Research on forest landscape governance must prioritize rights and participation

06 September 2021
Doris Capistrano
A new research network called Explore that focuses on forest landscape governance is timely and much needed, says Doris Capistrano.

Governments across Southeast Asia increasingly recognize the important roles forests can play in sustaining livelihoods, providing environmental goods and services, reducing disaster risks and limiting climate change. After decades of rampant deforestation, this shift is welcome. But the region’s forests remain under sustained pressure. More than half a million hectares are destroyed every year through illegal logging, conversion for agriculture and infrastructure development.

One of the key challenges is that most of this pressure emanates from beyond the forest sector—from agriculture, mining, transport and housing. Meanwhile, many forest users are also engaged in other sectors of the economy—as farmers, fishers, traders and more. This highlights the need to plan and implement policies and programs at the landscape scale, working across sectors and with diverse groups of stakeholders.

But when it comes to the governance of forest landscapes, and how to balance different interests in these landscapes to ensure sustainable outcomes, policymakers lack knowledge and know-how. At the same time, there is a lack of research on forest landscape governance in the region, as well as limited interactions among researchers and policymakers. Both groups would benefit from a broadening of analytical boundaries—beyond the forest—to provide a fuller understanding of issues and dynamics affecting forests and the people who depend on them. 

“Research that matters for forests and people and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals must be action-oriented, problem solving-focused and transformational.” – Doris Capistrano

That’s why I congratulate RECOFTC and CIFOR-ICRAF for launching Explore with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). This new research network and community of practice will fill gaps by helping universities and researchers work with policymakers, civil society, the private sector and communities to co-create and apply emerging knowledge about different aspects of forest landscape governance. This is a significant step forward. 

Researching forest landscape governance requires a broader set of analytical tools than any single discipline can provide. To deal with complexity, it requires asking integrative, synthetic questions. It requires attention to interactions across different scales and institutional levels. It needs cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary expertise, and the application of different systems of knowledge and ways of knowing. Research that matters for forests and people and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals must be action-oriented, problem solving-focused and transformational. 

That’s why I am pleased to see that Explore’s research toolbox will include two analytical approaches. This first is a rights-based approach. This seeks to analyse inequalities at the heart of development problems. It aims to redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power that impede development progress and marginalize groups such as women, Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Explore welcomes universities and researchers, policymakers, practitioners, companies, donors, development institutions and representatives of forest communities to join and participate. Register interest in joining Explore here

A rights-based framework focuses on two groups—the rights holders who do not experience full rights, and the duty bearers, which are the institutions obligated to fulfill the holders' rights. Rights-based approaches seek to empower the rights holders and strengthen the capacity of both duty bearers and rights holders, to respectively meet their obligations and to claim their rights.

Respecting and promoting rights require that rights holders, duty bearers and supportive organizations have sufficient, accurate information about what the rights are, and whether and how they are being infringed upon. Research is critical for this. Research is also needed to help facilitate interactions and information flows across scales and governance levels for joint decision-making.

Another essential tool that Explore will use is participatory action research. This approach emphasizes participation and action by members of communities and stakeholder groups affected by the research. It addresses issues that are significant for these co-researchers. It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it collaboratively, through reflection and learning. 

Participatory action research can influence and democratize the creation of knowledge. It can engage and accommodate the perspectives of women, Indigenous Peoples, civil society, policy makers and other stakeholders. Information and communications technologies now allow for novel applications of this approach in large scale contexts, rather than small groups as before.

Engaging policy and decision-makers in key phases of the research, such as during problem definition, research design and peer review, creates opportunities for knowledge exchange, awareness raising and policy engagement. By focusing on issues of concern to research collaborators and participants, research can be more firmly grounded on practical stakeholder needs and demands. Thus, research results have a higher chance of being acted upon, and having impact.

By using these and other approaches in its tool box, Explore can create links among the academic community, social movements and policymakers, blending research and advocacy to promote evidence-based governance reforms. It is a timely and much needed initiative that promises to deliver transformative governance change at scale.


Doris Capistrano is Senior Advisor to the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change. She was RECOFTC Board of Trustees Chair from 2013 to 2019. 

For more information about Explore and to become a member, visit this page.