On the 10th of December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR sets out the inalienable “economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights that underpin a life free from want and fear”. These rights are extended to “all people, at all times, and in all places”.
Human rights, though inalienable, are secured through various political, economic, cultural and social measures. Community forestry has played a part in supporting local communities to realise their rights. Strengthening land tenure, empowering women to assume leadership and decision-making roles in their communities, and facilitating livelihood activities have all contributed to the realisation of the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights of communities living in forested landscapes.
Moreover, community forestry provides us with an example of how secure community rights, local knowledge, and clear roles within forest management can enhance socio-economic development whilst concomitantly maintaining healthy ecosystems.
Strengthening community land rights through community forestry
A community forest (CF) can be established in any forested area, aside from protected areas. Ethnic communities can formalize their rights over traditionally managed land through securing CF certificates. Some ethnic groups in Myanmar have been able to demarcate the boundaries of their traditional land through establishing community forest boundaries and signs, and consequently have reduced the frequency of encroachment into their forests.
Securing fair land rights is the first step in voicing local needs within official fora. By obtaining CF certificates, local communities can pursue equity and justice through legal avenues. A path that has often been historically denied to these communities. “If there is any land abuse by outsiders in our community forest, we can challenge them from a legal point of view, thanks to the CF certification,” reports U Mya Thin (CF chairperson, Taung Kan Kalay village’s CF, Bago region, Myanmar).
U Win Kyi, a Ranger from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, agrees that establishing CFs reduces illegal or unsustainable forestry practices from outsiders. “Illegal logging has been reduced in Ya Haing Bya village community forest area. Local communities are actively participating in forest management activities. They patrol their CF areas regularly to prevent illegal logging, hunting and wildfires,” he says. In so doing, local communities have been empowered to fight for their rights. Empowering women and securing rights through community forestry
Beyond empowering whole communities, CF also empowers integral stakeholders, including women. Inclusive participation of all stakeholders is crucial for CF establishment. Participation is ensured through capacity development trainings and awareness raising programs. Often, women do not participate in public events or local politics; if they do, it’s generally in a supporting capacity. CF programs, however, promote and create spaces where women can participate as decision makers. Consequently, women who may have traditionally remained silent in public spaces can share their knowledge and contribute to forest management programs. In addition to promoting the right to govern, women’s participation in decision making is vital - and a precondition - to securing other economic, civic and social rights.
“In the past, women had no chance to participate in village development activities. After participating in training and awareness raising programs about gender mainstreaming by RECOFTC, women like me have become members of the community forest user group and decision makers in the community forest management committee,” confirms Daw Hlwe Kwee (CFUG member from Chin State)
Through the realization of women’s inherent right to participate in the governance of communal land, CF provides women with the ability to acquire additional access to resources. Equity of resources is important to the economic right of securing one's own livelihood and contributing to one's community.
Fostering income generation and economic rights through community forestry
Acknowledging and respecting local knowledge, wisdom and practices in resources extraction and preservation are vital to ensure the sustainable management of forests. In Myanmar, people have long practiced shifting cultivation. Combining these traditional land use practices with modern approaches can lead to effective and efficient forest management systems. For instance, in Chin State, cultivation of elephant foot yam – a traditional crop – on fallow land in agroforestry systems has increased cash income for local communities. By restoring community access to forests, CF provides the opportunity to engage in traditional farming practices, and facilitates opportunities to secure a sustainable livelihood. In securing this important right, CF helps enable further social and economic progress.
“We not only have a community forest certificate,” reports U Naing Shein (CFMC member, Par-Kon’s CF, Chin State), “but we have also finished natural forest conservation activities (silvicultural practices) for this year. So, we can see that valuable tree species have regrown in our community forest. I can say that local people can improve their forests and life by establishing a community forest.”
In Myanmar, it is clear that through community forestry local people have been able to secure community land rights, promote women’s rights, and foster income generating activities. Community forestry is both environmentally sustainable and facilitates the advancement of universal human rights.