RECOFTC
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Study examines forest loss in Mekong region

Karen Mo, Asia Times
A new paper published by The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), the University of British Columbia, and WWF shows that forest degradation in the Greater Mekong region may find solutions in forest governance.
Perspectives

Dramatic forest degradation and loss in the Greater Mekong region have both their causes and potential solutions rooted in forest governance, according to a recent publication by researchers from the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), the University of British Columbia, and WWF. (The full publication can be found here.)

The authors found that while there are bright spots in existing forest policies and legislation, countries in the Greater Mekong have a long way to go in implementing them and reversing the trends of deforestation and forest degradation.

The existing laws and policies in these countries give reason to hope because they are generally supportive of forest protection and sustainable resource use. There is a need to work together more closely, not just between governments but also engaging and empowering non-state actors every step of the way, to ensure that these laws are being implemented and enforced to protect forests, as well as the communities and wildlife that call them home.

Although the focus of the study was on perceptions within the different countries regarding national governance, the importance of taking a regional approach was also emphasized, especially in regards to the transboundary issue of illegal logging and timber trade.

Forested area in the Greater Mekong decreased by 5.1% from 1990 to 2015, and although it is now increasing in Laos and Vietnam, all countries in the region are still consistently losing primary forest and facing forest degradation from agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, mining operations, forest fires, and civil conflict.

The report is a quantitative and qualitative assessment of the perceptions of national and local stakeholders on the state of forest governance in the region. The five countries – Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand – were assessed based on three criteria: policy, legal, and institutional framework; planning and decision-making processes; and implementation, enforcement and compliance. While there are reasons to be optimistic about the first criterion for all five countries, the subsequent two exemplified the main challenges including the lack of transparency in decision-making and implementation at the local level.

Participants in the assessment – spanning across government agencies, civil society, news media, and rural communities – were generally concerned about the overall forest governance. Those in Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam considered their state of forest governance “weak with definite problems,” while Cambodia’s stakeholders rated theirs as “failing.” Only Laos received a “fair, with room for improvement” evaluation.

Although the focus of the study was on perceptions within the different countries regarding national governance, the importance of taking a regional approach was also emphasized, especially in regards to the transboundary issue of illegal logging and timber trade.

While Thailand and Vietnam are considered major hubs for trade in illegally sourced timber – with one-fifth of Vietnam’s timber imports suspected of coming from illegal sources – Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar are also sources for the illegal trade. This is especially important as Vietnam has recently concluded negotiations with the European Union to ensure that illegal logs will not be exported from Vietnam to the EU.

“Forest governance is a sensitive and complex issue in the Greater Mekong, and one of the most promising solutions we see for directly improving forest governance at the local level is strengthening the ability of community groups, with the support of civil society and news media, to advocate for themselves,” said David Gritten, senior program officer at RECOFTC and the lead author of the report.

“This report is part of the Voices for Mekong Forests Project, which works towards this goal. It’s also important to recognize that the public making informed decisions when they buy wood and forest products can go a long way to tackle illegal timber trade.”

The report identified solutions such as developing a forest-governance monitoring system to help address the limited access to forest-governance information by civil-society organizations, news media and government officials. The report also recommended setting up a capacity development program for these actors to support efforts to strengthen forest governance.

The authors suggested that consumers can have a role in protecting forests in the Greater Mekong. They found that each country was suffering from a lack of consumer awareness about unsustainable forest practices and products that may contribute to them. More public information and awareness are needed to connect products that consumers are buying with the sustainability and legality – or lack thereof – in their forest supply chains.