace Guerrero. In the piece, Ms. Guerrero argues that the private sector should not be involved in international climate change decision-making. This would be wrong.

Ms. Guerrero does, however, make a number of valid points. Ambition at the 20th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP20) held in Lima, Peru was disappointingly low; the resulting Lima Accord expresses “grave concern” over the likelihood that existing commitments will fail to keep temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, much less the preferred 1.5 degrees. This will further raise pressure and backload expected progress to the Paris COP21, the next United Nations climate change conference in December 2015.

There is, moreover, as Ms. Guerrero argues, a deep and worrying chasm between the wealthier developed countries and the developing countries where populations are disproportionately suffering the impacts of droughts, typhoons and sea level rise. Similarly worrying is the inequities within countries, where marginalized populations of indigenous, forest-based or otherwise poor communities heavily dependent on natural resources are now being affected by climate-related disasters and unpredictability.

Ms. Guerrero goes on to lament that the United Nations includes the private sector in discussions leading to agreements intended to mitigate climate change and help countries adapt to the current and future negative impacts:  “The UN process has sadly been captured by and largely subordinated to market mechanisms as supposed solutions to climate chaos.”

However, market mechanisms – the tools of the private sector – provide precisely the type of innovation and agility that is required to develop the responses needed to tackle climate change.

Already, there is a growing global push towards a ‘green economy’ that is low-carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive. Strategic public and private investments in developed and developing countries are being directed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, improve resource efficiency and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The private sector is essential to this push and can accelerate the necessary transition to a green economy by building on the synergies between green economy initiatives and climate change opportunities.

To put the issue in more specific terms, let’s consider the issue of forests, which are a key part of the global climate change equation given the role they play in mitigating global warming through sequestering carbon emissions. They are also an important part of helping local communities adapt to climate change impacts.

In order for forests to stay standing and continue to provide a rich and diverse habitat for biodiversity, there must be direct economic benefits for all concerned, particularly rural communities, the importance of which is underlined by the fact that in the Asia-Pacific region, over 450 million people are dependent on forests for their livelihoods. The private sector can play an increasingly important role in ensuring economic benefits for local communities by, for example, providing a market for these communities’ forest products, and help in assuring appropriate recognition of the rights of local communities in forest landscapes. Such private sector-local community partnership is growing as it is being encouraged by an international community which understands the potential the private sector has in sustainable development and poverty reduction. National governments are also encouraging such partnership, recognizing the valuable role the private sector can play in supporting sustainable rural development, including environmental stewardship, when the conditions for its engagement are appropriately designed.

Ms. Guerrero is correct in arguing that addressing climate change is urgent and related measures have thus far been insufficient. She is also correct in her claim that there are major equity and power differences between and within countries.

However, rather than seeing the private sector only as a threat, we should also see it as a critical part of the solution. It is through sustainable supply chain development by communities in partnership with private sector actors in an intelligent and strategic policy environment that we have the best chance of developing solutions not only to climate change challenges, but also, crucially, to the economic and overall development of the world’s most marginalized communities.

This piece was originally published by the Bangkok Post and has also been republished by The Jakarta Post.

The fifth IPCC report and local communities: Five reasons why we need to connect the dots

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, argues that while the latest IPCC report is groundbreaking in its strong call for global mitigation efforts, local communities can no longer be left out of international climate change negotiations because the negative impacts of climate change are affecting them more than any other stakeholder.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations panel of climate experts, has struck an unfamiliar tone of aggressive urgency with the recent release of its Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report. The report issued stark warnings in the face of minimal action on climate change mitigation to date. According to the report, reducing emissions is crucial if global warming is to be limited to 2˚C . Failure to do so, the report found, could – and already has even – lead to food and water shortages, flooding of islands and cities, mass extinctions of plants and animals and climate refugee crises.

Although the report’s unusually stark language brings hope in the lead up to the pivotal international climate negotiations in Paris next year, the report leaves out an essential stakeholder: local communities. These communities will not only be most negatively impacted by climate change, but are essential actors in the success (or failure) of climate change mitigation efforts. Here are five reasons why local communities must be taken off the sidelines of climate change discussions and placed front and center:

  1. Local communities have clout in virtue of their numbers. Mitigation action must be taken now. Governments, however, have been hesitant to do so due to fears that this will antagonize powerful interests (typically in the energy production or associated sectors) and erode this political base. However, at least in theory, governments are accountable to their constituencies, and popular pressure (even in non-democratic countries) can be a powerful factor in shaping policy decisions. Grassroots communities are beginning to be seriously concerned about climate change (few things are as compelling as firsthand experience with climate related adversity, whether crop failure, natural disasters or an increasingly untenable living environment). Mobilizing local people, despite their limited (disaggregated) economic clout, will create necessary political pressure due to their clout in numbers, and may well serve as a compelling counterbalance to powerful economic interests.
  1. Local communities are on the front lines in suffering adverse climate change impacts, while urban populations and policymakers tend to be removed from the day-to-day realities of shifting seasons affecting crops, increasing water scarcity, changes in biodiversity due to ecological transitions and a diversity of related natural disasters. Local people have the most at stake in decisions policymakers make now (or fail to make) in reducing emissions. From both a practical and an ethical perspective, it is imperative that local people be involved in the decisions that will affect their future livelihoods.
A community meets to discuss climate change adaptation responses

A community meets to discuss climate change adaptation responses

  1. Land use change is a major source of emissions. Taken together, forestry and agriculture (the leading driver of deforestation) currently make up around 30% of global emissions according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Local people, and the national policies and regulatory frameworks that relate to their land use and most critically, their livelihoods, are key to reducing these emissions. Sustainable forest management and sustainable harvest, use and sale of forest products within an integrated landscape level approach, is necessary to reduce deforestation due to conversion for agriculture and commercial purposes. To coin a phrase: if the forest pays, it stays.
  1. Reducing deforestation is one of the most promising options for mitigation. Local people residing in and around forests are both one of the greatest potential allies in leveraging this mitigation option or one of the greatest obstacles, potentially de-railing it if their needs, interests and rights are neglected. Moreover, there are concerns about the potential erosion of local community and indigenous rights as market-based approaches to REDD+ (Reduced Emissions through Deforestation and forest Degradation) – the most promising mechanism for land-use based climate change mitigation – take shape. In order to optimize and safeguard the important role of organized local communities as valid stakeholders in rural landscapes, they must be recognized and empowered as architects in REDD+ design, implementation and monitoring.
  1. Mitigation is only half the battle in responding to climate change. If we succeed in absolutely halting emissions , even as soon as tomorrow, there will continue to be global warming for years to come, which will require adaptation to an increasing range and intensity of climate change impacts. Local communities are the canaries in the coal mines, both in providing insights into the impacts that the rest of the world will eventually experience, and in drawing upon traditional knowledge in pioneering innovative ways toward adapting to the impacts. Thus, local level experiences and strategies in adapting to climate change will (and should) necessarily re-orient the climate change discourse from international levels to a focus on local levels.

When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to reporters at the release of the Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report in Copenhagen, he warned, “The science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message. Leaders must act now. Time is not on our side.” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists made the point even more strongly, saying that the IPCC climate experts have given policymakers a clear choice: “either put policies in place to achieve this essential shift, or… spend the rest of [your] careers dealing with climate disaster after climate disaster.” An essential part of this policy shift requires an urgent and genuine engagement with local communities globally as key partners, and support for this critical stakeholder group to play its much needed role in climate change decision-making.

This piece was also later published by Outreach, a multi-stakeholder publication on climate change and sustainable development produced by Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future.

Harvesting bamboo as a renewable energy source and improving livelihoods – a win-win solution for farmers in Lao PDR

Fabian Noeske, Technical Advisor for RECOFTC’s ForInfo Project, shares the project’s recent findings. He argues that connecting farmers in northern Lao PDR to markets in Thailand will not only help the farmers improve their livelihoods, but will also sustain biomass power plants finding the necessary supplies which have been hard to come by.

RECOFTC’s ForInfo project is testing the feasibility of harvesting bamboo to produce renewable energy; the findings have been largely positive, though not yet finalized. Bamboo must prove to be competitive with current prices of rice husk, which is currently the main source for biomass-based power generation in Thailand. But beyond the economic aspects, it is also important to consider the gains that could potentially be made: furthering a green economy while simultaneously improving local people’s livelihoods.

In Bokeo, Lao PDR, as in many northern Lao provinces, farmers are faced with an overabundance of bamboo caused by short cycle shifting cultivation. The problem: bamboo is a plant species that can cause two severe environmental issues. During dry season, bamboo sparks easily and fuels forest fires, which release stored carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. Moreover, as an early succession weed, it out-competes long-lived tree species which act as long-term carbon stocks that help mitigate climate change by storing carbon. Ridding potential forest land of invasive bamboo is on its own a dual-environmental gain.

Dead bamboo which fuels forest fires

Dead bamboo which fuels forest fires

But two additional gains – one environmental, one socio-economic – can be made if the harvested bamboo is then converted into chips and sold for biomass power generation.

Across the Mekong River from Houay Xai, there is a potential at least seasonal demand for bamboo chips at biomass power plants in replacement or in addition to rice husk and other biomass sources. Once a biomass power plant is in operation, a steady supply of biomass – ideally with a high calorific value – is required to sustain continuous electricity generation and efficient use of plant capacities. Growing shortages and price increases of available and suitable biomass resources in Thailand have led to several power plants closing down operations. What is thus needed now to sustain this high in demand supply of energy is a reliable and steady supply – possibly even in a mix of products – of renewable energy biomass resource. If local farmers are able to access this market, they would be able to greatly improve their financial resources; in doing so, they would also help create the basis for a green economy. Why not let the bamboo burn in a place where it could be to everybody’s benefit?

Workers prepare bamboo for chipping

Workers prepare bamboo for chipping

It is also important to note that this development would greatly diversify and improve the farmers’ existing income opportunities, as well as sustain the forests that the farmers use to access forest products for subsistence consumption. Connecting the farmers to a trans-boundary biomass supply chain would allow them to create a long-term sustainable source of income and greatly improve their livelihoods, while also helping restore forests to their full potential and help mitigate climate change in the process.

So far RECOFTC has only tested the feasibility of improving farmers’ role in the raw material supply and primary processing. An evolving cross-boundary supply will require further capacity development and private sector cooperation. Moreover, a strong commitment by governments, communities and the private sector is necessary to sustain existing and create new forest-based livelihood options in a transient landscape and region exposed to extremely quick and dynamic changes in agricultural economies dominated by powerful market actors to its north and south. It will thus also be important to find further higher value products and market opportunities for the abundant bamboo raw material while also addressing existing regulatory barriers restricting the utilization, processing and exportation of the resources.

About ForInfo

Since 2011, RECOFTC, with funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, has been working on the ForInfo project, which aims to provide local people with better access to markets for forest products and environmental services through clearer and more accurate information about their forest resources.

Read more about ForInfo here

Sustainable forestry enterprises will flourish if governments place greater trust in local people

At the 2014 IUFRO World Forestry Congress in Salt Lake City, Utah, Martin Greijmans, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, will present preliminary research findings that shed light on the factors that contribute toward a successful community forestry enterprise business model. Martin argues that one key factor is that governments must put greater trust in the abilities of local people.  

Enhancing local peoples’ livelihoods through community forest enterprises has been both promoted and obstructed by NGOs, civil societies and governments alike. Proponents support the notion that local people have the capacity to sustainably manage forests; opponents reject the notion.

Supporters of community forestry believe that allowing communities to develop their own forest management plans for food security and/or income generation will ensure sustainable practices as the communities depend on successful forest management in the long-term. These supporters argue that communities have the incentive to sustainably maintain forests to ensure their livelihoods; that is, letting forests degrade would ruin their future livelihoods, and that would go against self-interest. Opponents, however, stress that local people simply do not plan for the future and thus risk forest degradation.

These two opposing views both consider peoples’ ability. Supporters of forest management by local people trust community resilience and thus provide services to help strengthen local people’s resilience further by identifying communities’ needs through participatory methods. Opponents, on the other hand, develop strict regulations and introduce untested practices, which are foreign to forest users.

The latter approach is indeed tempting: governing authorities can make decisions from the top down without needing to adhere to the time-consuming approach of the participatory process, which includes local people in decision-making.

New research conducted by RECOFTC in the Asia and the Pacific region has shown, however, that sustainable practices are both inherent to community forestry enterprises and vital for communities to sustain and enhance their livelihoods. In other words, communities cannot allow forests to degrade if they want to even maintain their basic needs.

It is thus in the interest of governments to take the more challenging approach to forest management. Local people must be allowed to take part in decision-making, and their capacities will have to be developed.

If governments follow this approach, not only will their goal of sustainable forest management be satisfied, but local people’s livelihoods will be enhanced as well.

To read Martin’s working paper, “Fundamentals of viable community forestry business models,” click here.

Effective Safeguard Information Systems for REDD+ in ASEAN countries still a challenge

Dr.Chandra Silori, coordinator of the Grassroots Capacity Building for REDD+ in Asia, shares his reflections on REDD+ Safeguard Information Systems (SIS) and the way forward, based on his experience at an ASEAN pre-COP20  meeting in Jakarta, held last month in advance of COP20. Setting the sight on COP21, he asks whether ASEAN countries will get the support they need to develop effective SIS.

Although REDD+ has come a long way, ensuring effective social and environmental safeguards for REDD+ implementation is still a real challenge. Corruption and misappropriation of funds from REDD+; exclusion of customary rights holders due to lack of clarity surrounding tenure arrangements in many REDD+ countries; withholding of carbon and non-carbon benefits by the elite; exploitation of poor and forest-dependent communities by the REDD+ project proponents due to lack of awareness among such communities on REDD+; loss of biodiversity due to displacement of unsustainable forest management practices from high carbon; and low biodiversity areas are some of the essential challenges that must be overcome for REDD+ to be successful.

Last year’s COP 19 in Warsaw addressed these issues and established a framework to guide the development of national REDD+ Safeguards Information Systems (SIS) – a system for providing information on how safeguards are addressed and respected. The Warsaw COP also invited member parties to submit opinions, views and experiences on what information should be included in a country’s SIS for consideration by the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SABSTA) leading up to COP 20 this year.

In response to this, regional negotiators and civil society members held a pre-COP meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia last month. The meeting provided an opportunity for regional negotiators and civil society members to discuss the challenges of developing REDD+ SIS in their respective countries. Participants found that the capacities of ASEAN countries with regards to developing SIS varied significantly. For example, while Indonesia has made substantial progress, countries like Lao PDR and Myanmar are just beginning to build the capacities of key stakeholders in understanding REDD+ safeguards and the additional SIS. Clearly, we need to speed up the capacity development of the member countries in the ASEAN region with regards to REDD+ SIS. Moreover, issues regarding social and environmental safeguards of REDD+ are still ambiguous as different stakeholders have different perceptions on and understanding of safeguards and therefore different requirements in order to meet them; thus, SIS needs to be much more robust than simply a checklist of information.

It is time to scale up REDD+ awareness and capacity development initiatives in ASEAN and use them as a basis to take up more challenging tasks such as developing SIS based in countries’ existing legal, institutional and compliance frameworks. Moreover, since the implementation of social and environmental safeguards, and the distribution of related carbon and non-carbon benefits will affect the local communities the most, development of SIS needs to be a participatory process. This is also needed in order to strengthen recognition of local stakeholders’ rights and access to forest areas, a fundamental step for claiming for carbon and non-carbon benefits from REDD+. Research suggests that insecure access and tenure rights for forest-based people does not incentivize sustainable management of forest landscapes, and therefore may accelerate deforestation and forest degradation. Further, SIS development needs to be supported by raising awareness among the local level officials of forest and other like departments on the rights, roles and responsibilities of local communities with regards to REDD+.

As the global community gears up for COP 20 in Lima, Peru, and also focuses on the goal of achieving a new international climate change agreement during COP 21 in 2015 in Paris, the positive developments with regards to safeguards for the last couple of COPs need to be streamlined to support developing countries to develop SIS and the relevant capacity. We urge the UNFCCC to effectively address ASEAN’s needs.

In addition to the Joint Submission prepared by the ASEAN negotiators in response to the SBSTA call for further guidance on the types of information that national Safeguard Information Systems (SIS) should provide, RECOFTC has also drawn from the results of the Jakarta meeting in developing its own submission: “Community forestry and community-based forest landscape management: An important existing framework for safeguard information system design, implementation, monitoring and reporting.”

Forestry officials in Lao PDR take on new teak plantation management practices

Evan Gershkovich, Associate Communications Officer, provides an update on ForInfo activities in northern Lao PDR.

Houay Xai, Bokeo province, Lao PDR – In northern Lao PDR, RECOFTC’s ForInfo project is conducting trainings for local forestry officials. By introducing them to new technologies for better surveying practices of teak plantations, the project hopes to ultimately increase local peoples’ livelihoods.

“Our staff has really learned how to better conduct teak plantation management. We are sharing this knowledge with district authorities, and have even trained district staff on these new skills,” said Khame Phalakone, Director of Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office of Bokeo (PAFO), who has been working with RECOFTC since the introduction of the ForInfo project in 2011.

Before the project, PAFO staff would calculate teak plantation areas by the number of teak trees that were planted, essentially an estimate. That is, if 10,000 seedlings were given to a farmer in one year, for example, PAFO would record that it had planted a certain number of hectares of land that year. But 10 years later, PAFO would not be able to know if the 10 or 20 hectares all still contained teak trees – the farmer might have harvested the teak trees and planted rice instead.

Since, ForInfo project staff has supported the implementation of government-sponsored teak management certificates. The certificates give farmers temporary user-rights to their land for the duration of utilization, and ultimately, ForInfo intends the certificates to serve as loan collateral based on a plantation’s current market value and commercial volume for financial institutions so that farmers do not have to harvest their teaks before they reach commercially viable sizes.

“Before farmers had this certificate, they only had memory of their land – they didn’t know the volume of the trees they had because they didn’t do surveys,” said Mr. Phalakone. RECOFTC staff trained PAFO and the District Agriculture and Forestry Office of Bokeo (DAFO) in the use of tools like global positioning software (GPS) and open-source mapping software (QGIS), and have taught the staff how to conduct on-site plantation registration surveys, forest inventories, and issue plantation certificates.

The provincial and district officials are now better able to manage the teak plantations, the farmers who operate them, and the contractors who purchase the teak timber. In the process, the officials have also gained a much better understanding of the existing teak resources and the quality of teak available in the province.

“Improving the capacities of the local officials is essential for the success of ForInfo,” said Fabian Noeske, ForInfo’s Technical Advisor. “They are learning how to manage these methodologies on their own, making the future of the project sustainable.”

The improvement of the agriculture and forestry officials’ capacities will be essential in the coming years. Although establishment of new teak plantations has stagnated recently because of other land-use options, one of the main alternative options, rubber, has been on the decline. While rubber prices are falling rapidly, and its market deteriorating, global teak prices have been on a constant rise, and its use as timber is increasing in popularity.

“With improved teak management practices, smallholders in northern Lao PDR will be able to access the growing teak markets, and will gain increased financial diversification, as well as the security of long-term savings” said Mr. Noeske.

Through better management of teak resources, smallholders will be able to improve their financial future.

About ForInfo

Since 2011, RECOFTC, with funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, has been working on the ForInfo project, which aims to provide local people with better access to markets for forest products and environmental services through clearer and more accurate information about their forest resources. In Houay Xai, Bokeo province, Lao PDR, one of ForInfo’s 8 sites in 4 countries of the Lower Mekong region: Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam, ForInfo has been working to improve community livelihoods and create access to markets from teak cultivation based on sustainable forest management principles.

Stay Connected to ForInfo

Forests and Water: Unraveling the controversy and what it means to local communities in Asia

22 March is World Water Day 2014. To celebrate the day, RECOFTC is launching its new report Forests and water: A synthesis of the contemporary science and its relevance for community forestry in the Asia–Pacific region. The report aims to shed light on the relationships between forests and water in both temperate and tropical regions. However, it finds that there is a “popular narrative” that often runs counter to the consensus views of the forest hydrology scientific community.

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Program Officer with RECOFTC, reflects on some of the discussions and reactions that have ensued through the development of the report.


Photo credit: J. Broadhead, FAO 

Recently, I was thrown off balance. I learned that the brontosaurus never existed. The archetypal dinosaur of my elementary school books has since been found to be an imposter – a trick of science due to the mistaken (or fraudulent) assembly of skeletal remains belonging to entirely different dinosaur species more than a century ago. And yet, the impact of this knowledge reverberated a bit more sharply than would be justified by a simple correction of fact. How is it possible that this cornerstone of our imagined prehistoric world never existed?

A comparable disruption of commonly held belief has been occurring within my own sphere in community forestry.  The popular belief in question is that of the ‘sponge theory’ whereby forests have long been credited with ‘regulating’ hydrological systems – capturing water during rainy seasons and gradually releasing this throughout dry seasons. The sponge theory may well be supported in the very specific geo-physical context (namely the Swiss Alps) in which it originated, but is increasingly being seen to have less validity, if not downright detrimental land management implications, in regions such as humid tropics and sub tropics. Popular media and policy-makers throughout the region continue to embrace the sponge theory as a deeply held axiom and its resulting influence on public opinion has been profound. Propounded everywhere from school text books to newspaper headlines – forests, or the lack of them, have been associated with flooding, with the existence (or otherwise) of springs, and even local-level rainfall events. And these popular beliefs seem to be nowhere more closely held than by foresters themselves.

“Much folklore and many myths remain about the role of land use and its relation to hydrology, and these hinder rational decision-making. This is particularly true in relation to forestry, agroforestry and hydrology: claims by enthusiastic agroforesters and foresters are often not supportable. The perception that forests are always necessarily ‘good’ for the environment and water resources has, however, become so deeply ingrained in our collective psyches that it is usually accepted unthinkingly. The view is routinely reinforced by the media and is all-pervasive…” (Prof. Ian Calder, 2005)

 When RECOFTC decided to engage in issues related to water, for which a respected forester and hydrologist was tasked to produce a report on community forestry and implications for water management, Forests and water: A synthesis of the contemporary science and its relevance for community forestry in the Asia–Pacific region, few here were prepared for some of the results. As a community forestry capacity development organization, an exploration of community forestry and its presumed contributions to improved water regulation and access seemed innocuous as a topic.  And yet, it very quickly became a rabbit hole in which our epistemological machinery was suddenly laid bare with unsettling results. The pervasive sponge theory, not only may not be relevant to the geo-hydrology of this region, but may be the complete opposite of what good science suggests. Institutional consensus has led us to grudging agreement that there is a body of science that argues that forests, and particularly afforestation, may reduce ground and water flows (although this needs to be nuanced as dry season and total annual flows). However, this continues to be viewed as a one part of the evidence. The truth however, as pointed out in Gilmour’s report, is that barring several very specific and justified exceptions, there is no compelling scientific evidence contesting this.

The key findings of the report, simplified considerably, with relevance for community forestry and the regional forestry sector, are as follows:

  • Both natural and plantation forests managed by communities can produce hydrological benefits, but these are mainly locally specific, i.e., felt mainly on-site or nearby rather than far downstream. In absolute terms, hydrological benefits of forests are less than popularly believed.
  • Trees produce biomass by using water for growth processes. Generally, trees that are fast growing and produce a lot of biomass use a lot of water, thereby reducing both total annual as well as dry season flows.
  • Community forests in the Asia-Pacific region tend to commence in most cases with degraded lands that have lost their water storage capacity due to reduced infiltration rates. As forests are planted or restored, water yields can be expected to decline further and remain low for decades.
  • In small catchments and for small rainfall events, forests have a limited capacity to regulate stream flows. For large catchments and particularly for large rainfall events, forests have limited demonstrated capacity to regulate stream flows compared with other well-managed vegetation types. [1]
  • Increases in peak (flood) flow as a result of clearing forests are observable for small to medium size rainfall events in relatively small catchments. The major determinants of large scale flooding at all catchment scales are: rainfall amount and intensity, antecedent rainfall and catchment geomorphology—not vegetation type.
  • Community forests normally occur in a landscape mosaic of agricultural, grazing and forest land of different tenure—not all of it community managed. Management of community forests can contribute to these wider objectives, but the hydrological impacts of individual treatments at local levels will be diluted as the catchment size increases. 

What are we to take from this? The overarching lesson to be learned is the fallible and iterative nature of knowledge and the means by which we come to conclusions about the world. Related, is the often logic-defying strength of our conviction in certain axioms. It can be surprisingly difficult to wrestle beliefs out of the popular domain once embedded (in fact, science knew that the brontosaurus was wrong all the way back in 1971 – it has taken more than 30 years for this revision to gain ground in the popular imagination). For the field of community forestry, failing to conduct our work through employing the most current and rigorous science puts vulnerable communities and ecosystems at risk. If the sponge theory does not apply here, we have an obligation to consider alternatives and support communities in making the best land use management decisions on the basis of the best knowledge and models we have available.

[1] This effect can be enhanced with technical measures like check-dams and other water retention structures.

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