|Balancing Acts: Community-Based Forest Management and National Law in Asia and the Pacific (WRI, 1995, 204 pages)|
The Asia and Pacific regions are large and diverse and include one-fourth of the world's tropical forests and approximately half of its biological species. Throughout South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, however, vast tracts of forest lands have been degraded or denuded. In India, where population pressures and rapid industrialization have been particularly acute, forest cover has decreased since the 1850s from 40 percent to substantially less than 20 percent of total land area. At the turn of the century, Thailand, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka were about 70 percent covered with natural forests. Over the last century, that figure has shrunk to less than 25 percent.
Deforestation contributes to an array of environmental damages besides loss of biodiversity. These include soil erosion, siltation of riverine and coastal water systems, flooding, drought, harm to infrastructure, destruction of mangroves and both freshwater and saline fishing areas, and declines in agricultural productivity. Deforestation also reduces the carbon sink that forests provide, which helps mitigate global warming.
Well over a century ago, a number of concerned European colonists began to speak out against the deforestation caused by their own nations' colonial policies in South and Southeast Asia. In the mid-1860s, British forester Henry Cleghorn voiced alarm at the wanton deforestation born of colonial practices near Madras. The best way to preserve the subcontinent's remaining forests, he maintained, was to allow local villages to retain their traditional management systems. Who else, he argued, had as great an incentive or could maintain local forests more cheaply?1 Fifty years later, the Dutch forester W. Groeneveldt called for a halt to the colonial administration's overzealous promotion of commercial coffee plantations on the Indonesian island of Java. His solution to the rampant degradation? A return to traditional community-based management.2
Given the industrial and technological advances of the past 150 years and steady population increases, the continuing depletion of the forests of South and Southeast Asia was perhaps inevitable. Since 1901, India's population has more than tripled and Indonesia's has grown by only slightly less,3 Similar increases have occurred in other countries in the region. National resource bases have been overused as technological advances have brought progressively higher standards of living. Although there is no denying that meeting the needs of increasing populations has played a substantial role in reducing original forest cover, prevailing management practices have made those losses worse. Practices decried long ago by critics like Cleghorn and Groeneveldt have continued virtually unabated and have made it all but impossible to sustain increasingly scarce - and thus increasingly valuable - forest resources.
Uncontrolled - and all too often illegal - logging accounts for much of the deforestation. Testifying to the fact that the days of uncontrolled extraction are numbered, commercial logging in natural forests is now banned in Thailand, Cambodia, and parts of India, and it is severely restricted in the Philippines.
In Indonesia and the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea, however, commercial logging continues largely unabated. The Indonesian situation is particularly alarming: in 1950, some 84 percent of the newly independent nation's extensive territory was blanketed with forests. As of 1989, the official figure had been reduced to 60 percent and deforestation was believed to be proceeding at a pace of 1.3 million hectares, or one percent, per year.4
But the impact of forest loss is not limited to declines in timber industries' output. Besides threatening global reserves of biodiversity and damaging the carbon sinks that absorb greenhouse gases, degrading forest ecosystems jeopardizes the well-being of tens of millions of forest-dependent peoples. Most immediately, loss of access to their main sources of food, fuel, shelter, and clothing jeopardizes their livelihood and survival.
Forest-based populations are also threatened by the devastating environmental repercussions that come with forest loss or degradation. Loss of tree cover can accelerate natural erosion, choking waterways, setting off rockslides and landslides, and triggering floods more numerous and destructive than historical norms. Although all these common conditions are debilitating and compromising, typically only disasters, such as flash floods, grab headlines and center world attention on the human costs of deforestation.
In November 1989, floods swept down denuded hillsides in southern Thailand, carrying more than 300 people to their deaths, and riveted national attention on excessive commercial logging. In response to widespread vocal criticism the Thai government banned commercial logging six weeks after the disaster,5 Three years later on the Philippine island of Leyte, storm waters rushed down once-forested river valleys, killing 5,000,6 The primary cause of this tragedy was the deforestation that had occurred over the past 30 years as extensive tracts of forest gave way to plantation agriculture. And, in the summer of 1993, prolonged monsoonal rains in Nepal and India resulted in floods that would eventually claim the lives of more than 2,000 people. Once again, deforestation was singled out as the precipitating factor, not of the rains that fell, but of the severity of the floods that ensued.7
What recurring scenarios such as these tell us is that some so-called "natural disasters" don't just happen. They are often the outcome of unsustainable patterns of resource usage and human interactions that have long been in the making.
Although historical records are scarce, indigenous Asian states and kingdoms existed long before the colonial conquests exploited - and in some localities, overexploited - their forests. Given the limited extent of these pre-colonial impositions in absolute terms, the vastness of the original forest domain, and the usually prodigious rates of natural regeneration, these claims on nature's patrimony could generally be accommodated without jeopardizing ecosystems. But however environmentally benign, early Asian societies - like their counterparts elsewhere - were not necessarily equitable or just, at least not by the standards of late 20th-century democracies.
Whether it was for the good of the greater society or the benefit of the ruling authority, most forest-dependent people have long been deprived of an equitable share of forest resources. Starting in the 15th century European colonial powers with their advanced technology began repeating patterns of exploitation already common in South and Southeast Asia. New kinds of weapons allowed colonial powers to seize what they wanted; ships, wagons, and trains helped them to carry away their booty. Well armed and avaricious, the European colonists gradually changed from traders into masters, increasing their control over land resources and extracting more and more from their new colonies.
The colonial acquisition of forest products and other natural resources was often accompanied by the legal expropriation - at least in the minds of the colonizers - of the sovereignty and property rights of indigenous populations. Prevailing conceptions of Western (Roman) law, which had come to dominate contemporary European jurisprudence, were used by the colonizers to justify their use and abuse of natural resources, including forests.
Although similar legal expropriations took place at the hands of indigenous rulers (witness the history of Thailand, the one nation studied here that was never a European colony), pre-colonial exploitation was often tempered by traditional local resource management systems that were predicated on the belief that forests and other natural resources should serve the collective good. That good was promoted by adherence to usage rights and regulations promulgated and enforced by traditional leaders. The long-term survival of the entire community depended upon how prudently the surrounding resource base was used.
In sharp contrast, many colonial officials believed that they were entitled to expropriate and use natural resources by virtue of their innate cultural superiority. In fact, it was military superiority that gave the colonizers their greatest advantage. After World War II, the legal successors to the former colonial states - the political and economic elites of modern independent Asian nation-states - continued to rely on the colonial legal usurpations. Since then, forest laws and policies have generally been predicated on the assumption that the national interest is best served by trading natural resources for consumer goods in international marketplaces.
The legal usurpation of community-based tenurial rights has not necessarily ended communities' tenure. Despite expansive claims of ownership, national governments in South and Southeast Asia exercise relatively little control over many forest areas. Few can pay, train, or maintain the forest-department staff needed to survey, patrol, and manage the vast areas classified as public forest land effectively. In Indonesia, for example, a single forest officer is often responsible for 20,000 hectares and is largely without transportation and other basic professional tools.8
As exclusive state-management paradigms fail, in many locales once-vast forest resources have dwindled so much that they can no longer satisfy profit-oriented extractive and commercial industries, be they state or privately run. As forest resources disappear, so do once-thriving timber industries. The depletion of national reserves also means that many rural Asians are increasingly hard-pressed to meet their daily needs. Especially vulnerable are historically marginalized, indigenous, and tribal peoples who still live outside mainstream society. For centuries, when their traditional areas were infringed by more powerful local cultures, they retreated farther and farther into the forests. But today, there are few places left to hide.
Unable to secure an equitable balance of rights and duties in the nation-states in which they dwell, many forest-dependent peoples have no choice but to assert control over their forests - either quietly or defiantly. In light of numerous and increasingly well publicized instances of deforestation and its effects, even the most entrenched of centralized Asian governments have begun to acknowledge the failure of state-managed systems and the need for greater community involvement. Throughout the region, new policies and programs with names such as "social forestry," "community forestry," and "joint forest management" are emerging.
In northern India in the early 1970s, important social movements among forest-dependent peoples showed the world both the adverse social and environmental devastation being wrought by government forest policies and the potential benefits of community management. The most celebrated was the Chipko movement in northern India where women put their arms around trees targeted for cutting by commercial loggers. More than a protest, the Chipko movement was an assertion of community control over forest resources.
These movements helped prompt West Bengal and other state forest departments to explore the potential of sharing the management of government forests with local communities. Today, over 350,000 hectares of degraded forests in India are being co-managed, and the results have largely been positive.
Similar experiments and programs have followed in other South and Southeast Asian countries as national governments belatedly began to realize that established precepts of state management and control were in many cases actually contributing to the demise of remaining forest resources.
The net result of all these initiatives is emerging support for local forest management. The pendulum of policy in many countries - both within and outside of Asia - is swinging back toward recognizing traditional community-based rights. Although such readjustments have often sprung more from environmental concerns than from deep-seated commitments to equity, they are still a welcome and encouraging change. The current challenge is to continue the process and discover the balance that holds the best promise for sustainable management of diminishing forest resources.
The simple fact is that involving local populations, especially long-term residents, in forest management makes good sense. It provides those most knowledgeable about the local resource base with official incentives for sustainable use. It likwise empowers them to police the forest and prevent outsiders and members of their own communities from overexploiting forest resources. In other words, "the logic of community forestry goes far beyond the patronizing view that community forestry means letting the local people get some benefits from the forest." Rather, it provides a means to "create and maintain a system of forest practices that are both ecologically and economically sustainable."9
Despite the enduring legal disenfranchisement of forest-dependent people, many Asian countries already have legal frameworks that support community-based forest management. Whether through newly devised regulations and procedures (as in Nepal and India), or through the rediscovery of long-ignored laws and constitutional provisions (as in the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia), community-based forest management is gaming force and legitimacy throughout South and Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, in much of Asia, such laws are routinely ignored or circumvented, so forest dwellers and forest-dependent communities continue to be marginalized by national governments. This happens in three ways:
· official census reports underestimate the population of classified forest areas;
· forest-dependent peoples, including indigenous groups, are treated as illegal users of public resources; and
· forest-dependent peoples are stereotyped as environmentally destructive, slash-and-burn farmers.10
Where procedures do allow forest communities to attain official recognition and document their community-based property rights, the processes tend to be complex, time-consuming, and costly - virtually prohibitive barriers, especially for remote subsistence-oriented forest communities. Such obstacles allow politically well-connected outsiders to take advantage of administrative power structures in national or regional capitals to acquire documented rights over occupied forestlands.
Despite the increasing attention being given to community-based forest management in theory, real on-the-ground progress still lags. Data and analysis from the six Asian countries studied here indicate that current government incentives for sustainable community-based management of forest resources lack the scope and momentum needed to succeed. Because many communities don't have the legal and political leverage required to negotiate innovative and sustainable management strategies with economic and political elites, local groups essentially must take what they are offered. As a result, many programs that now fall under the rubric of community/social forestry are little more than short-term, renewable (and cancelable) contract-based reforestation initiatives.
As national forest resources dwindle and community-based management programs are finally being considered with some urgency, national governments should establish effective and enforceable administrative processes that will facilitate the creation of authentic partnerships. The key word is "partnerships." This report neither suggests nor implies that national and state authorities have no role in managing forest resources. Cutting local communities in does not mean cutting governments and private businesses out. Rather, national, state, and local governments, as well as private companies and forest-dependent communities all have a vital role to play. A continuation of past policies, meanwhile, will only further the loss of increasingly scarce forest resources.
Anecdotal and, for now, inconclusive evidence from the field suggests that a better alternative would be to take advantage of the experiences and insights of the millions of forest-dependent people who have been using the forests for generations, but who find their existence increasingly jeopardized by short-sighted and unsustainable forestry practices.