Our support for ASEAN to adopt regional guidance on social forestry
How did it start?
In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the adoption of community forestry laws has varied over time. Some countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, have had community forestry legal frameworks in place for several decades. Others, including Lao PDR and Thailand, have adopted frameworks in the last few years. The levels of rights devolution to communities is also diverse in different countries.
To ensure legal frameworks are well-designed, it is important that they are based on the forest land use practices and knowledge that communities have developed over generations. Thus, legal frameworks should clarify certain aspects of community forestry, such as by clearly stating the rights and obligations of various stakeholders. Other aspects should be left to the specificities of each region or community. But which aspects? What exactly should be regulated?
Not much research was available on the topic. So, together with colleagues, we set out to discover commonalities and differences of various legal frameworks in order to try and identify the main components of ‘good laws for community forestry’.
We looked into the laws and regulations of various countries in the world. Then we carried out a deep dive analysis of the community forestry legal frameworks of Nepal, the Philippines and Tanzania, where formal community forestry regimes have long been in operation. This included all relevant legal texts regulating forest, land and other natural resources, as well as commercial activities, governance and others. The research resulted in the publication of the report Communities at the heart of forest management: How can the law make a difference? in 2019 by ClientEarth. The report highlights ten key principles that form the basis of an enabling legal framework.
I shared the results of this research during a regional workshop in November 2019 where the representatives of the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry (AWG-SF) reflected on how to use legal reforms to improve their community forestry laws. It was very encouraging to see the representatives enthusiastic about the framework we presented, and using it to identify areas that could be improved within their legal and institutional frameworks.
How were the Guiding principles developed?
Following up on this, RECOFTC and ClientEarth continued to collaborate to support the efforts of the Southeast Asian countries to develop new laws on community forestry. No regional guidelines or standards existed on what enabling laws on community forestry could look like. We embarked on a journey in September 2021 to support the AWG-SF to develop these guidelines.
After agreeing on the methodology of work, we conducted a series of technical meetings to review each of the ten principles. It was an enriching process, as AWG-SF representatives presented their own legal frameworks, and shared their successes and challenges in implementation while relating these to the principles. Each principle was then further refined based on the experiences shared and the discussions.
About ten months later, this resulted in a set of guiding principles agreed by all the AWG-SF representatives and ready to be shared. The ASEAN Guiding principles on effective social forestry legal frameworks were then endorsed at the 25th ASEAN Senior Officials on Forestry meeting in July 2022, and at the 44th ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry meeting in October.
What are the main takeaways on the process?
Supporting the development of the regional guiding principles was a rewarding experience that enabled a lot of cross-learning. These are my main takeaways on the process:
The leadership and role played by the ASEAN Secretariat, by coordinating with Member States and allowing the space to delve into the technical aspects of social forestry, was invaluable. The excellent working relationship developed between RECOFTC and ASEAN over the years, including through the ASEAN Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change project, also contributed to the success.
The complementarity of expertise brought by various experts, in particular the AWG-SF representatives, made the reflections richly interactive. Some experts have been implementing community forestry initiatives for a decade or more, helping ensure that our work was grounded in deep knowledge and hands-on experience.
Supporting the development of regional standards takes time. Being able to use, test, and refine an existing well-designed framework sped up the process. The work carried out and presented by ClientEarth, including visual aids/diagrams, was a further support.
The process was developed to be participatory, ensuring buy-in of the final product, as well as alignment between the guiding principles and the current targets and initiatives in the region.
What is next?
We have started to disseminate the Guiding principles, including through a launch event on 26 January 2023. Next, we are looking to organize national-level dissemination events or sessions for policymakers, civil society organizations, and other key stakeholders to increase awareness and further explore how the principles can be used.
Depending on countries’ interests and contexts, the principles may be used to assess, develop or improve community forestry laws and programmes. For example, RECOFTC has used the principles to carry out an assessment of the 2019 Thailand Community Forestry Act. The principles can also be used when planning public consultations with stakeholders. More broadly, they can contribute to countries reaching their climate, biodiversity and poverty-related targets.
RECOFTC is exploring the use of the ASEAN guiding principles in ongoing initiatives in Viet Nam and other countries. Effective use will require technical and financial support from stakeholders and partners, and strong collaboration. We are looking forward to hearing about initiatives that may support this work at global, national and local levels.