Community Forestry and the Stewardship of Tropical Forests in Asia

Wil de Jong


Mark Poffenberger, editor
Keepers of the Forest: Land Management Alternatives in Southeast Asia
West Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A. / Kumarian Press / 1990

M. Victor, C. Lang, and Jeff Bornemeier, editors
Community Forestry at a Crossroads: Reflections and Future Directions in the Development of Community Forestry
Bangkok / RECOFTC Report No. 16 / 1998

Char Miller, editor
“Forest History in Asia”

Special Issue of Environmental History 6 (2) 2001
Available online at

Christopher Barr and Ida Aju Pradnja Resosudarmo
Decentralizaiton of Forest Administration in Indonesia: Implications for Forest Sustainability, Community Livelihoods, and Economic Development
Bogor, Indonesia / CIFOR Occasional Paper / Forthcoming

At the recently concluded World Summit on Sustainable Development, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa called for an end to global apartheid between rich and poor. He pointed to the fact that 1.2 billion people live in grinding poverty and some 800 million are undernourished, while rich countries spend about USD 1 billion per day subsidizing agriculture. This subsidized agriculture prevents poor countries from accessing markets with products they can supply. Mbeki accused the rich countries of maintaining a “savage principle of survival of the fittest.” In this world, in which power flows from control over productive resources, poor nations need to identify leverage points to use in negotiations with the rich. Home to a diverse range of environments, poor countries do have environmental assets. These are the tropical forests and rich marine resources, mangroves and mountains that are abundant locally, but scarce globally, as pointed out by contributor Jin Sato in Community Forestry at a Crossroads. These are assets that poor countries, in theory, could use to bargain for a bigger share of global wealth.

But to be able to use natural resources in this way, they must be kept in good condition. There has been a wide-ranging debate over the last three decades over who should hold stewardship—rights and responsibilities—over Asia’s tropical forests. Stewardship includes responsibility for the well-being of the forests, but also the right to benefit from their resources. On one side is the call for forest stewardship by rural communities living in or near the forest; on the other are those who are sceptical of its feasibility. In this essay I will review how the debate evolved and sketch out some of the contesting positions. My arguments will remain inconclusive, because the debate itself is ongoing. Nevertheless, I will identify some important issues that need to be put on the community forestry agenda over the years to come. Admittedly, my conclusions are personal and not without bias or the flavor of advocacy. However, I am joining a large group of writers on this issue who complement factual arguments with opinion.

The promise of community forestry

A number of events brought the issue of stewardship of tropical forests to the forefront of the international development and conservation debate. The period from the end of World War II through the 1980s was a period of emergency and the wide adoption of International Development Assistance. The Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 created the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now called the World Bank). The United Nations and its crucial UN Development Program (UNDP) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) were established, as was the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (supporter of my own organization, CIFOR—the Center for International Forestry Research). These all reflect an international concern for a more equitable development of economic wealth among nations and among their inhabitants. In the 1970s an environmental component was integrated into the development discourse when the Club of Rome and later the Brundtland Report (1987) questioned the impact of the planned economic growth on natural resources and the environment. Soon this debate shifted to a worldwide concern about tropical forests and the detrimental impact their destruction might have on the world’s climate, biodiversity, downstream environments, and the like.

Thereafter, the potential of trees and forests to improve incomes and livelihoods of large segments of the rural poor became prominent in the rural development debate. This led to the establishment of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) and CIFOR. Since the 1980s the idea of communal stewardship over tropical forests has come to the forefront. Many became concerned about the destructive impact of corporate exploitation of tropical forests, which was generally backed up by colluding forestry departments. It seemed to make sense to put local communities in charge of tropical forests. It was expected that this would contribute to the non-destructive use of those forests and at the same time give the new stewards the opportunity to improve their lives. The concept of community forestry was born.

Community forestry has strong advocates among the NGOs that operate on the local level supporting recognition of the rights of tribal groups. These have been instrumental in achieving actual control by some communities over tropical forests, as related in David Edmunds’ and Eva Wollenberg’s “Historical Perspectives on Forest Policy Change in Asia.” (This article is the introduction to “Forest History in Asia,” the special issue of Environmental History. EH is an interdisciplinary quarterly portraying human interactions with the natural world from the perspectives of history, geography, anthropology, the natural sciences, and many other disciplines.)

FAO now has a separate Community Forestry program. Both the current and previous director of my own organization have stated to the media their profound believe in the need to widely transfer forest custodianship to local communities. But the concept has an equal number of detractors. All the works discussed here suggest that forestry officials are usually sceptical. Essentially, they do not believe local communities to be capable of managing forests the way forestry officials want them managed. Often, too, the private interests of forestry officials are threatened when control is transferred to local communities.

The roots of community forestry

Community forestry advocates point out that local groups living in remote corners of countries like Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and India have been managing forests for centuries. Quite a few researchers, myself included, have supported this argument by documenting long-term local forest management practices among largely self-contained communities. Several of the contributors to these volumes have looked back even further. EH provides examples of successful communal practices that existed before colonial times. The same accounts portray a history of denial of such local practices by forestry departments. In most cases this led to dispossession of communal forests. Stories are provided from India, the Philippines, China, and Nepal in EH and from Indonesia and Thailand in the volume edited by Mark Poffenberger, Keepers of the Forest. The stories follow a similar pattern everywhere. Until the late nineteenth century, colonial powers in Asia had little control over large stretches of forests. But interest surged in the colonies’ rich forest resources as markets demanded new products and metropolitan governments demanded higher revenues from their dependencies. The colonial powers (and Thailand) then set up forestry departments following a western, mostly German-based, approach to forestry. Local communities, their interests, and their experience in maintaining the forest as a productive resource to meet daily needs were almost totally ignored. A long period of widespread conflict followed between officialdom and local communities over access, control, use-rights, and ownership of forests stripped from communities after centuries of custodianship.

The colonial powers eventually returned home, but essentially no change occurred under postcolonial states. The newly independent regimes embraced modernism, especially in their treatment of valuable forest reserves. Very soon, in country after country, the private interests of the power elite became the guiding principle of forestry policies and practice. It should be noted that in addition to centuries of maintaining these productive resources, people in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and India had originally planted much of the forest that they considered their own. But state agencies claimed control over them and largely ignored demands by native inhabitants (now citizens). The picture is generally bleak, though Ramachandra Guha in EH points to progressive thinkers, including some amongst the colonial rulers, throughout history. Unfortunately, according to Edmunds and Wollenberg, they had minimal influence at their time.

Community forestry and the winds of political change

The trend toward increased local stewardship over forests is not an isolated phenomenon. It coincides with a worldwide search for more effective governance, which has often led to decentralization, wherein regional and local governments get stronger mandates and authority to run affairs within their jurisdiction. For instance, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand have enacted laws since the 1990s to devolve important parts of central government authority to lower level government. The effect of decentralization on custodianship over forests, however, is not entirely clear. In Community Forestry at a Crossroads, contributor Maria Victoria M. Sabban provides some evidence of its impact on community forestry in the Philippines. Progressive legislation gave increased authority to lower levels of government, which has resulted in increased administrative demand on communal groups that hold stewardship over forests. Although this is partly a result of trying to incorporate communal forest control into state administration, lower level authorities have also drafted new guidelines for communal forest management because they are reluctant to relinquish control over forest areas. This has become much more obvious in Indonesia, as illustrated in Christopher Barr’s and Ida Aju Pradnja Resosudarmo’s Decentralization of Forest Administration in Indonesia. Along with authority, decentralisation since the late 1990s has given district governments the responsibility of generating much more of their own revenues. In forest rich districts, governments promote oil palm plantations and logging, both legal and illegal, to generate that revenue. The process of political reform in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto has, in fact, created legal opportunities for small communal forest concessions, something unthinkable under the previous regime. These communal logging concessions are a sad story. The process is led by opportunistic village elites in collusion with outside timber traders. The result has been a progressive destruction of Indonesia’s remaining forests on a scale not seen in the previous era of corporate logging.

Logging, both legal and illegal, generates revenue

What hope for communal stewardship of Asia’s tropical forests

Although these examples suggest little hope for communal stewardship of Asia’s tropical forests, several of the volumes do relate positive cases. In the Philippines, for example, Saban notes that by 1997 almost 3 million hectares of forestland in more than 600 sites nationwide were under recognised community control. The state of West Bengal has passed through stages of blame, negotiation, and true collaboration in a process leading to genuine communal stewardship of forests, or Joint Forest Management, according to Edmunds and Wollenberg. There has also been formal recognition of age-old forest production systems on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Despite these successes, however, Edmunds and Wollenberg note slow progress toward increased local stewardship in most places. There are quite a few reasons why they believe this is the case. It should be recognized, first of all, that fairly successful local forest management has been disturbed by years of central control. Furthermore, forest officials continue to be reluctant to give up control, even if official discourse favors the transfer of mandate and authority to local communities. This is because they generally do not believe in the capacity of communities to take care of the nation’s natural treasures and frequently do not want to give up lucrative sources of income. Often, therefore, control has been transferred over low quality or degraded forests only, not the healthy resource-rich forests. As a result, communities have been given a responsibility and burden, not an asset that contributes significantly to their well-being. The problem, however, most certainly does not lie within forestry departments and governments alone. Communities often lack the technical, institutional, and organizational skills to take up these responsibilities. And very often, transferring control to local communities just reinstates the power base of local elites.

An agenda for community forestry in the years to come

To conclude, it may be useful to identify a possible agenda for community forestry over the coming years. The authors of the four volumes do point out that local communities have yet to receive true authority to take care of forests within their own territory. And handing over authority has to be considered in conjunction with two other trends. First, that forests are of increasing value to a larger number of constituencies. And second, that Asia’s tropical forests are being increasingly degraded, which may limit even the interest of local communities in taking responsibility for them. There is, therefore, a great need to invest in the restoration of tropical forests that have been seriously degraded, an effort in which local communities could play an important role.

Formerly, forest departments, on behalf of colonial and postcolonial governments, contested the capture of forest benefits with local communities. Today tropical forests are valuable to many more stakeholder groups. They are valuable to people worldwide for the biodiversity they hold, the carbon they store, and the climate they regulate. Within each nation, demands on forests have increased as well. The national middle class in a country like Thailand may expect national forest resources to be dedicated predominately to their interests. Pinkaew Luangaramsi, in Community Forestry at a Crossroads, tells us that this sentiment actually led to protests against a community forest bill in 1996 that middle class groups feared would jeopardise their access to forests for recreational purposes.

Edmunds and Wollenberg argue that the new demands of wider groups of stakeholders will require more complicated negotiations over which rights direct users of forests hold and which they must relinquish to outside stakeholders. Although much of the literature on community forestry calls for transferring property rights to local communities, in years to come these claims need to be specified in more detail in order to reach agreement between all interested parties. It is probable that community forestry will increasingly take the form of co-management, rather than absolute control by communities alone. This will demand more capacity on the part of the local users, who will need to understand different demands, negotiate sets of rights and responsibilities, and implement agreements.

The next question is: How attractive will stewardship be over degraded or poor quality forests? While communal control over forest areas is progressing, if slowly, it goes hand in hand with a progressive decline in the quality of forests. When communities are simply given back forests with little value left, it is not likely to be successful as a means of improving the condition of the forest and the livelihood of the people. There must be incentives for communities to assume stewardship over such forests.

This leads to the question of the role of local communities in the restoration of forests. It is increasingly evident that governments and international agencies will want to invest in restoring forests that have been degraded by logging, fire, or other causes. These are the forests that may be targeted to become community forestry areas. Therefore, agreements will need to be made between local communities and outside parties regarding the compensation local communities will receive.

In sum, although slow progress has been made in transferring stewardship over Asia’s tropical forests to local communities, the issue is still very much alive. The debate and action agenda of community forestry has passed through the initial period of launching the idea to the next stage of forging interest among governments, forestry departments, and other key players. Focus now needs to be trained on the opportunities and constraints existing within the communities who will become responsible for much of what remains of Asia’s tropical forests. The struggle over the next years will shift from who should control forests to how communal stewardship can become feasible and attractive to communities while meeting the demands of other constituencies. This will require intensified negotiation over rights and responsibilities, more investment in capacity-building within state forestry agencies and local communities, and new ways to determine compensation for the restoration and preservation of forests that provide national and global environmental services.

Wil de Jong
Wil de Jong is a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia. He can be reached at

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 2 (October 2002). Disaster and Rehabilitation