Tuesday, 28 July 2009

To Create Healthy Forests, Put Them in The Hands of People Who Need Them

July 28, 2009

Ahmad Maryudi Jakarta Globe

Community forestry has widely been heralded as a way to achieve sustainable forestry, particularly in the developing world. Its introduction in Indonesia was mainly inspired by models in Nepal and India. The approach is meant as an alternative to “scientific” industrial-scale forest management, a system widely perceived to result in forest loss and degradation while failing to contribute to the economic development of local residents.

The main value of community forestry is that it should involve local forest users and inhabitants in the decision making and implementation of forestry activities. The perceived failures of industrial forestry in the developing world have often been attributed to the lack of local people’s involvement. Jack Westoby, a former director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s forestry department and once a proponent of large-scale forestry, later said “forestry is not about trees, it is about people.”

Community forestry aims help forest dwellers out of poverty. Some of the poorest households in the country dwell in or near forests. An estimated 40 million people — nearly a quarter of the country’s population — live in forest villages, and many of them depend almost entirely on forests for subsistence. Some are from indigenous groups living traditional lifestyles. Many more use forests for essential fuel for cooking and heating.

Some current community forestry programs (HKM), such those implemented in some Indonesian islands, and colloborative forest management programs (PHBM) in almost all of Java’s forests, aim to achieve just such goals. But while such programs have been hailed for offering better benefits to forest residents, one can opine that it is the forestry officials who benefit most from these actvities. Some wonder whether these programs are truly aimed at the welfare of forest communities.

Over the years, forestry officials have failed in many of their reforestation efforts, often losing their investment in the early phases. Even if the officials were able to cultivate the stands, experience has shown that they are powerless in preventing their logging by forest residents or outsiders. The massive blight of illegal logging toward the end of the 1990s suggests that forest officials will continue to lose trees if management approaches do not involve forest dwellers.

In community-based programs, forest residents are expected to replant, cultivate and protect stands of new growth. It is rather obvious that officials benefit from these programs in two ways. First, they can reduce or even avoid the cost of “raising” the forests until they are ready for harvest. Second, they claim most of the harvest, a prize that cannot be guaranteed without the cooperation of the community. This has led some critics to refer to PHBMs as “Pengelolaan Hutan Berbiaya Murah,” or “Low-Cost Forest Management.” Such schemes are even more exploitative than previous social forestry programs, which have been said to be no more than “land for labor” deals.

To be fair, forest authorities today offer better economic incentives from the sales of forest products. In PHBM programs, Perhutani, the state forest enterprise in Java, pays a 25 percent share, while HKMs in regions such as Gunungkidul (Yogyakarta) are likely to offer 40 percent. It is an improvement on the past, when social forestry programs offered such limited economic benefits as temporary access to forestland for agricultural cropping and nontimber forest products.

However, experience tells us that proceeds from forest sales are rarely enjoyed by direct forest users. Communities have to wait for years to obtain economic benefits because it takes 40-60 years for stands to reach the harvest stage, depending on the species. Cases have shown that forest officials are reluctant to switch long-rotation species to fast-growing ones.

Even if communities have already received a share of the harvest sales, this money is rarely seen by direct forest users. Gempol, a forest village in Randublatung, Blora, has received about a billion rupiah ($100,000) from the forest authority over the past five years. Less than 5 percent of this sum has been allocated to direct forest users.

In addition, forest resource users are now facing increased difficulty in accessing the forests. In the past, they might have been allowed access for grazing, collecting wood for fuel or even cutting timber for small-scale construction, albeit illegally in the eyes of forest officials. Now, complex permit systems are being set in place that force communities to fall in line.

On the bright side, there are a few exceptional cases. Communities in Krui, Lampung, have been given access for harvesting and collecting both timber and nontimber products, mainly dammar resin. In return, the community has to maintain tree stands in the dammar agroforest area and pay tax on timber and other products that are extracted for commercial purposes. Elsewhere, a community forest in Sungai Utik, West Kalimantan, has successfully obtained a forest stainability certificate from the Indonesian Ecolabeling Institute. Still, public forest access in both cases must be officially approved, and there signs of improved livelihoods are scant.

Community forestry programs have yet to genuinely involve forest dwellers in decision making, leaving local stakeholders left out of discussions on delineating borders, deciding where to plant, choosing species, scheduling rotation cycles and so on. Instead, all decisions are dictated from the top down.

“Bottom-up” schemes tend to include ideas on using faster-growing species that would more quickly benefit users due to short harvest cycles. In addition, the needs of other agricultural spaces in forests are rarely taken into account because of the way they impinge on space for timber species. In Banyumas, Central Java, a proposal to plant coffee in a part of the forest set aside for agriculture failed. Proposals to thin the forest canopy to allow more sunlight to reach crops are often denied, as in the cases of Purworejo and Wonosobo, also in Central Java.

It remains true that programs are still heavily controlled by the state. Prior to implementation, forest dwellers are required to organize in a legally registered group, without which they are prevented from engaging in the programs.

This contradicts regulations that encourage local communities to decide what is best for them. Within forest villages, there are several social organizations that could be employed instead of establishing a new entity. Some analysts even accuse the requirement to establish such groups of being a strategy to control political dynamics within communities.

Despite the best efforts to involve communities in forestry, positive outcomes for forest dwellers have yet to be realized. Despite promising schemes to share profits with local residents, they still only enjoy limited economic benefits, far less than they deserve to compensate for their efforts in caring for the forest.

Policy makers and forest managers should explore ways to genuinely address forest dwellers’ needs and improve public access to forest resources. And the handful of successful programs should be used as models for ushering in new initiatives for forest communities around the country.

Ahmad Maryudi is a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University and the executive director of the Institute for Forest Policy and Environmental Studies.