Meeting ASEAN’s social forestry targets: How far have we come on meeting the ‘social’ dimensions of social forestry?

by Binod Chapagain and Tian Lin

Since 2012, RECOFTC and the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry conducted three studies that analyzed government data on the status of social forestry in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam. This blog explores the findings of the three studies to understand the social achievements of national social forestry targets.

Overall, the good news is that governments in the region have made much progress in increasing the number of hectares under social forestry. This means that now, more than ever, more forest area in Asia is managed by local people who possess official community forestry agreements. While this is good news, it’s important to understand what this means in terms of enhancing the well-being and livelihoods of local people.

Upon examining the data, we found a lack of information on the ‘social’ dimensions of social forestry on the national level. Social forestry, also known as community forestry (CF) or community-based forest (CBF) management, is defined in various ways. Principally, definitions of social forestry revolve around the bundle of rights (tenure) of local and indigenous people over forest resources [1]. RECOFTC, as the pioneer social forestry organization in the Asia and the Pacific region, defines it in a broad sense as “…all aspects, initiatives, sciences, policies, institutions and processes that are intended to increase the role of local people in governing and managing forest resources.” Community forestry includes but is not limited to the informal, customary managed land as well as formal, legally-recognized land in a forest landscape. This type of management is intended to provide social, economic and environmental benefits to primary rights holders.

While customary social forestry practices in the ASEAN region have roots in ancient times, formal social forestry has been practiced for the past 30 years. Overall, in terms of meeting national social forestry targets, most countries in the region have progressed at a slow pace. This pace must be accelerated in order to meet the targets countries have set for themselves [2]. The total target for the region is slightly over 20 million hectares [3]. Except for Viet Nam, none of the ASEAN countries have reached 50% of their target. Cambodia and Myanmar are still below 15% of their targets, whereas Thailand and the Philippines are close to reaching 50%. The goal for the Philippines was set for 2008, however, the government of the Philippines has yet to set a new end date. In the ASEAN region, only 10 million hectares (about 4%) of forests are under social forestry out of the total officially designated forest land of 245 million hectares [4]. The status of social forestry by country against the national targets is presented in Figure 1.

2017 Infographic_N_F_03

Figure 1: The status of social forestry by country against the national targets

Figure 2 shows the pace of change in the number of community forests over the last six years. Social forestry area in the region has grown by 3.4 million hectares in six years, between 2010 and 2016 [5]. On average, the growth of social forestry is slightly more than half a million hectares per year in the region.

2017 Infographic_N_F_02

Figure 2: The pace of change in the number of community forests over the last six years

Social forestry, by name, links people to the management of forest land. However, collection of data on land under community management is not systematic. Some countries, including Cambodia and Myanmar, keep records of the number of households involved in social forestry processes, but many other ASEAN countries do not have a system to record this information. RECOFTC has tracked families who are living in rural areas of ASEAN countries and found that about 312 million people, or about 54% of the total population, have close associations with forest resources for their livelihoods. However, the irony is that they have legitimate access to only 4% of the forest resources.

Furthermore, RECOFTC has projected the number of local families who are involved in CF through the use of indirect indicators [6]. Based on estimated figures, RECOFTC finds that that the total number of forest user group members have increased while per capita CF area has decreased. In RECOFTC focal countries, the area of CF has increased by 5.3%, whereas the number of families involved in CF has increased by 17% between 2013 and 2016 [7].

Although social forestry potentially can contribute multiple benefits to society, the pace for bringing these benefits about is slow. Moreover, existing data on social forestry only records forest cover in terms of hectares. The role of social forestry in terms of providing social and economic benefits to people — such as enhancing livelihoods and wellbeing of local communities – needs to be more systematically collected in all ASEAN countries.

RECOFTC studies have found that social forestry has been instrumental to empowering women and marginalized people to develop their leadership capacity. It has also provided employment to local people through the development of enterprises and contributed to their income through supply of timber and non-timber forest products and agro-forestry activities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these all have the ability to contribute to gender equity and reduce hunger and poverty. Furthermore, community-based forest management has helped increase forest areas in some countries, contributing to carbon sinks as well as climate change adaptation. These are also key areas of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Social forestry can demonstrate their contribution to SDG targets if ASEAN governments improve their record keeping and reporting on socio-economic aspects of forests. However, some preliminary analysis suggests that the social forest per capita has decreased over the period, and this may also reduce the possibilities of nurturing people and environment by the nature.

This blog is developed based on the findings presented in Social Forestry and Climate Change in the ASEAN region: Situational Analysis 2016. The report will be launched at the upcoming 7th ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry conference, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 12-14 June 2017.

For more information on the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change project, see:


[1] Greijmans et al. (2015). Building blocks for viable community forestry enterprises: Community Forestry Principles. RECOFTC, Bangkok, Thailand.

[2] RECOFTC (2017). Social forestry and climate change in the ASEAN region: Situational analysis 2016. RECOFTC, Bangkok, Thailand.

[3] The target year for Cambodia is 2029; Indonesia 2014; Myanmar 2030; The Philippines 2008; Thailand 2025; and Viet Nam 2020.

[4] This blog does not include the figures from Brunei Darussalam and Singapore as they do not have official social forestry program.

[5] RECOFTC (2017). Social forestry and climate change in the ASEAN region: Situational analysis 2016. RECOFTC, Bangkok, Thailand.

[6] The projection is made for Thailand, Indonesia and Viet Nam

[7] Data from internal RECOFTC records for Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Viet Nam, and Thailand.

Social Forestry, Again

Celeste Lacuna-Richman, Environmental Policy Lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF), discusses the importance of designing forestry programs that take into account the realities faced by communities on-the-ground.

Growing from Seed, by Celeste Lacuna-Richman

Growing from Seed, by Celeste Lacuna-Richman

In Finland, the forestry sector is so well-integrated into the larger society that the concept of “social forestry” seems to be superfluous.  Thus, for more than the decade that I have been teaching Social Forestry in the University of Eastern Finland (UEF), the focus has been on its practice in developing countries, particularly on the use of Community Forestry by the state in many of these countries to decentralize forest management.  One interesting observation from all these years of teaching is that students from most European nations take for granted that the forest laws in their countries have been enacted based on the conditions that occur in their particular country.  Students from Asia, Africa and Latin America tend not to make this assumption so easily.

The practical problems that poor households and communities face in trying to sustainably manage forests range from establishing land ownership and land use rights, to marketing forest products, and everything in between.  Despite this situation, and for the longest time, the language of forestry has been one of experts deciding what is important and local people having to conform to standards set elsewhere.  The requirements for local forest dwellers to conform to technical standards for sustainable forest management have, for the past decades, been amplified by an increase in international agendas to conserve forests to prevent biodiversity loss (CBD), mitigate climate change (REDD+), certify timber (FLEGT) and others.  Although these standards and agendas are important and indeed, necessary, they do ask a lot from forest dwellers in developing countries, usually the poorest (rural, non-owners of farm land), most marginalized (indigenous, new migrant, possibly disenfranchised) people on earth.  As usual, the problems lie in the implementation.

The challenge of simultaneously conserving the world’s forests while improving the livelihood of the people who depend most on these resources almost seems impossible to achieve, but it has been done.  Meeting this challenge lies in acknowledging, both in practice and in law, the rights of these people to these resources.  The failures of forest conservation and reforestation were blamed on top-down management in the past.  More recently, the problems of democratizing reforestation efforts have been given greater attention.  Perhaps the strategy which has been given the least attention is the place to start, and this is, the coordination of both “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to forest conservation and reforestation.  The ways this coordination can be done vary with each country that attempts it, but several developments make it more possible at present than it ever was.

First, information is more easily accessible today, partly because of the Web, partly because personal networks regarding forestry and in fact, almost any discipline, cut across vertical barriers now (of social status, academic standing, income groups) as they do through horizontal ones (of academic discipline, government, industry-affiliation and others).  Second, these personal networks are often built on existing communities that could support another objective such as reforestation, better than an organization or network newly-formed solely for such a purpose.  Third, paradigms have been tried, and have succeeded to some extent.  However, these are not feasibly transferred to a different context – something that every consultant tasked with implementing “best practices” to another area can probably attest to, or every migrant for that matter.  Finally, the weakness of the “top-down” approach, the cost, the jargon which obscures the facts, and the bureaucracy that delays practical solutions, are only matched by the boundaries and fragmentation of the “bottom-up” approach.

It is time to salvage what is useful from decades of forestry experience, and match it with the economic and political realities faced by the individuals and communities who are tasked with implementing forestry programs.  Simply, so that “social” forestry is synonymous with forestry in every place it is practiced.  Initiatives such as the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) to externally-initiated change in natural resource use, which was initially for indigenous communities, but now also can be utilized by non-indigenous forest communities, is one such move to bridge the gap.

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