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An unprecedented journey towards better forest governance in the Mekong

The Voices for Mekong Forests project fills gaps in forest governance, empowering communities, civil society and the private sector.

Big changes are underway in forests of the Mekong region in Southeast Asia. Countries are cracking down on illegal logging, increasing community control over forests and ensuring decision-making processes are more inclusive.

These efforts are supported by the Voices for Mekong Forests (V4MF) initiative, funded by the European Union (EU). The project is strengthening the participation of non-state actors in forest landscape governance.

RECOFTC leads the project in partnership with WWF-Greater Mekong, the East West Management Institute-Open Development Initiative (EWMI-ODI), Nature Economy and People Connected (NEPCon), the NGO Forum on Cambodia, the Lao Biodiversity Association, the Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN), Raks Thai Foundation and People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature). 

Through V4MF and other initiatives, governments across the Mekong region are giving communities more rights and opportunities to protect and benefit from local forests. This shift could transform the lives of millions of people. Done right, it will enable the development of sustainable rural livelihoods based on forests that are well-managed for the benefit of current and future generations. But it is becoming clear that challenges often emerge when it comes to implementing community forestry policies. 

The Mekong's natural riches

The Mekong is home to more than 4,330 species of mammals, 800 species of reptiles and amphibians, 1,200 species of birds and 1,100 species of fish. How forest governance develops in the Mekong countries will determine the fate of these species.

Some countries are beginning to crack these challenges. In recent years, all five countries in the Mekong region have made progress in devolving legal rights over forest resources to local people. By the end of 2018, the total area transferred into community hands surpassed 6.7 million hectares. And that’s just the start. These countries have ambitious targets for increasing the area in community control.

RECOFTC’s Executive Director David Ganz says it is essential that governments listen to the voices of communities and civil society, and incorporate their views in policy. That means listening to a diversity of marginalized groups, especially Indigenous Peoples, youth, the elderly and women. This matters because, while good forest governance is about moving forward in a positive direction, it is also about trying to ensure that no one is left behind.

As the impacts of climate change become clearer, the case for protecting forests and managing them sustainably grows stronger. 

“We must do this in ways that are fair and beneficial to local people, while also protecting biodiversity,” says Ganz. 

As the EU and other markets increasingly demand legal timber and commodities whose production has not entailed deforestation, the economic incentives for better forest governance should continue to grow. In 2019, for example, the EU launched an initiative to protect and restore the world’s forests (link). It also launched the European Green Deal (link), which provides a basis for more action on forests.

Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade

The EU and some countries in the Mekong region are working together to address illegal logging and associated trade, under an EU initiative called the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. The EU sees FLEGT as a means to promote sustainable forest management, which illegal logging and associated trade has long undermined.

There are challenges, of course, and some are deeply entrenched. But there are also examples of truly significant progress. By learning from each other, scaling up successful initiatives, continuing to involve all stakeholders in decision-making and building capacity, the Mekong countries can hope to balance economic development with forest protection. If they succeed, the whole world will benefit.