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.

Why REDD+ needs local communities, not the other way around

A commentary by Regan Suzuki, program officer at RECOFTC

Focusing on isolated islands of community forestry as entry points for REDD+ is not the answer. But we need to beware throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather than dismissing community forestry due to legitimate concerns of leakagethe answer is to look for ecologically acceptable strategies that meet the multiple, and sometimes competing, needs of local stakeholders.  RECOFTC calls for an acceleration of the devolution of management rights of land and natural resources to local communities.

The recent series of Go-REDD articles for discussion by UN-REDD Asia Pacific on the topic of community forestry: REDD+ and Community Forestry, revisited (October)”  and particularly, “Pondering the Role of Community Forestry in REDD+ (September),” raise a number of legitimate challenges associated with the design and implementation of REDD+ in community forestry sites.

Serious discussions of the overlapping frameworks for community forestry and REDD+ are timely. As the Bluffstone et al. article referred to in the September Go-REDD article points out, the extent of collective forest management has more than doubled in the preceding 15 years (granted, the starting point for area under recognized community title is low). In addition to its expanding role as a recognized forest management approach, community forestry is being seriously considered as a potential modality for the implementation of REDD+ projects and activities. UN-REDD notes this both in the October Go-REDD article, as well as in its policy brief on benefit sharing approaches for REDD+ which presents Participatory Forest Management (including Community Forest Management) as one of three likely approaches for REDD+ along with Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and Forest Concession Management. While there is much to recommend community forestry as a suitable approach to REDD+, there is a thicket of difficult issues that surround the marrying of these objectives. Not least, are the arguments mounted on either side of REDD+ debates, either that REDD+ has the potential to strengthen the equity claimed by community forestry, or conversely, to tip the delicate balance away from the rights and interests of local communities.

There are several important omissions, however, that warrant discussion. First, is a clear understanding of what is meant by ‘community forestry.’ In its very first sentence the September Go-REDD article refers to forests under the management of communities and individual households, the subsequent sentence inferring that these are the constituents of community forestry. This is not interchangeable with the definition of Community Controlled Forests (CCF) used in the Bluffstone et al article, which refers to it as a specific form of common property management – an intermediary between public and private forest tenure rights. Nor does it reflect the ‘small c’ community forestry as described in RECOFTC’s strategic plan, which takes a broader view referring to a large range of local management options of forests including: “all aspects, initiatives, sciences, policies, institutions, and processes that are intended to increase the role of local people in governing and managing forest resources.” This ranges from management of sacred sites to small-scale forest-based enterprises, forestry outgrower schemes and company-community partnerships. Community forestry, in its more contemporary, flexible interpretation, encompasses the multitude of sustainable interactions local communities have at the interface with forest landscapes.

Associated with the concerns of fair compensation of local communities raised by the Go-REDD article, are higher-level questions of equity on national and international scales. Legitimate concerns continue to be voiced by civil society and others that REDD+ and even community forestry in some state-controlled contexts, pose restrictions on forest use that in combination with community level labor inputs and foregone opportunity costs, far outweigh benefits attained and rather instrumentally serve state agendas. REDD+ risks bolstering such agendas and offloading to local communities the burden of meeting national conservation goals, sweetened with prospective incentives, under a cloak of ‘empowerment’. Certainly, this is not the case in community forestry contexts broadly where genuine rights and benefits such as those pointed to in the October Go-REDD blog, are well documented., However the restrictions imposed by REDD+ on forest exploitation may be a move in the direction of meeting national and international conservation and mitigation objectives at the cost of real rights at local levels. To take this point on macro level equity further, carbon offsetting to allow continued emissions and energy inefficient development trajectories in developed countries may come directly at the expense of local communities in developing countries. Enhancing forests and afforesting for carbon sequestration goals requires higher consumption of water than other land uses, and where there may be growing threats of climate-related water and food security, these global mitigation goals may come into direct conflict with adaptation and the basic needs of local communities. As articulated in the joint RECOFTC – Global Alliance for Community Forestry submission to the UNFCCC in 2009, REDD+ can and must be additional to basic approaches of sustainable forest management (SFM) with decision-making and benefits devolved to local communities; not the reverse. This may be the most pragmatic ‘safeguard’ to ensuring both social and environmental objectives through REDD+.

The concluding statement in the September Go-REDD article is misleading: “This is not to say, that the idea of linking community forestry with REDD+ should be abandoned. Rather it means, that focusing on community forests while neglecting key drivers of deforestation and forest degradation may hinder the effectiveness of REDD+ activities. Nobody wants to see that happen.” The message could be misinterpreted to imply that community engagement is instrumental to the successful implementation of REDD+ activities. Rather we understand that the intended point is that targeting isolated community forestry sites as entry points for REDD+ miss the forest for the trees:  real and tangible reductions in forest-based emissions nationally depend on closing the leakage loop. Misguided focus on islands of community forestry will lead to leakage and displacement similar to what has been seen in Oddar Meanchey. RECOFTC’s position is that in order to avoid this, the answer is precisely to accelerate the handover of forest lands to local communities – whether it is for ‘big C’ community forestry or for decentralized management by smallholders. While this may lead to more production oriented forest management strategies in some cases and even forest conversion in others, the strengthened rights and livelihood options of local communities is vital to the long-term equitable and sustainable management of forests in the region.  Focusing on REDD+ while neglecting community (or local level) rights over forests may threaten the most vulnerable communities, and ultimately the global commons. This would be an outcome that nobody wants to see happen.

Climate change adaptation and mitigation: harnessing local capacities

Durban, South Africa, 5 December, 2011: Storms and typhoons are battering the community of Da Loc in coastal Vietnam on an increasingly frequent and intense basis. In 2005, Typhoon Damrey forced some 330,000 evacuees from their homes in Vietnam alone, with regional damages resulting at US$1.2 billion.

Almost seven years later Da Loc commune continues to suffer the impacts of the saltwater Damrey swept several kilometers inland, destroying rice fields and seeping into fresh water wells.  In the wake of this disaster one thing was clear: those areas that had been buffered by mangrove forests were left relatively unscathed. Those that did not continue to experience the repercussions.


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