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Conference on Sustainable Development in East Timor

25-31 January 2001


“Asian perspective on community involvement in sustainable forest management”


Dr Somsak Sukwong, RECOFTC



Community involvement in sustainable forest management has been increasingly advocated and implemented in Asia in recent years, both because it is seen to be a practical way to manage forests and because it is important for human rights and community development. This paper explores experiences from different approaches to community-based forest management in several countries in the region. Several key lessons are identified: (1) the importance of a genuine community role in decision-making, (2) the importance of secure rights of access to forests by communities and (3) the need for institutional/bureaucratic change as a precondition in order to create space for community management.




Over the last twenty or so years there have been many experiments in community involvement in sustainable forest management in the Asian Region. There are two main reasons why community management has been advocated:


q       It is a practical way to manage forests. Community participation has been clearly shown to be an effective means of achieving effective management. If we see forest management as regulated access to and use of forests, then the people who live near and use forests on a day to day basis are obviously key actors. For many years forest departments have attempted to regulate use and access by coercion, with little success. Collective action by communities (often in collaboration with other stakeholders) is the alternative.


q       It is important for human rights and community development. People living in and around forests often rely heavily on forest products. Providing access to these resources is important from an equity point of view and can also provide opportunities for community level economic development.


There is no single “Asian perspective” on community involvement in sustainable forest management. Many different approaches have been taken in various countries, depending on different social, economic, political and environmental conditions:


q       In Nepal, there is a large scale national program in which local community level forest user groups receive permanent use rights subject to a management plan negotiated with and approved by the Forest department. This is a genuine national program. So far over 700,000ha of forest have been handed over to about 9,700 Forest User Groups involving over a million households. This is in a country with a population of 20 million. Results have been very good both in terms of forest condition and rural development outcomes.


q       In various states of India there is a Joint Forest Management Program through which community groups receive access to forest products and some economic benefits in return for protection and reforestation activities.


q       In Thailand many community-based forest protection and management schemes exist. These are generally locally-initiated and occur in the absence of any supportive legislation, but with the support of civil society and sympathetic forestry officials.


q       In Vietnam and some other socialist and post-socialist economies, forest land is being transferred to local people for management purposes. This generally occurs on an individual rather than a community basis and there are some difficulties involved in this.


While these cases are indeed diverse, and while no single model for community forest management has emerged, or is likely to emerge, there are some general lessons to be gained from the diverse experiences.


q       The term participation is used in many ways, ranging from manipulation and enforcement, through mere use of local people as a workforce and “convincing them” of the value of forests, to allowing them a genuine role in decision-making (defined as setting management objectives). Successful community forest management requires a real degree of community input into decision-making.


q       The likelihood of effective community management is increased when communities have secure access to forest products. This does not have to be in the form of absolute “ownership”, but can be in the form of guaranteed use rights or negotiated agreements between government and communities.


q       Implementation of large scale community management requires a paradigm shift by forestry officials, away from techno-centric and policy roles towards facilitating roles. Consequently institutional (bureaucratic) change is a major, if not the major, challenge in implementing community-based management.