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News & Events Trends in customary and collective forest tenure recognition in the Mekong region
Trends in customary and collective forest tenure recognition in the Mekong region
Trends in customary and collective forest tenure recognition in the Mekong region
Vietnam (credit: Thinh Hoang Hai)
Vietnam (credit: Thinh Hoang Hai)

The second session of the 3rd Mekong Regional Land Forum explored some of the regional and global trends in protecting local user rights in forests. In particular, it looked at some of the regional programs in social forestry and how these attempt to draw a balance between community needs and other demands for conservation, and exploitation for timber and non-timber resources. 

Presentation 1

Global and Regional Forest Tenure Trends: Opportunities and Continuing Challenges for Communities and Smallholders

Safia Aggarwal (Forestry Officer – FAO)

Nearly one third of forests worldwide are managed by communities and smallholders. For Asia and the Pacific region, this stands at 34% of forest areas, covering nearly 249 million hectares. In the 1980s, states begun to recognize community forests. This has developed into a present-day situation, where community forests are recognized in laws and national constitutions, and communities are able to access both timber and non-timber resources.

Yet there are mixed results. There are some positive trends towards increased forest cover, reduced degradation, and reduced resource depletion, but findings from FAO studies are not consistent across different countries. Stronger legal provisions have aided subsistence benefits for forest communities, but there are still few income benefits for them. This links to the limited recognition of rights for these communities, weak protection for their rights, and regulatory frameworks that are more likely to create obstacles than facilitate benefits. The status of rights for forest communities is inequitable when compared to those of agri-business and timber companies operating in forests.

In the wider Asian region, since the 1970s both China and Vietnam have transferred forest lands to smallholders with commercial harvesting licences. Indigenous and community forest rights have been recognized in the Philippines, Indonesia and India, albeit frequently without formalization. Moving closer into the Mekong region, there are significant challenges for policy and legal frameworks in customary and collective tenure. Many frameworks are incomplete, poorly implemented, and in conflict with other sectoral policies.

To sum up, community forestry carries a hidden potential to contribute to conservation needs, the alleviation of climate change impacts, the improvement of local livelihoods, the meeting of domestic timber and non-timber needs, and the delivering of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Presentation 2

A Regional Platform Working Towards More Sustainable and Inclusive Forestry Practices: Experience from the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry (AWG-SF) and the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change (ASFCC)

Alfi Syakila (AWG-SF Secretariat)

The presentation takes time to explain ASEAN-level policy movements that have potential to contribute to land tenure security for forest communities, in particular through the provision of social forestry. There is an ASEAN Vision of Food, Agriculture and Forestry for 2016-2025. This strategic plan perceives an integrated market and production sector that can address food and nutrition security and prosperity in the ASEAN region. There are five working groups that cooperate in managing the forestry sector in the region. Of these five, the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry (AWG-SF) is the group directly engaging with community tenure rights. Their mandate includes the:

  • Provision of policy recommendations to enhance social forestry management.

  • Recognition and protection of both customary and statutory land tenure arrangements involving forest communities.

  • Continued access and usage rights for forest dwellers and other forest-dependent groups.

  • Supporting and integration of appropriate legislation such as FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent).

To help carry out these objectives, AWG-SF is part of the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change (ASFCC). Partner organizations in ASFCC include RECOFTC (The Center for People and Forests), CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research), World Forestry, NTFP-EP (Asia Non-Timber Forest Products - Exchange Programme), and SEARCA (The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture). The program aligns upwards to ASEAN documents, but works downwards from the regional to national and sub-national levels on a multi-stakeholder platform. This has helped lead to a significant increase in community forestry in the ASEAN region, from 6 million hectares in 2010 to 13 million hectares in 2019.

Moving forward, ASFCC partners are committed to implement a Plan of Action from 2021-2025. Priority areas of work include the development of:

  • A State and Outlook of Agroforestry in ASEAN document

  • ASEAN Guidelines for Customary Tenure Recognition

  • Legal guidelines to establish FPIC in community forestry


Presentation 3

Increasing Customary and Collective Forest Tenure in the Mekong through a Customary Forestry Tenure Regional Policy Framework

Femy Pinto (Executive Director at NTFP-EP Asia: Non-Timber Forest Products-Exchange Programme Asia)

The presentation provides information on an Alliance including NTFP-EP, RECOFTC, MRLG, and CSO Forum on Social Forestry in ASEAN. The Alliance aims to strengthen customary tenure rights in forests of the Mekong region, with an implementation phase from 2020-2022. In setting out an agenda for work, it is important to highlight some of the bright spots and weak points in forest policy and practice. The bright spots include:

  • The doubling of areas under community/social forestry over the last ten years

  • Citizen monitoring 

  • Voluntary and self-mobilization of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs)

Contradictions and weak spots include:

  • The pathway to formalize customary tenure remains unclear under present legislation

  • The inability of customary tenure areas to cope with the expansion of agribusiness into forestlands

  • The continuing untapped potential of sustainable use and management of forest areas

There is an aim to put together a Regional Customary Forest Tenure Policy Framework.

For it to be successful, such a framework must be complementary to other international standards and frameworks such as UNDRIP (Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent), and VGGT (Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security). In this way, the framework can provide policy support at regional and national levels, help enable partnerships, and allow the constructive participation of forest communities.


Panel discussion

Led by Natalie Campbell (Regional Customary Tenure Advisor – MRLG), the panel discussion explored themes raised by the presentations, looking at the best pathways for social forestry to succeed, and how regional platforms of work can gain traction.

Doris Capistrano (Senior Fellow - SEARCA) highlighted that ASEAN is an unusual region, in that there is a long-standing platform for social forestry based on consensus that has a certain power. Nevertheless, the actual site for action remains with member states. So while regional guidelines are important, it is national-level implementation that counts. Work must not only take place at multiple levels (from ASEAN to community level), but it must also be complementary. It is vital that key institutions at each appropriate level have the ability to properly implement policy in a timely manner. For the future, forestry should link closer to strategies on agriculture, mining and other sectors. Key to this is the role of CSOs and their ability to enrich the knowledge-base of governments. There will be push-backs and reversals, so flexibility is needed.

Nonette Royo (Executive Director - Tenure Facility) urged civil society to carefully follow the money and access funding offered through international platforms, which can help feed its voice. It is vital that communities must be treated with respect and this includes meaningful communication and participation. There is an urgency to act due to the fragility of forests and their communities, so one must act quickly replicating things that work, and linking effective areas of activity. So while there has been progress on social forestry, the question is “what now?” There will be challenges. Supporting land tenure is just one piece of the puzzle.

David Ganz (Executive Director - RECOFTC) called to have people on the ground, citing the decision by RECOFTC long ago to open seven national offices. Platforms are only as good as their ability to reach out to people. He agreed with the other panellists that there will be shocks to the system, and threats to its defenders. But with the right stakeholders at the table, there is every chance of success. It is not just about legitimizing tenure arrangements, but also making sure that the benefits are shared at ground level.


Key Takeaways

Julian Atkinson (Program Coordination and Technical Services – RECOFTC)

  1. There have been multiple cases of documenting customary tenure, but how can we turn this into recognition?

  2. It is true that various legal instruments relating to customary land tenure have been passed. But these must acknowledge a full bundle of rights. Instead, for example, inadequate commercial rights recognition hinder potential income benefits. Implementation is slow, and so must be fit for purpose.

  3. There are different levels of power between different groups (e.g. in terms of gender and socio-economic status) and so a process of levelling the playing field is needed.

  4. The exchange of and learning from experiences is important, both at regional and national levels. Tenure champions should be engaged and embraced through regional networks.

  5. The recognition of rights must keep a central position in a post-pandemic world. There are both opportunities and risks in ‘building back better’.


Check further details on the 3rd Mekong Land Forum