Green growth in Myanmar: an emerging democracy’s vision for future development

“Change is coming to Myanmar — the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma — at a rapid pace. With a burgeoning influx of outside interests looking to tap into Myanmar’s newly accessible resource wealth, the government faces some challenging choices: how to achieve its stated objective of green growth, while balancing the needs of foreign investors, preserving the environment and maintaining rural development.” –  Aaron Russell, of CIFOR, reflects on Myanmar’s aspirations for ‘Green Growth’, following his attendance at the Green Economy Green Growth Forum organized by GEGG Myanmar Association on November 14, 2012 at the Myanmar International Convention Center. Click here to read more of what Aaron has to say.

RECOFTC  was one of the participants in the forum, and Dr. Tint Lwin Thaung held a well attended parallel session on ‘Forests and People for Sustainability and Equity’ for the forum.

What should Community Forests mean to Obama?

In the midst of President Obama’s much anticipated visit to Southeast Asia, RECOFTC Communications Officer Ann Jyothis describes how community forestry could align with and fulfill many of the objectives that the US has outlined for its potentially growing involvement in the region.

President Barack Obama walks with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

President of the United States Barack Obama walks with Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Image taken from The Nation, http://www.nationmultimedia.com.

As expected the media flurry of political and economic analysis of the Obama administration’s rising interest in Southeast Asia is raising speculation about the “true agenda” of his visit to Thailand, Myanmar and the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia this week. How will an emerging Myanmar, set to be the chair of ASEAN next year, affect the geopolitics of the region? What will be the economic and social impacts of ASEAN’s free trade zone proposal? These are a few of the important questions raised by many in and around the region. But here, we ask a relatively simple question: What could community forestry mean to Obama’s view of possibilities, in this region?

Essentially this question would arise from a more nuanced dialogue on climate change adaptation and mitigation. Given the current global outlook on the climate, it is pertinent to ask whether the US administration will raise climate issues in its discussions with Southeast Asian leaders this week, since, in reality, the scope of US foreign policy and trade interests are critical to the future of several forests and forest communities in the region.

In fact, almost every issue that Obama is expected to discuss during his visit is strongly connected to the forests of Southeast Asia, specifically, increased trade partnerships, energy and security cooperation, human rights and job creation.

The State of the World’s Forests report from 2012 emphasizes the historical connection between forest, markets and the expectation of higher living standards. Forests have always had a key role to play in trade, beginning with long timber for shipbuilding which enabled global trade, to guitars from Gibson Guitar Corp., which violated the US Lacey Act by purchasing and importing illegally harvested wood materials into the United States from Madagascar and India. Community Forestry is based on this connection between forests, markets and people; it embraces a sustainable livelihood system that enables caring for the forest as a livelihood production system rather than a finite resource base for windfall commercial gains.

Although the enforcement of laws such as the Lacey Act demonstrates the willingness of US lawmakers to take illegal wildlife trade and deforestation seriously, it has largely overlooked the human rights aspect of environmental degradation. The link between local people’s rights, natural resource management, and climate change adaptation and mitigation is widely missing in dialogues on climate. This brings us back to the question: What could Community Forestry mean to Obama?

The ASEAN region is endowed with rich natural resources and a strategic location providing economic advantages for international shipping and foreign trade. According to a report published by RECOFTC – The Centre for People and Forests and ASEAN Social Forestry Network (2010), millions of people across ASEAN countries depend, directly or indirectly, on a range of economic, environmental, and socio-cultural services derived from forests. With 49% forest cover in the region (FAO 2010), forest-based industries contribute significantly to economic growth, providing employment, raw materials, and export revenues. These natural resources play an important role in the economic and socio-cultural sustenance of the over 50% of the ASEAN region’s population who live in rural areas (FAO 2010). In effect, any trade and energy policies in this region must take into account that local communities and indigenous peoples view their assets and culture as an integral part of resource management (RECOFTC 2010). Disregard for this will lead to and has led to conflict over natural resources, especially land tenure.

Issues intrinsic to biodiversity conservation, deforestation and climate change are addressed within the scope of community forestry, which is a decentralized and democratic process, enabling a sustainable relationship between forests and the needs of human beings. Community Forestry can play a significant role in supporting economic stability while ensuring that local people’s rights and share of benefits are protected and strengthened. At a deeper level community forestry offers a reinforcement of governance processes in countries where democratic institutions are young or fragile. Over the past decade, several ASEAN countries, including Cambodia, have begun to realize the importance of giving land tenure to people and forests.  As a result, some ASEAN governments have begun to officially recognize the role of local people in managing their forest resources.

Community forestry is symbolic of a people based approach to poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability. As the US agenda for Southeast Asia unfolds, it is hoped that initiatives such as community forestry are given due significance in regional policies and agreements that will have an impact on climate change adaptation and mitigation, and human rights in the region.

Scoping a Path for Community Forestry in Myanmar

Ronnakorn Triraganon found an enthusiastic response from a cross-section of stakeholders at a two day roundtable meeting in Naypyidaw. 

One of the local leaders who wanted to have community forests directly serve their village's needs.

One of the local leaders who wanted to have community forests directly serve their village’s needs.

A key challenge facing Myanmar as it opens up to outside development aid and trade is the careful management of its abundant natural resources and forests. It has the opportunity to put some sound environmental and community forestry policies in place, before the negative impacts of unplanned growth lead to irreversible losses. Building the country’s capacity to manage its forests equitably while protecting them and using them as a sustainable natural resource is a big task, but one which begins with small steps. RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests has been operating in Myanmar to support community forestry development since 2011.

On 13 – 14 August 2012, the Planning and Statistics Department and the Forest Department under the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry of Myanmar together with RECOFTC, jointly organized the First National Community Forestry Roundtable Meeting with key actors in community forestry. Supported by the Royal Norwegian Government through the Norwegian Embassy in Thailand, the aim of this meeting was to identify, consolidate and prioritize recommendations made in previous Community Forestry events so government agencies and civil society could explore potential opportunities for its development.

Though only a few tree species can grow in dry zone area, local ones have been protected for village use.

Though only a few tree species can grow in dry zone area, local ones have been protected for village use.

Altogether there were 39 like-minded people from the Planning and Statistics Department, Forest Department, Dry Zone Greening Department, University of Forestry, and representatives from civil society who wanted to make community forestry in Myanmar more progressive. At the roundtable meeting, participants gave priority to six main interventions that could support community forestry development. They include the development of a community forestry law, establishment of a community forestry government unit, a capacity building and research program for government and non-government personnel, establishment of a national working group, and a neutral platform for practitioners. Brief ideas and plans for making each intervention viable were discussed. Participants from both government and civil society were happy to share their commitments and contributions to support these interventions. They appreciated the roundtable as a good start for bringing practitioners from government, academic institutes, and civil society together, and supported the idea of holding such meetings regularly.

RECOFTC gained great support from the Ministery of Environmental Conservation and Forestry

RECOFTC gained great support from the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry.

In a follow up, the Forest Department of the Forest Research Institute together with RECOFTC, conducted a Community Forestry Action Research Formulation Meeting for research teams from different line agencies and representatives from civil society. The event was supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) through the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change (ASFCC). The meeting was set against a backdrop of efforts by the Government to promote community participation in forest management, however it requires some research to overcome barriers to improving community forestry in the country, as well as embracing the opportunities available.

The meeting aimed to help participants understand the fundamentals of action research and how participatory action research fits with community forestry; create a framework for developing a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project or undertakings related to community forestry, and finally to design an action research plan to address key issues in forest management and community forestry.

There were 30 participants from the Planning and Statistics Department, Forest Department, Dry Zone Greening Department, University of Forestry and representatives from NGOs gathered together in the Nyaung Oo Township Dry Zone Greening Office, Mandalay Division. Participants had an opportunity to use basic tools to formulate the research framework and try it out in real community forestry settings. At the end of the meeting, participants identified key research topics and developed analytical frameworks within which they will need to conduct participatory action research in the next 12 months.

This action research will be conducted by the Forest Research Institute with partners such as they University of Forestry under funding through the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change. The research topics included:

  1. How existing land tenure and rights affect the development of CF in Myanmar.
  2. Socio-economic potential of community forestry (including non-certified community forests) in Myanmar.
  3. Review of the processes for community forestry establishment (i.e. communities getting certificates for their forests).
People in Nyaung Gyi Village use palm leaves as a fuel source.

People in Nyaung Gyi Village use palm leaves as a fuel source.

At the meeting, participants agreed that there is a big need to improve the research capacity for community forestry development. Most are familiar with Scientific Forestry Technical research, but less so with social and participatory action research. RECOFTC will provide more technical and coaching support to the research team as they conduct their PAR for CF in the next 12 months.

For more information on our capacity building program in Myanmar please contact ronnakorn@recoftc.org.

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