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					Community Forestry and the Stewardship of Tropical Forests in Asia

Wil de Jong

Mark Poffenberger, editor
Keepers of the Forest: Land Management Alternatives in Southeast Asia
West Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A. / Kumarian Press / 1990

M. Victor, C. Lang, and Jeff Bornemeier, editors
Community Forestry at a Crossroads: Reflections and Future Directions in the
Development of Community Forestry
Bangkok / RECOFTC Report No. 16 / 1998

Char Miller, editor
“Forest History in Asia”
Special Issue of Environmental History 6 (2) 2001
Available online at

Christopher Barr and Ida Aju Pradnja Resosudarmo
Decentralizaiton of Forest Administration in Indonesia: Implications for Forest
Sustainability, Community Livelihoods, and Economic Development
Bogor, Indonesia / CIFOR Occasional Paper / Forthcoming

At the recently concluded World Summit on Sustainable Development, President Thabo
Mbeki of South Africa called for an end to global apartheid between rich and poor. He
pointed to the fact that 1.2 billion people live in grinding poverty and some 800 million
are undernourished, while rich countries spend about USD 1 billion per day subsidizing
agriculture. This subsidized agriculture prevents poor countries from accessing markets
with products they can supply. Mbeki accused the rich countries of maintaining a “savage
principle of survival of the fittest.” In this world, in which power flows from control over
productive resources, poor nations need to identify leverage points to use in negotiations
with the rich. Home to a diverse range of environments, poor countries do have
environmental assets. These are the tropical forests and rich marine resources, mangroves
and mountains that are abundant locally, but scarce globally, as pointed out by
contributor Jin Sato in Community Forestry at a Crossroads. These are assets that poor
countries, in theory, could use to bargain for a bigger share of global wealth.

But to be able to use natural resources in this way, they must be kept in good condition.
There has been a wide-ranging debate over the last three decades over who should hold
stewardship—rights and responsibilities—over Asia’s tropical forests. Stewardship
includes responsibility for the well-being of the forests, but also the right to benefit from
their resources. On one side is the call for forest stewardship by rural communities living
in or near the forest; on the other are those who are sceptical of its feasibility. In this
essay I will review how the debate evolved and sketch out some of the contesting
positions. My arguments will remain inconclusive, because the debate itself is ongoing.
Nevertheless, I will identify some important issues that need to be put on the community
forestry agenda over the years to come. Admittedly, my conclusions are personal and not
without bias or the flavor of advocacy. However, I am joining a large group of writers on
this issue who complement factual arguments with opinion.

The promise of community forestry

A number of events brought the issue of stewardship of tropical forests to the forefront of
the international development and conservation debate. The period from the end of World
War II through the 1980s was a period of emergency and the wide adoption of
International Development Assistance. The Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 created
the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and
Development (now called the World Bank). The United Nations and its crucial UN
Development Program (UNDP) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) were
established, as was the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research
(supporter of my own organization, CIFOR—the Center for International Forestry
Research). These all reflect an international concern for a more equitable development of
economic wealth among nations and among their inhabitants. In the 1970s an
environmental component was integrated into the development discourse when the Club
of Rome and later the Brundtland Report (1987) questioned the impact of the planned
economic growth on natural resources and the environment. Soon this debate shifted to a
worldwide concern about tropical forests and the detrimental impact their destruction
might have on the world’s climate, biodiversity, downstream environments, and the like.

Thereafter, the potential of trees and forests to improve incomes and livelihoods of large
segments of the rural poor became prominent in the rural development debate. This led to
the establishment of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) and
CIFOR. Since the 1980s the idea of communal stewardship over tropical forests has come
to the forefront. Many became concerned about the destructive impact of corporate
exploitation of tropical forests, which was generally backed up by colluding forestry
departments. It seemed to make sense to put local communities in charge of tropical
forests. It was expected that this would contribute to the non-destructive use of those
forests and at the same time give the new stewards the opportunity to improve their lives.
The concept of community forestry was born.
Community forestry has strong advocates among the NGOs that operate on the local level
supporting recognition of the rights of tribal groups. These have been instrumental in
achieving actual control by some communities over tropical forests, as related in David
Edmunds’ and Eva Wollenberg’s “Historical Perspectives on Forest Policy Change in
Asia.” (This article is the introduction to “Forest History in Asia,” the special issue of
Environmental History. EH is an interdisciplinary quarterly portraying human
interactions with the natural world from the perspectives of history, geography,
anthropology, the natural sciences, and many other disciplines.)

FAO now has a separate Community Forestry program. Both the current and previous
director of my own organization have stated to the media their profound believe in the
need to widely transfer forest custodianship to local communities. But the concept has an
equal number of detractors. All the works discussed here suggest that forestry officials
are usually sceptical. Essentially, they do not believe local communities to be capable of
managing forests the way forestry officials want them managed. Often, too, the private
interests of forestry officials are threatened when control is transferred to local

The roots of community forestry

Community forestry advocates point out that local groups living in remote corners of
countries like Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and India have been managing forests
for centuries. Quite a few researchers, myself included, have supported this argument by
documenting long-term local forest management practices among largely self-contained
communities. Several of the contributors to these volumes have looked back even further.
EH provides examples of successful communal practices that existed before colonial
times. The same accounts portray a history of denial of such local practices by forestry
departments. In most cases this led to dispossession of communal forests. Stories are
provided from India, the Philippines, China, and Nepal in EH and from Indonesia and
Thailand in the volume edited by Mark Poffenberger, Keepers of the Forest. The stories
follow a similar pattern everywhere. Until the late nineteenth century, colonial powers in
Asia had little control over large stretches of forests. But interest surged in the colonies’
rich forest resources as markets demanded new products and metropolitan governments
demanded higher revenues from their dependencies. The colonial powers (and Thailand)
then set up forestry departments following a western, mostly German-based, approach to
forestry. Local communities, their interests, and their experience in maintaining the forest
as a productive resource to meet daily needs were almost totally ignored. A long period
of widespread conflict followed between officialdom and local communities over access,
control, use-rights, and ownership of forests stripped from communities after centuries of

The colonial powers eventually returned home, but essentially no change occurred under
postcolonial states. The newly independent regimes embraced modernism, especially in
their treatment of valuable forest reserves. Very soon, in country after country, the private
interests of the power elite became the guiding principle of forestry policies and practice.
It should be noted that in addition to centuries of maintaining these productive resources,
people in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and India had originally planted much of the
forest that they considered their own. But state agencies claimed control over them and
largely ignored demands by native inhabitants (now citizens). The picture is generally
bleak, though Ramachandra Guha in EH points to progressive thinkers, including some
amongst the colonial rulers, throughout history. Unfortunately, according to Edmunds
and Wollenberg, they had minimal influence at their time.

Community forestry and the winds of political change

The trend toward increased local stewardship over forests is not an isolated phenomenon.
It coincides with a worldwide search for more effective governance, which has often led
to decentralization, wherein regional and local governments get stronger mandates and
authority to run affairs within their jurisdiction. For instance, the Philippines, Indonesia,
and Thailand have enacted laws since the 1990s to devolve important parts of central
government authority to lower level government. The effect of decentralization on
custodianship over forests, however, is not entirely clear. In Community Forestry at a
Crossroads, contributor Maria Victoria M. Sabban provides some evidence of its impact
on community forestry in the Philippines. Progressive legislation gave increased
authority to lower levels of government, which has resulted in increased administrative
demand on communal groups that hold stewardship over forests. Although this is partly a
result of trying to incorporate communal forest control into state administration, lower
level authorities have also drafted new guidelines for communal forest management
because they are reluctant to relinquish control over forest areas. This has become much
more obvious in Indonesia, as illustrated in Christopher Barr’s and Ida Aju Pradnja
Resosudarmo’s Decentralization of Forest Administration in Indonesia. Along with
authority, decentralisation since the late 1990s has given district governments the
responsibility of generating much more of their own revenues. In forest rich districts,
governments promote oil palm plantations and logging, both legal and illegal, to generate
that revenue. The process of political reform in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto has, in
fact, created legal opportunities for small communal forest concessions, something
unthinkable under the previous regime. These communal logging concessions are a sad
story. The process is led by opportunistic village elites in collusion with outside timber
traders. The result has been a progressive destruction of Indonesia’s remaining forests on
a scale not seen in the previous era of corporate logging.

What hope for communal stewardship of Asia’s tropical forests

Although these examples suggest little hope for communal stewardship of Asia’s tropical
forests, several of the volumes do relate positive cases. In the Philippines, for example,
Saban notes that by 1997 almost 3 million hectares of forestland in more than 600 sites
nationwide were under recognised community control. The state of West Bengal has
passed through stages of blame, negotiation, and true collaboration in a process leading to
genuine communal stewardship of forests, or Joint Forest Management, according to
Edmunds and Wollenberg. There has also been formal recognition of age-old forest
production systems on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Despite these successes,
however, Edmunds and Wollenberg note slow progress toward increased local
stewardship in most places. There are quite a few reasons why they believe this is the
case. It should be recognized, first of all, that fairly successful local forest management
has been disturbed by years of central control. Furthermore, forest officials continue to be
reluctant to give up control, even if official discourse favors the transfer of mandate and
authority to local communities. This is because they generally do not believe in the
capacity of communities to take care of the nation’s natural treasures and frequently do
not want to give up lucrative sources of income. Often, therefore, control has been
transferred over low quality or degraded forests only, not the healthy resource-rich
forests. As a result, communities have been given a responsibility and burden, not an
asset that contributes significantly to their well-being. The problem, however, most
certainly does not lie within forestry departments and governments alone. Communities
often lack the technical, institutional, and organizational skills to take up these
responsibilities. And very often, transferring control to local communities just reinstates
the power base of local elites.

An agenda for community forestry in the years to come

To conclude, it may be useful to identify a possible agenda for community forestry over
the coming years. The authors of the four volumes do point out that local communities
have yet to receive true authority to take care of forests within their own territory. And
handing over authority has to be considered in conjunction with two other trends. First,
that forests are of increasing value to a larger number of constituencies. And second, that
Asia’s tropical forests are being increasingly degraded, which may limit even the interest
of local communities in taking responsibility for them. There is, therefore, a great need to
invest in the restoration of tropical forests that have been seriously degraded, an effort in
which local communities could play an important role.
Formerly, forest departments, on behalf of colonial and postcolonial governments,
contested the capture of forest benefits with local communities. Today tropical forests are
valuable to many more stakeholder groups. They are valuable to people worldwide for
the biodiversity they hold, the carbon they store, and the climate they regulate. Within
each nation, demands on forests have increased as well. The national middle class in a
country like Thailand may expect national forest resources to be dedicated predominately
to their interests. Pinkaew Luangaramsi, in Community Forestry at a Crossroads, tells us
that this sentiment actually led to protests against a community forest bill in 1996 that
middle class groups feared would jeopardise their access to forests for recreational

Edmunds and Wollenberg argue that the new demands of wider groups of stakeholders
will require more complicated negotiations over which rights direct users of forests hold
and which they must relinquish to outside stakeholders. Although much of the literature
on community forestry calls for transferring property rights to local communities, in
years to come these claims need to be specified in more detail in order to reach agreement
between all interested parties. It is probable that community forestry will increasingly
take the form of co-management, rather than absolute control by communities alone. This
will demand more capacity on the part of the local users, who will need to understand
different demands, negotiate sets of rights and responsibilities, and implement

The next question is: How attractive will stewardship be over degraded or poor quality
forests? While communal control over forest areas is progressing, if slowly, it goes hand
in hand with a progressive decline in the quality of forests. When communities are simply
given back forests with little value left, it is not likely to be successful as a means of
improving the condition of the forest and the livelihood of the people. There must be
incentives for communities to assume stewardship over such forests.

This leads to the question of the role of local communities in the restoration of forests. It
is increasingly evident that governments and international agencies will want to invest in
restoring forests that have been degraded by logging, fire, or other causes. These are the
forests that may be targeted to become community forestry areas. Therefore, agreements
will need to be made between local communities and outside parties regarding the
compensation local communities will receive.

In sum, although slow progress has been made in transferring stewardship over Asia’s
tropical forests to local communities, the issue is still very much alive. The debate and
action agenda of community forestry has passed through the initial period of launching
the idea to the next stage of forging interest among governments, forestry departments,
and other key players. Focus now needs to be trained on the opportunities and constraints
existing within the communities who will become responsible for much of what remains
of Asia’s tropical forests. The struggle over the next years will shift from who should
control forests to how communal stewardship can become feasible and attractive to
communities while meeting the demands of other constituencies. This will require
intensified negotiation over rights and responsibilities, more investment in capacity-
building within state forestry agencies and local communities, and new ways to
determine compensation for the restoration and preservation of forests that provide
national and global environmental services.

Wil de Jong is a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor,
Indonesia. He can be reached at