Justice for Local Communities Requires Trust

Lok Mani Sapkota
If travelers in Copenhagen can be trusted, then why not forest managing communities in the Asia-Pacific?

I had a realization recently. It came during my trip to Copenhagen after years of working in the Asia - Pacific region: local communities in many Asia - Pacific countries are trusted less than travelers in Copenhagen. In Copenhagen, although everyone is expected to have a ticket while using the public transportation system, nobody is required to go through the process of actually showing their ticket to enter a train or metro. Copenhagen is not an exception; it can be seen in many other locations as well!

Ironically, while people, including outsiders, are trusted in one part of the world, local communities in another part of the world who have conserved and managed forests for generations are asked to go through several processes that are complex and costly before they can benefit from their forests.

As a member of The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), I work with and for local communities in the Asia - Pacific region who try to manage their forests sustainably. In the region, mainly South and Southeast Asia, I engage in research to identify the support needed by local communities and stakeholders to effectively manage forests and benefit from them. One of our consistent finding, which I recently shared at the Timber Legality Research Symposium in Copenhagen, is that local communities are required to put so much effort if they are to legally harvest timber from their forests and sell it to markets.

As I said in my presentation, the forest stays, if it pays

This difficulty starts from the very first step-- to get the land/forest tenure certificate. In order to get the certificate, local communities often need approval from various government agencies. For example, in Myanmar, if local communities want to manage forests legally classified as public forests, then they need approval from the Agricultural Land Management and Statistics Department in addition to Forest Department,which is the authorized government agency that facilitates the community forest handover process. It doesn’t stop there. After this they need to prepare a management plan that requires a deeply technical and complex process.

And Myanmar is not the only country that requires this. It is one reason why many community forest user groups in Nepal paid more than their total annual income to technicians that undertake the technical services required for these processes. Communities need to go through these processes every five to ten years. Unable to do so due to financial restrictions, as well as other issues that will soon be discussed, approximately a third of the 22,000 community forestry user groups were estimated to not have the required management plans, thus placing their legal status on hold.

Timber is an important source of income for local communities in and around forested areas. 

Furthermore, the approved management plan does not guarantee that local communities will get fair benefits. In many countries, including Thailand, local communities are not allowed to harvest timber from the forests they managed. In other countries where they are allowed, like Nepal, they need to go through another long process. On the top of the aforementioned process, they need to  go through a series of checks and approvals that require them to prepare a large number of documents and make frequent trips to the forestry offices. The process has massive implications for cost, as is reported in a study conducted by my colleagues, which makes buying timber from community forests less attractive to the traders due to associated high transactional cost and the complex processes of getting permits.

Again, the local communities are the ones who unfairly suffered. They received less than a quarter of the timber price offered in the market.

As I said in my presentation, the forest stays, if it pays. This is our observation at RECOFTC after more than than three decades working on community forestry in the region. One pattern that is consistent across the countries that are currently increasing forest area (natural or planted) is the presence of programs that formalize local communities’ rights to manage forests. While this is encouraging, more is needed given the rapid changes in how land is used, particularly where forests face severe competition with rapidly expanding non-forestry sectors. In the context of a society that considers economics as being the most influential factor in land use decisions, anyone with common sense can tell you that forest management needs to be equally attractive (financially) for it to be sustainable, let alone increase. This is particularly true in the agricultural sector, which is reported to encroach the most on forest area (this was also highlighted in the Copenhagen FLARE conference which I attended and is nicely summarized in this blog).

My presentation
Presenting my findings in Copenhagen

This means that community forests in Asia-Pacific could be one of the best entry points for improving the forestry sector’s attractiveness. It is not only for the reason that local communities (including smallholders) manage nearly a third of total forest area in the region as per a study by Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations, but also because they help achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals highlighted in this blog.  It is also instrumental to achieve the commitments of many national governments (see here for ASEAN countries).

And finally, it is also a matter of justice to local communities who despite managing forests for generations face many barriers to fairly benefit from it.  

So, many questions still remain. If that level of trust could be bestowed to an outsider in Copenhagen, then why can it not be bestowed to the people who deserve to benefit from the forests they have conserved and managed for generations? Why can’t they be allowed to harvest and sell timber using their control system like the transportation system in Copenhagen relied on the ethical consideration of people?

What about the punishment? If travelers in the Copenhagen public transport system are traveling without a valid ticket (which is checked by random), then they are punished only after they do so. And what about bureaucrats and politicians who are only punished after they partake in corrupt acts and decisions? If this is the case, then why can’t we do so for local communities who are conserving and managing their forests? Isn’t it wrong that they need to provide all the information that shows they are doing it perfectly (oftentimes at their own cost) even before they can move forward?

They are the one who need the forests the most and protect it for all. Let’s join hands to address this injustice.