Strengthening forest governance is vital for growth of Southeast Asia’s forests

Jeffrey Williamson
Laos is in the Greater Mekong Region in Southeast Asia. The area is seeing increasing forest loss, according to a report. RECOFTC/Rattep Autra

Jeffrey Williamson is communications associate with the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC). Any views expressed are his own and not those of the Center for International Forestry Research.

The Greater Mekong Region (GMS) in the transnational region of the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia experienced a 5.1 percent decline in total forest cover from 1990 to 2015, according to a recent study conducted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Based on current data, this trend is predicted to get worse.

From 2010 to 2015, the total loss of forest was 325,600 hectares a year with positive growth rates in certain countries. These figures, however, partly hide the fact that many countries are reforesting large areas through plantations, while their natural forests are being lost at an incredible rate.

Consequently, World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) predicts that the GMS could contribute up to 17 percent of the total amount of global deforestation experienced by 2030.

Measuring forest vitality, however, has always been susceptible to ambiguous terminology, and state and non-state actors are prone to vehemently disagree when interpreting data.

“When conducting research on forest health, it is important to conduct a multi-stakeholder process in conjunction with, for example, remote sensing maps,” said David Gritten, a researcher at the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), a regional organization that promotes community forestry.

“Each stakeholder has a vested interest in defining what land is degraded and what land is healthy, which partly explains why you see a difference in opinion.”

Gritten believes that a stronger presence of civil society organizations (CSOs) in forest governance systems will help mitigate this problem by fostering a more inclusive multi-stakeholder approach and facilitate a better understanding between local communities and government officials creating policy.

Voices for Mekong Forests (V4MF), a regional project led by RECOFTC, began in 2017 to address this problem by doing just that.

“Governance nowadays involves multiple processes that often require and can benefit from the active and positive contribution of civil society,” said Etienne Delattre, project coordinator for V4MF, in an interview. “[CSOs] bring the voices and convey the messages [of] local people and grassroots.”

Yet to the detriment of the region’s communities and forests, recent crackdowns on environmental activists, indigenous leaders, and independent media outlets show an increased resistance to including non-state actors in the processes.


The environmental community often posits the same simplified explanation for the region’s forest loss: economic development has led to rapid deforestation to the detriment of the region’s population.

Although this is indeed a noteworthy and accurate correlation, a report published by V4MF allows for a more nuanced understanding. Addressing Forest Governance Challenges in the Greater Mekong Subregion goes beyond the common explanation that often negates the positive benefits of economic growth.

“Instead of providing the same explanations, our study wanted to dig deeper into the issue of deforestation,” said Delattre. “The report shows a need to address the region’s current predicament in a realistic fashion while promoting equity.”

Large scale agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, illegal and unsustainable logging, mining operations and forest fires are indeed listed as the main drivers of deforestation in the report. Agriculture in particular has expanded rapidly in the last 30 years, increasing by 20 per cent in the region, as indirect drivers of deforestation, such as demographic shifts, have continued to increase.

These drivers, however, are situated within a larger, more structural context that is overlooked by many researchers, government officials and practitioners: weak forest governance systems.

“This facet of analysis is important to understanding how deforestation in Southeast Asia can be reduced,” added Delattre.

In particular, state-sanctioned land conversion to large scale agriculture is developed at the cost of local farmers and forests, and businesses oftentimes have a far easier time obtaining land use rights, leading to a harmful inequity that reflects a latent problem of exclusion.


As the report shows, the forest governance laws in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) and around the world are prone to systematic failures in the implementation, compliance, and enforcement of forest governance laws.

Just recently in Cambodia, conservation activists claimed that the country’s forests experienced an increase in illegal logging as the July 2018 election neared, while in Thailand, the recent progress of a community forestry draft bill sidestepped any mentions of indigenous communities living in conservation areas. The result was that “a top court ruled that a group of Karen evicted from a national park had no legal right over the land.”

Other issues include the enacting of complex forest laws in a top-down manner, excluding CSOs and local communities. “Some countries have taken steps to open up space for them, but when legal frameworks consider them outsiders, they can do little to protect and restore forests.” said Lok Mani Sapkota, a researcher at RECOFTC.

Sapkota’s recent research was presented at the Timber Legality Research Symposium (TLRS) in Copenhagen. By analyzing the barriers to timber production in the Asia Pacific region at large, Sapkota concludes that legal instruments that exclude local voices can increase the cost and complexity in supplying timber, which hinders local communities from financially benefiting from the forests. In turn, this can have negative consequences for forest cover.

“When someone else designs the process, it is not unusual for it to be difficult, costly and beyond the [community’s] capacity, making them less interested in the program,” Sapkota said.

The region’s current situation did not occur in a political or historical vacuum, but is rather part of a larger history of centralized control, corruption, and natural resource exploitation. Starting with colonial encounters in particular countries, the perceived mismanagement of natural resources by local communities was used as a perverse justification for colonial intrusion and natural resource extraction.

The system of centralization that occurred in colonial times proceeded to influence the structuring of contemporary forest management policies, further exacerbating the political consequences of colonial exploitation. And with a low score on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index,” centralization has provided an opportunity for some officials to misrepresent conservation data and profit.

This has culminated in the region’s reputation as a major deforestation zone with limited forest governance. Unfortunately, as the demand for timber and other forest products increase in consumer-heavy states across the Global North, more stress will be placed on the forest governance systems in the region.

The correlation between centralized forest management, corruption, and natural resource extraction is implicitly acknowledged in Addressing Forest Governance.

WWF and RECOFTC staff conducted an assessment using the Enabling Environment Assessment Tool (EEAT) to better understand stakeholder perceptions of forest governance in their respected country. Pillar Three, which measured “Implementation, enforcement and compliance,” ranked considerably lower than the first two pillars. Specifically, however, the poorest perceptions were directed towards “measures to address corruption.”

This indicates that governments must do more than have solid foundational forest governance laws.

“I fought for my country for more than 30 years. I’ve served as the village chief,” commented one community member as part of another research study. “Yet when the authorities come here … they walk in through my gate, point and mark it with paint … then say my land must be used for conservation,” demonstrating the reluctance of government officials to include local communities voices.

As the V4MF report shows, this problem is still pervasive. Many participants believe that the proper laws are in place, but that implementation is lacking, leaving many frustrated and voiceless.


In his opening remarks last year for the V4MF National Inception Workshop in Vietnam, Nguyen Van Ha, deputy director general of VNFOREST, equivalent to the Ministry of Forestry, emphasized that even though Vietnam has made significant progress in strengthening governance systems through inclusive measures and Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), there are evolving challenges.

As he noted, the impacts of global climate change and the pressure on forests due to development requires Vietnam to strengthen forest governance systems.

According to the project’s recent report, governments in the region can begin by developing a specifically designed monitoring system accessible to local communities and civil society actors, providing capacity development programs for non-state actors, and furthering a larger communication campaign directed to educate consumers to choose carefully when buying forest products.

These activities have the potential to lessen the negative impact of ineffective government policies and allow for local communities to take a more active role in the protection of their forests and livelihoods.

These activities also help address larger, structural issues that are prevalent in governments across the world, acting as a platform to promote land rights, enquire about indigenous forms of conservation knowledge, and ensure an equal participation in other governance systems.

This connection is understood by many of the region’s environmental leaders. As Khieu Borin, the director general of Cambodia’s Department of Local Community in the Ministry of Environment noted in June of last year, “A robust governance system is essential for natural resource management, and the fundamentals of good governance are based on equity, accountability and full participation.”

Now with the fundamentals in place, V4MF is encouraging governments to close the governance gap and place more trust in local communities and CSOs to manage the forests so forests in the region can be strengthened.

All views are the authors own, and not those of the Center for International Forestry Research.
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