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Challenges for Forest Governance in Asia

RRI has identified several key threats to improving forest tenure in Asia through a process of Listening, Learning, and Sharing and subsequent discussions with Partners and Collaborators in the region.

Social Exclusion and Gender Inequality
Despite vast improvements in pro-poor tenure reforms to safeguard rights and livelihoods, the historical disenfranchisement of underprivileged communities continues. Within the community, women, Indigenous Peoples, members of lower castes and ethnic minorities lack adequate representation and room for participation. At the national level, they are often completely unrecognized. Even in countries with advanced tenure regimes, such as China and Nepal, geographic and cultural isolation prevents indigenous and ethnic minority communities from realizing their rights to forest resources.


In many countries, women lack the space to voice their concerns in local forest governance institutions. Women’s rights and decision-making power are considerably weaker than men’s, and institutional reforms that are beneficial to local communities often fail to incorporate gender concerns, further aggravating existing inequalities. In Asia, activists and academics from India and Nepal have made the strongest push for women’s empowerment among forest communities.


Disconnected National Planning Processes
Responding to rapid development, many national planning processes for forests unfortunately overlooked social and ecological realities. In particular, some land-use classification systems followed Western models, which were not directly applicable to the more inhabited forests of Asia. Without secure and clear establishment of the forest rights of communities and Indigenous Peoples, systems for allocating and planning land use are unable to support equitable, sustainable forest management. Moving forward, national forestry models must be based in on-the-ground research and active participation from local groups.


Along these lines, massive infrastructural development plans in many countries have the potential to enable market access for many small- and medium-scale forestry enterprises, but without local input it could instead harm forests and local livelihoods.


Regulatory Barriers
Even when tenure reforms are institutionalized and fundamental rights are granted by law, restrictive forestry regulations often become barriers to accessing the resources necessary to generate tangible benefits. Such regulations may include:

  • Granting only low-value or degraded forestlands to local communities
  • Enforcing prohibitions on production, harvesting and transportation
  • Instituting rigid management requirements with high implementation and transaction costs

These arbitrary regulations prevent smallholder forestry from becoming economically sustainable and privilege industrial timber concessions.


Land Grabs, Agribusiness and Industrial Concessions
In recent years, expanding global and national markets for food, fuel and fiber have accelerated land acquisitions by corporate interests, intensifying pressure on Asian forest resources. Forest communities are therefore disenfranchised by the growing role and impact of the private sector, which does not fully recognize local rights in order to meet the global demand for key commodities. For governments, increasing GDP and meeting food security needs has resulted in strong support for expanding agribusiness (primarily palm oil). New climate change mitigation and conservation initiatives place additional pressures on land demand.


Climate Change and REDD
There has been a significant spike in the region’s contribution to global emissions and climate change, brought on in part by increased industrial plantation activity and continued emissions from land use and forestry to meet a growing population. Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, is a major recipient of climate change funding from international mechanisms, including carbon financing. Unless core issues of tenure and safeguards are addressed early, REDD+ and other mitigation schemes will only further exacerbate forest conflict and exclude local communities and Indigenous Peoples. This emboldens governments to weaken existing rights, while industrial concessions profit from emissions offsets.