Asia has a unique opportunity to fight climate change and lift many people out of poverty if it invests in the communities living in its forests, claims a Thai-based environmental organisation.
There are more than 450 million people in the ASEAN region whose livelihoods rely on forests, and who are now feeling the pinch of deforestation and climate change.
“If we truly want to sustain Asia’s forests, we need to address inequality and poverty by investing in people living in them,” said Tint Lwin Thaung, executive director of RECOFTC, an environmental non-government organisation (NGO) which aims to promote community forestry in Asia.
Accounting for almost 20 percent of the world’s forested area, the Asia-Pacific’s forests play a significant role in fighting climate change, as their trees convert toxic carbon dioxide (CO2) into breathable oxygen.
According to the environmental body, strengthening community forest rights can both cut CO2 emissions by reducing deforestation, and improve plantation health.
Trevor Abrahams, secretary-general of the World Forestry Congress, said Asia had a unique opportunity to ensure that these valuable areas were managed in a more sustainable way, as attention focuses on global leaders’ promises to adopt new UN sustainable development goals later this year.
“The question is not just how do we manage forests in a sustainable way, but how do we make sure that the people living in them are at the centre of decision making,” Abrahams said.
The World Forestry Congress, the largest global gathering of the woodland sector, will take place in Durban, South Africa, in September.
Amid growing recognition that the people who live in forests are their most effective protectors, Asian governments have been earmarking an increasing amount of land for community forestry.
In 2013, 8.8 million hectares of forest land were managed by local people through community agreements or forest titles in Cambodia, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – an increase of about one third since 2010, according to a RECOFTC survey.
But as promising as this figure is, it still only accounts for approximately 3.5 percent of total forest land found the in ASEAN region, the organisation said, noting that no data was available for Laos or Malaysia.
The most substantial expansions of locally managed land occurred in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In the northern Thailand Mae Tha district, forest communities have established a self-governing system and worked together to improve land management, deal with drought and address conflict arising from illegal logging.
As a result, Mae Tha has become Thailand’s first community to be awarded 30 years of land tenure rights for more than 1,000 hectares of forest land, according to RECOFTC.
“We can save our forests by putting the whole community at the heart of development and focusing investment on the people,” said Kanoksak Daungkaewroen, a local leader from Mae Tha who has been educating communities in the area about their rights.
Although more community forest agreements have been signed, progress in handing the land over to local people has been very slow, RECOFTC’s Thaung said.
Less than 10 percent of forest land covered by such agreements has actually been transferred to communities in Cambodia, Indonesia and Burma, according to the NGO.
Thaung said factors such as inadequate legal frameworks, the complexities of land allocation and overly bureaucratic procedures contributed to the sluggish process.
Progress in community forestry is also being hampered by the fact that governments have been allocating poor quality forest land to the projects, which reduces chances of local people being able to make a living out of it, he said.
Burma’s forests are known to support 233 globally threatened species, and over 1,000 different species of birds. Although the country boasts the largest forested area in South-East Asia, widespread deforestation has been a problem for years. In 2005, environmental advocacy group Global Witness estimated that 15 tonnes of illegally logged wood was being smuggled across the Chinese border every seven minutes.