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At summit, experts urge expanding equity as pillar of green economy

Investment in inclusive research is needed all along the value chain to support rural, forest-based livelihoods.
The question of equity was a running theme of discussions at the Forests Asia Summit. ©Center For International Forestry Research/Aulia Erlangga

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For Southeast Asia to have a “green economy,” it must be founded on equity, experts said at a recent conference dedicated to charting a sustainable course for the rapidly growing region.

In a development context, equity covers how allocations of costs, risks and benefits are shared as well as who gets a voice in planning and dispute resolution.

It is a crucial concept for Southeast Asia, which is experiencing vast demographic, economic and environmental change: By 2030, the region is expected to have 84 million more people than it does today, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). That is the equivalent of another Vietnam, but without a comparable amount of land. How to acquire the resources to support inclusive growth and equitable opportunities for all without further degrading the environment?

Enter the green economy.

“Green economy is generally defined as a system which results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities,” said Yurdi Yasmi, Forest Policy Officer for Asia and the Pacific at FAO, during the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta in May. Such a model, he said, would be “low-carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive.”

The question of equity was a running theme of discussions at the Summit, less a centerpiece of the conversation than a backdrop.


Inclusive, equitable development in a green economy will require more than ambition, technology and funding, one participant indicated: It will require the knowledge that comes from continued research.

Using an example from his home country, Norway’s ambassador to Indonesia, Stig Traavik, spoke of the Vikings’ settlement of Greenland as a cautionary tale for the need for better knowledge. Successful in conquering Greenland, Traavik said, the Vikings did not know how to sustainably manage the island’s finite supply of resources.

“They expanded, and they expanded, until suddenly someone cut down the last tree,” he said during the Summit’s closing plenary. “Things went downhill from there.”

A potentially similar scenario is in the offing in Southeast Asia if companies and governments continue with “business as usual,” more than one participant said at the Summit. Unsustainable development and agricultural expansion, including agroforestry such as oil palm, threatens to hasten the region’s already high rate of deforestation: Each year in Southeast Asia, an area three times the size of Jakarta is cleared of its trees.

Throughout the two-day Forests Asia Summit, participants called for making development and research efforts inclusive of local communities and smallholders who depend on forest resources for their livelihoods — and who are most vulnerable to the drastic changes taking place across the landscape.

Overexploitation of natural resources for the sake of growth has put our resources far beyond their ecological limits

Yurdi Yasmi

Success stories included an agroforestry project in Indonesia, in which local participation was a linchpin of research intended to boost Central Javan teak farm outputs by improving smallholders’ farming practices and marketing capacities.

“Local farmers can be difficult to convince to change their ways of cultivation, so we include them in our research activities,” James Roshetko of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) told attendees at a discussion forum at the Summit.

“Farmers will listen more readily to their peers who have successfully tried something new than to researchers they don’t know,” he continued. “This is why local farmers can be great at doing the PR work.”

This type of research — inclusive of local communities from the start — is needed all along the value chain to support rural, forest-based livelihoods that support equitable outcomes, another panelist added.

“With increased investment in research that can endorse better practices, we will see higher returns: from growing timber over processing to selling,” said Tony Bartlett, Forestry Research Program Manager at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

In the spirit of equitable development, panelists urged research projects to be designed and implemented in a participatory manner, in order to understand issues from the perspectives of farmers, traders and governments alike. Similarly, smallholders need the same access to markets as agribusinesses, panelists said; equitable market access would improve smallholders’ choices of what to produce and how to market it, Bartlett said.

‘Cannot do it alone’

Finance was one of the most heavily discussed themes of the Forests Asia Summit, with investment experts all but pleading with policymakers to unlock trillions of dollars in private capital for sustainable landscapes.

Institutional money is looking for new markets, concurred Adam Grant of New Forests, a firm that manages investments in environmental markets. “The finance and investment sector can facilitate change,” he said.

Panelists at the Summit widely agreed on the need to change a business model in which natural resources fuel growth, and which does not figure environmental and social costs into economic data.

“Overexploitation of natural resources for the sake of growth has put our resources far beyond their ecological limits … we are now using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support our activities,” said the FAO’s Yasmi.

But just as the benefits from a new business model cannot all accrue to one sector, the burdens cannot all be borne by one sector, some argued.

Forest management that supports both green growth and poverty reduction is possible, but will require broad cooperation, said Aida Greenbury of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a major paper-pulp producer with large land holdings in Indonesia.

Speaking on a high-level panel at the Summit, Greenbury said that without market recognition of green investments, companies do not have incentives to go green. A company can risk losing ground to its competitors, she argued, if it alone has to shoulder the additional costs of engaging in a greener business model.

While her company has made recent commitments toward zero-deforestation plans, “APP cannot do it alone,” she said.

This theme was echoed throughout discussions at the Summit. The problems facing Southeast Asia — and the challenges of shifting to an equitable, sustainable economy — are too large for any one institution to address on its own, participants said.

“There is no other solution,” said Rodrigo Chaves, head of the World Bank’s Indonesia office, “than to reach across [sectors] and get it done.”

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