They are pioneers of community forestry: Officials who spent years strengthening lives and landscapes throughout Southeast Asia. Now these officials reflect on the importance of their early learning with RECOFTC.
Stuck in an office far from the forests, Vong Sopanha was frustrated. Talented, ambitious and one of the first women in Cambodia to hold a forestry science degree, Vong was keen to make a difference.
But Cambodia’s civil war was still simmering in the early 1990s, and only male forestry officials were allowed into the forests to work with local communities.
“I liked nature and I wanted to work outdoors where I could meet different people and learn ideas from different people,” Vong says about her desire to work in forestry. “But at the time, there was fighting still going on, and they thought it was too dangerous. There were mines in there.”
When an opportunity came in 1993 to take part in a course in neighbouring Thailand, Vong seized her chance.
The course, run by RECOFTC, taught community forestry, then a relatively new concept in the region. An international non-profit organization, RECOFTC helps countries and communities achieve sustainable development and climate change goals by strengthening community forestry. In RECOFTC’s workshops and seminars officials from throughout Southeast Asia learn how to empower local and often marginalized communities to manage and conserve the forests and wetlands they depend on to survive and thrive.
Learn about Vong's experience
“In Cambodia there are forests everywhere, in every province. This was my chance to go all over the country and meet communities, talk to them, help them, and say ‘I come from the government side, I want to know what you need’.”
The four-month course was tough for Vong, who had only just started learning English. But determination, hard work and help from a Malaysian classmate, who spoke fluent English, paid off. She gained a deep understanding of the need for communities to not only conserve forests but generate income from them in a sustainable way to strengthen their livelihoods.
“I remember one lecturer from the United States” she says. “He taught us about the business of community forestry, the need to understand markets and investing to improve livelihoods. This subject has stayed with me."
Women part of the solution
Vong and her classmates were among the earliest graduates of the course, which RECOFTC has been conducting, along with many other courses, for more than three decades. The courses mix theory, analysis of regional issues and field work to gather local perspectives. Constantly updated, RECOFTC’s courses continue to strengthen the capacity of officials at a time when the region’s forests are under immense pressure from population growth, rapid development and climate change.
Almost 30 years later, Vong is now the most senior woman in Cambodia’s Forestry Administration. A deputy director general, she continues to work on building community forestry in her country, especially encouraging more women to become involved in local management.
Women often collect food from forests for their households and for sale, among many other duties. Men carry out more physical activities such as patrolling and harvesting trees for house building. But women’s unique skills and knowledge, including deep knowledge of biodiversity, are often overlooked, leaving them sidelined from forest management planning and implementation.
Training workshops to build women’s confidence and skills in forest management are important but so too is recognizing the gender inequalities and understanding the crucial roles women can play, Sopanha says.
“The male leaders make the decisions about their communities. They need to understand the benefits of including women in their plans because women are one of the main users of forests.”
“I say to them ‘if you list the activities that need to be done, there are so many that women can manage,’” says Vong, who is developing a national gender strategy, with assistance from RECOFTC’s team in Cambodia. “It’s not just about protection or cracking down on illegal logging.”
Vong, right, stands with other WAVES champions at the opening of the WAVES project in March 2019. WAVES is building gender leaders across the Asia-Pacific to change the discourse and practice around gender and forestry.
Many of the early alumni from the 1990s, such as Vong, returned home from RECOFTC training with an ambition to drive community forestry forward. They saw community forestry as a solution for safeguarding forests and helping communities overcome poverty.
RECOFTC’s alumni transferred their new knowledge to colleagues, developed networks and set up pilot projects with local people. Others built units, some formal and others informal, within their ministries to change policy towards collaborative management of forests and away from sole state control.
More than 60,000 officials and others have taken RECOFTC’s courses. They have influenced legislation and other reforms to improve forest tenure and livelihood security of local people. With 5.3 million people now participating in community forestry in more than 15 million hectares across the region, RECOFTC’s trainings are more relevant than ever.
Strong rules and regulations
Another early alumni, Lao Sethaphal, said changing policy in those early days meant spreading the word about the benefits of what was a little known concept, not only to more senior, sometimes sceptical, officials, but to communities as well.
Cambodia’s forests were falling dramatically in the 1990s to timber companies and illegal logging, and the government needed a solution. Lao, then a young official who had completed several courses at RECOFTC, and his team, were given the green light by the government to develop rules and regulations within a legal framework on how community forestry would work.
“I thought this an opportunity for local people,” he says. “They can get the right to manage and use their forest. They can make decisions about how to protect the forest and how to use it.”
Cambodia’s government held consultations with communities, civil society and other stakeholders to develop a national policy. It reviewed the findings and in 2003 issued a sub-decree recognizing community forestry as a national policy, following a change in the forestry law. Three years later, it introduced guidelines for identifying, legalizing and managing a forest by communities.
“There were so many consultations with everyone. They told us: ‘we want this, we want to change that’. We tried to include all of this. It took years.”
Lao then began training villagers living near forests. Today, several hundred communities have formal agreements with the government to manage areas of forests from which they can draw and strengthen their livelihoods.
Members of Chombok Hos in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Province patrol their community forests, which is located on the outskirts of the Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary.
Lao, now a deputy director general in Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, has since moved into law enforcement. He works closely with communities to halt illegal logging which is still a major problem in Cambodia. Here too, he says, his RECOFTC skills have proved invaluable.
“Now I go into the villages to conduct training courses on law enforcement, not community forestry. But I’m always thinking about my RECOFTC training; how to engage the people, the importance of participation and cooperation; how to build a rapport with communities.”
“I learned from RECOFTC the importance of understanding the local people and the ways to do it.”
Research key to success
For Kim Sarin, a senior official in Cambodia’s environment ministry, RECOFTC’s courses instilled the importance of research as an enabler of change. Over the years, Kim developed other skills from RECOFTC’s courses that enabled him to assess the different needs of communities that rely on forests and use appropriate indicators to measure the success of interventions to help them.
“I really believe in the research because in order to convince people, you need to have the evidence,” says Kim, who works closely with villagers to help increase their income. “The research is the evidence or the proof you need, whether you are talking to a community or a government decision maker. I still remember these important trainings.”
Learn about Kim's experience
Fresh from a RECOFTC course in the late 1990s, Kim started working with villages in southern Kampot Province, where a forest area had become so badly degraded from unsustainable practices that soil erosion was damaging nearby rice fields. The community began working with government representatives to develop a plan to protect and regrow the forest near their villages to reduce the erosion and increase crop yields.
In return for conservation work, the community was able to collect bamboo shoots and other products from inside the restored forest, including firewood, to enhance their incomes. The project was such a success that in 2009 the villagers won an award in the nation’s capital.
“They shared their experience with other farmers and communities, and technical officials,” he says. “The project worked to change the minds of people. They could see the benefits of allowing the community to protect their landscape.”
Not all projects are so successful, however, and some, despite advances in Cambodia, are undermined by weak governance, while lack of skills on how to manage forests sometimes holds back communities.
"Community participation is the pathway forward for forestry." Kim Sarin
Training is crucial, along with building networks among communities and officials to share information and knowledge and collaborate, says Kim. He is optimistic current challenges can be overcome and that community participation “is the pathway forward for forestry”.
He pulls out his phone with photos of smiling foreigners on an eco-tourism adventure run by locals in Kampong Speu province. He started supporting villagers on the enterprise in 1998, initially with a feasibility study. Over the years, the six villages have worked together to build the venture, agreeing how much income should be allocated to each household, and how much for conservation and for patrolling the forest.
“There are sometimes conflicts among the villagers over the money. And there are other issues like encroachment on the land. But we keep working with them, learning by doing, facilitating meetings, so that we can come up with a solution.”
Conflict a challenge
Forest conflict is a constant challenge in Southeast Asia, where state systems of forest management, such as conservation of national parks, and concessions for palm oil plantations, logging and mining, often exclude the interests of local communities.
RECOFTC’s courses help officials mitigate disputes by providing tools and strategies to promote discussion and collaboration with all stakeholders. Ricky Alisky Martin, one of the first Malaysian forestry officials to graduate from RECOFTC’s first course on community forestry in 1988, said he quickly realised that participatory management was often the key to reducing conflict.
Over the years, he and other forestry officers have developed many participatory initiatives to resolve conflicts in the state of Sabah where indigenous and other communities rely on forests and their biodiversity.
After returning from his training course in Bangkok, Martin, then a junior official, played a leading role in restoring an important watershed in Kelawat Forest Reserve that had been cleared and burned by a group of villagers from other districts for agriculture. He took part in village meetings where finally an agreement was reached between villagers and the government to zone about 200 hectares of forest into separate conservation, agroforestry and housing areas, with the villagers jointly managing the zones.
“I had never heard of joint forest management before I went to RECOFTC,” Martin said of the project. With the joint forest management plan the community planted rubber, timber and fruit trees to stabilize the soil, improve the watershed and strengthen their livelihoods. In the conservation zone, they were required to protect the forest but allowed to to cut bamboo for household use.
“Before there were no butterflies, no grasshoppers, no wild boars, but in less than a decade, they have come back to the area.”
Martin recalls setting up Sabah’s first community forestry committee in 2000. It meets several times a year to resolve conflicts between villagers and forestry officials in Deramakot Forest Reserve. In one area embroiled in conflict, village leaders agreed to help manage and protect the nearby forest, while Deramakot forestry officials agreed to pipe water from a forest stream into their homes, provide training on forest fire safety, pay villagers to plant and maintain trees and other social forestry initiatives.
“From RECOFTC, I learned that good communication among all parties must be available,” he said.
Community forestry, known as social forestry in Malaysia, has strengthened, and is now a national strategy with a 10-year action plan developed recently. Martin, now head of the Social Forestry Section within the Sustainable Forest Management Division, Sabah Forestry Department, said conflicts are still a major challenge, especially among villagers, plantation owners and authorities. But he believes there is a stronger understanding of how social forestry can be a solution.
"We need social forestry in Sabah as a stabilizer or harmonizer for the conflicts that we have."
Ricky Alisky Martin
“There are still a lot of poor farming people in the state of Sabah,” said Martin. “Their populations are increasing, but state land available for farming is decreasing. Pressures on forest reserves are therefore escalating. At the same time, there is strong enforcement of state laws regarding forest encroachment, creating various park-people conflicts.”
“We need social forestry in Sabah as a stabilizer or harmonizer for the social conflicts that we have.”
Lao PDR is another ASEAN member state that recently strengthened community forestry after years of preparatory work. Lao’s forests have dwindled dramatically in recent decades from logging and clearing for agriculture. The government changed the law in 2019 to make the forest sector more financially and environmentally sustainable, including by increasing village management of forest areas.
Bounpone Sengthong, who has participated in many RECOFTC courses, is now deputy director general of the Department of Forestry in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He said more than 1000 villages have submitted management plans to the government. These plans show how the villages will use forests sustainably, for farming teak, for example.
“How do we turn these plans into practice, that is very important,” said Sengthong, adding that support from forest officials for communities, including skills training is a key to success."
Preparing the future
In neighbouring Thailand, university lecturer Surin Onprom is also focused on the future. Forests and communities in Southeast Asia face new challenges from climate change, along with longstanding issues of deforestation and inequality. Onprom says it is crucial to equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to tackle these challenges.
“Students are the future policy makers,” says Onprom, who teaches forest management at Kasetsart University in Bangkok. “If we want to change things in the future, we need to start with today’s generation.”
Onprom has worked in community forestry for more than 20 years. To safeguard the future of communities, he points to a need for progress in Thailand on tenure rights for communities, including more formal recognition of customary land rights.
Thailand recently passed a community forestry law, first drafted more than 30 years ago. It gives local people more say in managing natural resources. Onprom says the legislation does not do enough to strengthen land rights, particularly for ethnic and often vulnerable groups who have lived for generations in national parks and other forests controlled by the state.
Onprom started his career as a field research assistant at RECOFTC. Somsak Sukwong, RECOFTC’s founder, sent him to northern Thailand to learn first-hand how communities depend on forests in different ways.
His nine years at RECOFTC forged a belief that challenges need to be tackled in different ways, including by learning from local people themselves, because each community and forest is unique.
Today at Kasetsart University, Onprom regularly draws upon RECOFTC’s field work and case studies conducted throughout Thailand and the region to show students the different expectations among members of the same ethnic group. Karen people for example have different forest practices in Thailand’s northern hill areas than those Karen that live in the western lowlands.
“If we have diverse communities, students need to be aware of different solutions that may be needed. There is not just one way. One of the main problems in Thailand is that people think one solution is the best, but diversity is the issue.”
The students worked hard for membership in the International Forestry Students’ Association (IFSA), which accepts newcomers only after a rigorous vetting and evaluation process. In the lead up to gaining membership, they took part in a collaborative event hosted by RECOFTC that included IFSA, which seeks to connect students from around the world through its network of partnerships.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to open up their knowledge and their perspective,” says Onprom.
Onprom says he also has great hope for the young generations that continue to live in forests. He was recently inspired by a group in the Chiang Mai area that has developed a seed bank of local varieties of plants grown by traditional farmers in forests.
Onprom said he wants to devote time to helping this community develop this initiative, perhaps turning the seed bank into a profitable enterprise that can both conserve local biodiversity and maintain community knowledge and customs.
“I want to help them improve their livelihoods and find a new way forward. They need moral and other support. There is much work to be done.”
RECOFTC’s work is made possible with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)