By The Nation, Reuters
More than 450 million people in the region rely on forests for income and food, but forest dwellers often struggle to make a living as rural poverty, deforestation and climate change threaten their livelihoods.
"If we truly want to sustain Asia’s forests, we need to address inequality and poverty by investing in people living in the forests," said Tint Lwin Thaung, executive director of RECOFTC (the Regional Community Forestry Training Centre for Asia and the Pacific), an international not-for-profit organisation that promotes community forestry.
The Asia-Pacific region’s forests, which account for almost 20 per cent of the world’s forested area, play a big role in fighting climate change because of trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide.
Studies have shown that strengthening community forest rights can cut CO2 emissions by reducing deforestation, and improve forest health.
Trevor Abrahams, secretary-general of the World Forestry Congress, said Asia had a unique opportunity to ensure that its forests were managed in a more sustainable way, as attention focuses on global leaders’ adoption of new development goals next month.
"But the question is not just how do we manage forests in a sustainable way, but how do we make sure that the people living in them are at the centre of decision-making," Abrahams said.
Last month, people from forest communities in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Nepal came together in Bangkok last month to discuss forest issues that are priorities for them and to prepare for the upcoming "XIV World Forestry Congress".
The congress, the largest and most significant gathering of the world’s forestry sector, is to take place in Durban, South Africa, next month.
"If you want your country to be green, you need to invest in local communities," said Krirk Meemungkit, a Thai forest farm smallholder.
"I make my livelihood from a sustainable forest plantation, and I’m using my knowledge to benefit other local people so they can also develop sustainable forest plantations, and in turn they are teaching other local people how to do this," he said.
Theya Chaw, an indigenous-community member from Pein Nei Kone, a remote area of Myanmar, travelled for more than seven days to reach the meeting in Bangkok.
She said: "Local people can and want to protect forests, especially because climate change is already making our lives more difficult. But to do this effectively we need resources."
At the meeting, participants identified four priority areas, from local perspectives, that decision-makers must invest in for forests to be managed sustainably:
l Participatory processes for policy and enabling regulatory framework development;
l Formalising tenure rights and the establishment of community forests;
l Funds and resources for community forest implementation, and livelihoods/enterprise development;
l Capacity development for leadership empowerment, information access and network advocacy.
Under the four areas, solutions and best practices were identified, along with specific actions and investments needed to scale these up – to be shared and influence |forest decision-makers on the global level at the World Forestry Congress.
At the end of the meeting, the participants elected four people to represent them on the at the upcoming congress in South Africa.
They are Em Sophoan, Chros-Svay Community Forestry, Cambodia; Krirk Meemungkit, smallholder, Sa Kaew province, Thailand, Theya Chaw, indigenous representative, Myanmar; and Hoang Thi Chuyen, member of the Women’s Union of Vietnam.
"When we have the capacity, |we can do anything," said Em Sophoan, manager of a sustainable bamboo enterprise in Chros-Svay Community Forestry.
Amid growing recognition that the people who live in forests are their most effective protectors, Asian governments have been earmarking an increasing amount of land for community forestry.
In 2013, 8.8 million hectares of forestland was managed by local people through community agreements or forest titles in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, an increase of about one-third since 2010, according to a RECOFTC survey. But this is still only 3.5 per cent of total forestland in Asean, RECOFTC said, noting that no data were available for Laos and Malaysia.
The most notable expansions of locally managed land were in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In tambon Mae Tha, Chiang Mai province, forest communities have established a self-governing system and worked together to improve land management, deal with drought and address conflict arising from illegal logging.
As a result, Mae Tha has become Thailand’s first and only community to be awarded land-tenure rights for 30 years for more than 1,000 hectares of forestland, according to RECOFTC.
"We can save our forests by putting the whole community at the heart of development and focusing investment on the people," said Kanoksak Daungkaewroen, a local leader from Mae Tha who has worked at educating communities about their rights.
Although more community forest agreements have been signed, progress in handing the land over to local people has been very slow, said Thaung.
Less than 10 per cent of forestland covered by such agreements has actually been transferred to communities in Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, according to RECOFTC.
Thaung said inadequate legal frameworks, the complexities of land allocation and overly bureaucratic procedures contributed to the problem.
Progress in community forestry is also being hampered by governments’ allocation to it of poor-quality forestland, which reduces local people’s chances of making a living out of it, he said.