Young people, forests and the future

23 February 2023
Nipuna Kumbalathara
The world today, and perhaps youth more so, is facing multiple crises. But are youths’ voices loud enough and truly heard? Are they represented in processes that affect them? How can we enable young people better?
Practitioner's Insights
Young people in the forest
Young people in the forest

Take your pick of buzzwords, be it youth leadership, youth engagement, youth inclusion or youth empowerment. They have been quite popular within the international development sector seemingly forever. At least, it has felt that way since I started engaging with the sector nearly two decades ago as a young person still in college.  

It’s not that nothing has changed. In our part of the globe, here in Asia, we can see more young people participating in discussions about policy and practices on a range of issues that affect them, their communities and the world at large. There is visible youth leadership in cities marching against the climate crisis or in rural communities defending their forests, communities and ways of life.  

It also looks as their voices are being heard more often in mainstream and digital media, on policy panels and in international negotiations. So, why do we keep hearing that there isn’t enough opportunity for young people to determine their future? In the forestry sector, for instance, youth participants in the World Forestry Congress’ youth declaration have called for more vigorous efforts from governments, civil society, businesses and others to tackle the barriers to their full participation.  

In this declaration and elsewhere, young people who can afford to speak out have highlighted the issues. But, unfortunately, little has changed over the past decades. Obstacles remain. This clearly indicates that although there has been progress, we haven’t done enough to extend the reach to be meaningfully inclusive across sectors and levels of privilege in our society and over sufficiently long periods.  

A complaint that we repeatedly hear from young people is that they aren’t heard or represented enough in processes that affect them. This compromises their agency to determine their current and future well-being. There are now youth forums for almost every prominent national, regional or international process, like the World Forestry Congress and the Conferences of the Parties. Youth and youth ambassadors often make bold calls and present innovative solutions, and the organizers give them airtime. 

Yet, only a few of the great ideas coming from the youth take hold in meaningful ways. 

The XV World Forestry Congress youth call for action warns of “the risk of youth mainstreaming practices where the role and involvement of youth are tokenized”. 

These events are significant in creating awareness of young people's role in preserving forests, generating climate action and promoting inclusion. They showcase how they can improve their future in the process. However, the insufficient commitments in policies, practices and resource mobilization from governments, businesses and civil society to walk the talk of meaningful youth engagement leave youth short-changed.  

Even when youth are represented, the representation is far from inclusive. From Greta Thunberg to Asia’s own youth icons, we typically see only a limited group of young leaders taking part in the important summits and moments again and again. They are truly inspirational agents of change who put burning issues and solutions on the table. But we need more diverse youth voices included in these events. 

We need to recognize the heterogeneity of our world’s young people and invest in promoting truly diverse representation. In the absence of meaningful commitment and resourcing to promote inclusion, the ability to participate and lead will be determined by social, political and economic privilege. This poses two major problems. First, it leaves out youth who live in forest communities and are front-line defenders of their environment. Second, it fails to mobilize the power of the youth at large.  

Youth learn to protect forest
RECOFTC engages youth in forest communities.

RECOFTC engages youth in forest communities, cities, universities and virtual spaces. Our collaborations with them in building their voices and capacities to help them take charge of their future demonstrates what’s possible. Examples include our youth leaders and communicators from the Asia–Pacific region influencing positive change and the young Explore researchers driving innovative and ambitious research to transform forest landscape governance. But we at RECOFTC must do more and do it better.  

That the challenges for youth participation have remained constant over the past decades indicates a failure to listen to their needs. The efforts to engage youth must be multidimensional and sustainable. When organizations focus on their limited mandates and time-limited projects, it short-changes youth, especially those who, due to their daily struggles, cannot afford to participate in action that will help preserve their communities and forests.  

In moving forward, here are five lessons that we at RECOFTC and our partners have learned in engaging youth successfully in community forestry.  

  1. Let youth speak and trust them to lead:

    Create spaces for young people to come together and discuss the intersectionality of issues that affect and are important to them. Facilitate processes and resources so that they can find solutions and drive change. 
  2. Design fresh, cross-sector and multidimensional solutions:

    Unleashing the potential of young people requires social, economic and environmental solutions. Using a fresh, systems-focused design thinking lens where people are placed first when conceptualizing strategies and solutions helps achieve organizational objectives like social forestry while enhancing young people’s futures.  
  3. Build up young people’s capacity sustainably:

    Yes, training and workshops are useful, and so is the provision of knowledge and creating awareness of opportunities. But the capacity interventions must be built with youth and a robust analysis of their needs. The investments must be long term, focusing on continuous and incremental skills-building. 
  4. Diversity, equity and inclusion:

    Be explicit in how we listen to, build up capacity and partner with youth across the physical, digital, geographical, social and economic divides. We must look beyond the development and human rights sectors’ buzzwords to truly enable the potential of those left behind and to create safe spaces.  
  5. Build bridges across society:

    Let’s network youth in forestry, businesses, universities, cities and elsewhere together. Virtual links bridging the digital divides and more intimate and in-person experiences gained through visiting each other are critical. At the same time, let’s link youth with elders who have worldly and community-focused wisdom to share. This is important for strengthening understanding, unpacking resource inequalities and finding pragmatic solutions. 

The world today, and perhaps youth more so, is facing multiple crises. Stronger commitment, innovative thinking, and more sustainable investments are required to optimize the potential of youth now and for the future.  


Nipuna Kumbalathara is Communication and Engagement Manager at RECOFTC.