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.

Exploring Successful Co-Management of Protected Areas and Wetland Conservation

Kanchana Wiset captures the experiences of Bangladeshi delegates during a study tour on  successful co-management and wetland conservation practices in Thailand. 

For more information about our training courses, please click here

The delegates keep an eye out for wildlife.

Co-management and participatory approaches in natural resource management are frequently successful in finding solutions for all stakeholders, and examples from Thailand are an interesting case in point. Some of these experiences were shared with Bangladeshi delegates during a RECOFTC study tour held on 1 – 9 July 2012.

The tour on “Protected Area Co-management and Wetland Conservation Strategy in Thailand” was for 11 Bangladeshi delegates from the Integrated Protected Area Co-Management (IPAC), a project funded by USAID. The delegates were nominated by the four ministries of Environment and Forests, Fisheries and Livestock, Planning, and Finance.

The learning objectives of the program included:

  • Gaining knowledge of forest co-management and wetland conservation strategies in Thailand,
  • Understanding how multiple stakeholders manage protected areas and wetland sites through participatory processes,
  • And exploring how community based natural resource management works in Thailand in order to support sustainable livelihoods.

Walking through the forest of Kui Buri National Park.

The nine-day program covered four case studies and provided an opportunity to learn both through discussions and site visits by exploring. Delegates discussed their findings in groups, concluding with a discussion of lessons learned that can be applied and promoted in their home country.

“It was a very effective study tour. We learned many new things that we can use in our country.” – Mr. Md. Riaz Uddin (Assistant Chief, Agriculture, Water Resource and Rural Institution Division)

Day One introduced the delegates to two experts from the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning, of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, who discussed Thailand’s policies on climate change and wetland management. They learned concepts of co-management from a RECOFTC trainer and identified 13 basic principles for successful co-forest management.

The first site visited was Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province, where the co-management process has successfully mitigated conflict over resources – in this case between humans and wild elephants. The national park built awareness by engaging local people in principles of natural resource management, and by setting up a local eco-tourism group. Local people now make efforts to save wild elephants and like them to stay in the area.

Next, heading to the south, the delegates visited the first wetlands Ramsar Convention[1] site of Thale Noi Lake. Traveling by boat to get a close-up view of the wetland ecosystem, the delegates visited  several distinctive topological areas: swamp forest, Melaleuca forest, water bodies, moist evergreen forest and agricultural lands. The area is important for bird nesting and feeding. Local people depend on the lake’s resources for their livelihoods, with many engaged in fishing and tourism. Here the delegates also investigated examples of alternative livelihoods promotion. One example, organic farming, was introduced in order to reduce pressure on wetland resources.


The group took a boat to explore nature and biodiversity around Thale Noi Lake. They stopped at nesting places for domestic and migratory birds, as Thale Noi Lake has several Important Bird Areas (IBAs).

Moving to Trang Province, known for its strong participatory natural resources management, the delegates observed co-management at work in conserving the marine and coastal resources in Libong Sub district. Ta Libong Island is an important habitat for dugongs, a rare marine mammal, and many sea grass beds. The delegates learned of the success that the Traditional Fishermen Club of Trang Province has had in local management. Thanks to their efforts, local opinions and initiatives were considered in policy reform at both the provincial and sub-district levels, for instance the Tambol Administrative Organization of Libong – TAO Libong agreed to local requests by announcing the “the Regulation of TAO Libong on Conserving Dugongs in 2012.”

“This program is very useful to learn about 
co-management in marine and coastal resource management and wetlands & biodiversity conservation,” – Mr. Muhammad Muzahidul Islam (Senior Chemist, Department of Environment)

The group took a boat to explore nature and biodiversity around Thale Noi Lake. They stopped at nesting places for domestic and migratory birds, as Thale Noi Lake has several  Important Bird Areas (IBAs).The delegates met with relevant organizations working on coastal resources conservation and management with the local communities in the province to exchange experiences. These agencies provide support in a variety of ways, such as setting up volunteer groups; organizing awareness-building activities; defining community and sanctuary forest boundaries; arranging youth camps; organizing exhibitions; and promoting alternative livelihoods.


A local initiative called the “Crab Bank” helps to first conserve and then grow the crab population.

The last site visit was to the Ban Nam Rap community, where conservation and sustainable livelihoods are reflected in the community’s replacement of destructive fishing practices with more sustainable ones.  The delegation was shown many different schemes and systems for the co-management of resources: local regulations on coastal resource use; defining prohibited and banned fishing activities; setting up a mangrove community forest committee; establishing a volunteer patrolling group; promoting a crab bank; and providing marketing support and boat maintenance for fishermen.

At the end of program, the delegates reflected on the lessons learned from each site visit. Many found the program had clear objectives, appropriate content, and good case studies, all of which promoted their learning.

“It was a nice program, well organized and knowledgeable. I think now I can do better for management and conservation of our natural resources as well as for livelihoods developments.” – Mr. Mohammed Jahangir Alam (Upazila Fisheries Officer, Department of Fisheries)


 RECOFTC study tours are learning events that provide practical experiences and knowledge for participants, to enhance the concept of people and forests working together. The aims of RECOFTC’s study tours are to exchange different experiences, open wider views on community forestry to audiences, and to allow participants to attain the necessary capacity to apply lessons learned in their work. Learn more about our capacity building programs on our training website

[1] The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. For more information, please visithttp://www.ramsar.org.

Removing forest people not the solution to Thailand’s flood woes

A recent article in The Nation reports that “activists and experts” have called on the Thai government to “remove” as many as two million people from mountainous parts of the country in an effort to head off future natural disasters. The headline, however, distracts readers from the more nuanced message intended by these activist and expert groups.

“Govt called for moving 2m pp from mountain zones,” the headline reads; but this position was merely the “strongest” proposal put forward among more moderate options at a seminar titled “Headwater Forest Strategy and the Way to Prevent Flood and Drought,” held in Bangkok on 29 March.


Local Wisdom and Modern Science: Community-based Mangrove Restoration Research

RECOFTC supports Trat’s local knowledge center in combining the strengths of traditional and modern knowledge systems.

Photos and story by Estelle Srivijittakar

Rattika Pettongma, Supaporn Panwaree, Korakot Loisament, Loong Mongkol, Wasan Faotanom

Rattika Pettongma, Supaporn Panwaree, Korakot Loisament, Loong Mongkol, Wasan Faotanom

Pred Nai Village, Trat, Thailand: As many people look forward to the opening of Trat’s Community-based Learning Center (CbLC) on May 9th, 2012, a project funded by Norad and other donors through Mangroves for the Future (MFF), locals can say they’ve contributed to some of the center’s learning materials through their very own community-based mangrove restoration research project. The research, an activity under the CbLC, allows partners like RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests and Thai Fund Foundation (TFF) to work closely with communities in Trat to restore its mangroves and develop local practices for sustainable natural resource management.


Thai Experts Push for Forest and Land Tenure Policy Reforms

Attendees at RECOFTC’s first Policy Dialogue on Forest and Land Tenure Review and Reform agreed on the urgent need for policy reforms to ensure fair and sustainable management of shared natural resources.

Photos and story by Estelle Srivijittakar

Agencies and organizations present social, environmental and economic implications related to current policies

Agencies and organizations present social, environmental and economic implications related to current policies

Thailand is facing pressing challenges related to natural resources and climate change, and balancing national and local benefits of conservation activities along with coordination of local and government efforts are major priorities. These issues, discussed in last year’s National Seminar, were echoed in RECOFTC’s first Policy Dialogue on Forest and Land Tenure Review and Reform held in Bangkok from 20 – 22 March, 2012, which brought together representatives from government agencies, civil society, academia, and forest communities. Coinciding with World Forest Day and RECOFTC’s 25th Anniversary, the platform was an opportunity for a group of specialists in natural resource management and human rights to gather with community forestry networks in a ‘think tank,’ deliberating on cutting-edge issues, projects, and ideas for improved natural resource policies.


As the Thai government plans reforestation, local voices must be heard

By Lena Buell, RECOFTC Assistant Communications Officer

Waves approach the mangrove coast in Trat, Thailand, forests, climate change, disasters

Mangrove forests, like this one in Trat, Thailand, can help mitigate the impacts of severe weather events (Photo Credit: Estelle Srivijittakar)

In late February, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced the government would invest 3 billion baht in reforestation and preservation activities around the country, following an audience with His Royal Highness the King of Thailand in which His Majesty urged the government to focus on reforestation initiatives.


How a village and a National Park built a forest management system from the ashes of conflict

Sam Phak Nam villagers learn to co-exist successfully with a neighboring National Park through a training program to resolve conflicts and prevent exploitation of forest resources

Reporting by Xiang Ding

A monk serving breakfast

A monk serving breakfast

Sam Phak Nam, Thailand, June, 2011: “We want to foster a harmonious relationship between forest, temple, and community,” says the head priest of  Sam Phak Nam’s temple, sitting cross-legged in a traditional golden-yellow robe. I had come for a ritual breakfast prepared by the village women and served by their children to a group of 10 monks. Outside, the rising sun outlines the limestone mountains towering above plantation fields and trees. It’s hard not to feel at peace.


Small Palm Oil Plantations in Thailand Protect Environment but Need to Increase Productivity

Oil palm plantations in Thailand have been increasing at an average of 9% from 2001 to 2010. The fastest growing sector among vegetable oils, palm oil is in high demand in Asia where it is widely used in the food processing, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry – but most of all, as a bio-fuel. In Thailand, more than 120,000 farmers are involved in oil palm cultivation, mostly on small to medium sized farms. Small farmers owning less than 50 hectares manage approximately 70% of the 580,275 hectares planted with oil palm and account for a similar percentage of oil production.

A result of skyrocketing land prices, ceilings on land allocation, and the redistribution of both private and public land between 1975-2003 (3.7 m ha of public land was distributed to 1.5 million beneficiaries who received either freehold titles of user rights under the law), this small holder pattern has had a positive impact on several fronts. Indeed, a recent study Oil Palm Expansion in South East Asia: trends and implications for local communities and indigenous peoples, edited by Marcus Colchester and Sophie Chao, credits the small holder pattern with avoiding the serious social and environmental fallouts of large scale conversion of forestland in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thailand’s floods: Community forestry can respond to an uncertain climate future

Community forestry can meet both climate change adaptation and mitigation objectives, says RECOFTC Program Officer Jim Stephenson

Flooding in Ayutthaya

Flooding in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photo credit: People’s Daily Online

Bangkok, Thailand, 26 October 2011: For more than a month, the Northern and Central plains of Thailand have been devastated by the worst floods in half a century. Parts of Bangkok are now underwater as the government declares a national disaster, and residents are preparing for the worst.  All around Southeast Asia countries have been experiencing unusually strong storms and heavy rainfall with damaging consequences for both people and the economy, with the Thai government predicting a loss of at least 1% in GDP due to flooding this year. One thing is for sure: a changing climate will bring unpredictable challenges, and RECOFTC is working with communities to better understand and prepare for an uncertain climate future.


Benefits and drawbacks to protected areas in Thailand

Ms. Somying Soontornwong of RECOFTC’s Thailand Country Program

Ms. Somying Soontornwong

A series of recent studies led by Amherst College (USA) Professor Katherine Sims indicates that protected areas in rural Thailand have contributed to local economic development and lessened rates of poverty in surrounding areas. The studies indicate protected areas can contribute to local livelihoods through eco-tourism and infrastructure development as well as protection for environmental services that contribute to agricultural and forest crop productivity.

These findings strike a contrast with the popular conception that restrictions on land use and access in protected areas limit the economic potential and livelihoods options of local people. While warning against equating environmental protection as a tool for poverty alleviation, Professor Sims suggests that these findings indicate the resiliency and adaptability of local economies under the right conditions.

In a brief interview, Ms. Somying Soontornwong of RECOFTC’s Thailand Country Program shares her experience with protected areas and community livelihoods in Thailand, noting that while in some cases protected areas can improve community livelihoods, they can also place harsh restrictions on resource use and access to the detriment of local people. Clearly, the question of protected areas versus community land does not come with an easy answer.

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