Written by Regan Suzuki, Program Officer
The forestry sector is mid-stream in a fundamental transition, navigating the need to balance multiple priorities ranging from improving rural livelihoods, climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. Over the past few months, RECOFTC has immersed itself in a process of self-reflection. A series of in-house and external events and publications such as, “Community forestry in Asia and the Pacific: Pathway to inclusive development”, have focused a spotlight on questions of primary importance to an institution devoted to community forestry. These include the very definition of community forestry. Is it communal title over forest land? Is it the existence of a community forest management plan? Or can it be broad enough to include small holders with plantations? As markets, political systems and ecologies become more porous, so too do our conceptual definitions need to adapt and remain responsive.
RECOFTC has not restricted the conceptual grappling to its own corridors. In addition to the Third Regional Forum for People and Forests , which resulted in Community Forestry Action Plans to strengthen community forestry efforts among regional, national and community stakeholders, RECOFTC involved senior level government officials from Asia-Pacific working on community forestry in a week-long investigation of the merits, challenges and ultimately, future of community forestry in the region. The outcomes from the week-long Community Forestry Champions Network event were profound. The questions that guided the event were those overarching the sector. What key challenges face practitioners, policy makers and communities pursuing community forestry? What compelling arguments exist for community forestry, if any? And finally, fundamentally, is community forestry viable going forward? Involving 23 senior government officials and policy makers from countries ranging from Laos PDR and Myanmar to China and Papua New Guinea, there were clear differences in national legislative, cultural and economic contexts. And yet, the commonalities in responses were striking. Challenges to community forestry are numerous. Even some of the participating officials were initially not entirely convinced of its competitive advantages. However, after a week of openly considering these challenges and subsequently the benefits accruing from the involvement of local communities in managing forest landscapes, there was not a single ‘champion’ who did not consider that community forestry offered the best package of strategies and benefits to meet widely divergent needs and interests. Through a process of rigorous self critique, appreciation for the role for community forestry was strengthened.
In the end, there is no doubt that regulatory barriers need to be removed. More and better research is required to demonstrate the multiple benefits derived from community forestry at national levels. Local communities need to derive real and competitive livelihoods from forest landscapes and this may mean a greater acceptance of timber harvesting in community forests. A rights-based approach is fundamental and should underlie any conservation of carbon sequestration initiatives. However, despite these pressing demands on community forestry, there was seen to be no real challenge or alternative to the viability of community forestry going forward. As long as there are local communities living in forested landscapes and as long as proponents of community forestry are willing to be responsive, dynamic and adaptable, there is a real and legitimate rationale for the promotion and up-scaling of community forestry – and many would consider, moral imperative.
What do government officials responsible for implementing community forestry in the Asia-Pacific region think are the challenges to and arguments for community forestry in their countries? Watch RECOFTC’s ‘Community Forestry Champions Network’ video to find out.