"Governments in Southeast Asia are changing how they think about forests and the people who depend on them, and are increasingly open to discussing topics that until recently were considered ‘too sensitive’ ", says social scientist and natural resources expert Grace Wong.
The Malaysian researcher, based at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, says the growing openness to consider issues of social equity in the forestry sector is just one of the significant outcomes of a 10-year collaboration between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Switzerland.
The ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change (ASFCC) was formed in 2011 to help ASEAN and its Member States develop, reform and implement policies on ‘social forestry’, enabling communities to manage and benefit from local forest resources. By 2020, ASEAN countries had doubled the area under this form of community forestry.
Along the way, the ASFCC changed many minds.
Wong says, for example, that governments previously rejected the possibility that traditional shifting cultivation could have a role to play in sustainable forestry, instead outlawing the practice. But having seen and understood research on the topic, policymakers began to change their minds.
Wong, who led some of that research while working at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), says: “It moved from ‘We don’t want to hear about these guys. It’s all illegal’ to ‘Okay. There are lessons we can integrate and how we can make social forestry a more equitable process for different groups’.”
In this article, Wong and six other experts reflect on the progress the ASFCC made, and share thoughts on how to ensure social forestry can meet its true potential.
Big challenges the ASFCC tried to tackle
Southeast Asia experienced rapid deforestation in the past century, and many of its most important forests are today being rapidly degraded or cleared to make way for agriculture. But while this has brought economic gains for countries and big businesses, it has created conflict with local communities that depend on forests for their lives and livelihoods. Part of the problem is that forest communities often lack secure tenure and rights to use forest resources.
At the same time, forests have key roles to play in efforts to protect biodiversity and limit climate change. But sustainable forest management remains elusive, and governments lack the capacity to stop forest crimes and prevent forest degradation.
The ASFCC set out to help ASEAN and its Member States to address all these challenges by harnessing the potential of social forestry to create sustainable livelihoods, reduce poverty, improve food security and contribute to climate goals.
Social forestry is based on the idea that when communities are allowed to protect, manage and benefit from local forest resources, they will manage those resources sustainably. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Contexts vary within and among countries. Legal frameworks, forest types, agricultural systems, customary governance practices, knowledge, skills and resources all differ from place to place. This poses challenges to both national and regional policy processes that aim to promote social forestry.
To understand the achievements of the ASFCC and help shape future investments in social forestry, RECOFTC surveyed ASFCC stakeholders. More than 150 shared their ideas.
Making the case for social forestry
Suriyan Vichitlekarn was Senior Officer and later Head of the ASEAN Secretariat’s Food, Agriculture and Forestry Division from 2008 to 2013. He saw the early impacts of the ASFCC. He says that, before the ASFCC, there was no common understanding in ASEAN of what ‘social forestry’ is, how it contributes and how it relates to the ASEAN agenda.
“So, the first important point was creating common understanding and trying to put everything under one single roof, of course with understanding of national differences and contexts,” he says.
The ASFCC was designed to support the ASEAN Working Group of Social Forestry (AWG-SF), which gathers officials from ASEAN Member States to promote social forestry policies and practices. It did this through the work of five implementing partners: RECOFTC, the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the Non-Timber Forest Products-Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP) and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).
“ASEAN is good at setting policy but weak in implementation,” says Vichitlekarn. “To tap into the expertise of regional institutions and agencies, such as RECOFTC and so on, we recognized some collaborating partners and for the first time ASEAN policy implementation in the forestry sector was not confined only to public agencies.”
These groups did research, provided policy advice and training, funded pilot projects, organized learning exchanges, and supported deliberation among forest stakeholders from governments, civil society organizations, the private sector and communities.
“The ASFCC’s pilot projects and other activities have highlighted the importance and contribution of social forestry to rural and Indigenous Peoples, sustainable forest management and addressing the impacts of climate change,” says Vichitlekarn.
He also praises the structure of the ASFCC and its link with the AWG-SF, which enabled policymakers, researchers and civil society organizations to discuss issues related to the forest sector as never before.