ASEAN officials tackle legal reforms in forestry

Inle Lake Landscape
Myanmar's 2019 Community Forestry Instruction has strengthened the role of villagers in protecting forests, including in the Inle Lake Landscape pictured above. © RECOFTC, 2019

Southeast Asian policymakers gathered in Bangkok to work together on legal reforms to strengthen community forestry, key to protecting the region’s forests and improving the livelihoods of those living in and around them.

ASEAN nations have undertaken a range of legal reforms in recent years to empower local communities to protect, manage, and get benefits from forests in a sustainable way. Indonesia launched a plan in 2014 to distribute millions of hectares of land inside forests to local communities under social forestry schemes, while Thailand, Lao PDR and other countries passed laws this year.

The policymakers gathered on 21-22 November in Bangkok agreed that the success of such initiatives hinges not only on developing strong laws, but also in ensuring their effective implementation including through clear regulations and guidelines, favourable institutional settings, sufficient resources allocation along with enforcement and adjustment.

“We have an ongoing process of reflecting on our reforms and identifying things we need to adjust, and we are working on them,” said Sharon Quamila Korompot from Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry. 

She presented Indonesia’s extensive process of legal reforms in the social forestry sector to officials, stressing the need for consultation at the early stages with other government departments, community representatives, the private sector, and more.

“The involvement of all stakeholders is needed to make sure the law is effective when implemented,” said Korompot, who focuses on conflict negotiation and mediation. “Stakeholders can understand and accept the new regulations because they were involved in making them.”

Deforestation and degradation have long been major problems in the region, with forests under pressure including from agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, and mining and logging operations.

Strengthening the rights of local people living in and around forests to use and manage its resources is critical to protecting the forests and reducing the poverty of these often-marginalized groups. Conserving forests is also key to maintaining biodiversity and combating climate change.  

Throughout the policy dialogue, supported by the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry (AWG-SF), officials shared progress on their countries’ reforms, as well as challenges, to build knowledge and understanding of the various legal frameworks and enabling conditions in the region.

Participants working at the dialogue
Participants at the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership for Social Forestry and Climate Change Policy Exchange work to define what factors are required for the successful implementation of legal reforms in the forestry sector recently adopted and underway in ASEAN member states. © RECOFTC, 2019

Myanmar passed the Community Forestry Instruction in 2019 that strengthens the role of villagers in protecting forests, as part of the government’s plan to create community forests on 920,000 hectares, said Aye Aye Win, Director of the Attorney General’s Office at the Myanmar Forest Department. Communities issued with certificates can now harvest and sell resources from forests to boost their income, she said. But securing loans from banks to develop community enterprises has proved difficult, as banks do not regard the community forest certificates as legally secure, a challenge for communities in other ASEAN countries too, the meeting heard.

Officials presented to the dialogue roadmaps on moving forward with strengthening reforms. For the reflection process, the policymakers relied on 10 key principles for designing legislation on community forestry published in a 2019 report by Client Earth, a non-profit environmental law organization.

After the new Forest Law was passed this year in Lao PDR, delegates said educating villagers about the changes is now key, including their need to develop management plans to operate within forests.

“How to turn these management plans into practice is also very important, so that they can improve their livelihoods and forest conditions,” said Bounpone Sengthong, Deputy Director General of the Lao Department of Forestry.

Thailand is developing orders to accompany the Community Forestry Act passed this May, including guidelines on registering as a community and developing a management plan, Royal Forest Department officer Kittiporn Dulnakij said.

“With this new law, the rights of communities and their roles and responsibilities are now clearly identified. This gives communities more assurances about what they can and cannot do in forests and more motivation,” he said.

“We are now in the process of making the bylaws and the decrees that go with it.”

Consulting with stakeholders on how to develop agroforestry in Cambodia is a next step, said Long Ratanakoma, Deputy Director of the Department of Forest and Community Forestry. Improving skills of community members who manage forests also needs attention.

Cambodian representatives discuss challenges
Members of the Cambodian delegation discuss challenges facing the Kingdom's recent push for agroforestry and community-based natural resource management. © RECOFTC, 2019 

“We want to establish more community forests, but among the 636 [community forests] we already have, we discovered some [users] do not know how to manage the forests by themselves. We need to strengthen their capacity to help them achieve it.”

The event was organized by RECOFTC under the projects ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change (ASFCC) and the Voices for Mekong Forests (V4MF), together with ClientEarth, the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry (AWG-SF) and with the continued support by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.