A community forestry scheme introduced by the military junta has allowed some communities to preserve traditional livelihoods, but heavy-handed government control and bureaucratic delays have stymied potential progress.
By KYAW LIN HTOON | FRONTIER
WHEN CHARCOAL burners began casting covetous eyes over the mangrove forest next to coastal Kanyin Chaung village in Tanintharyi Region, its residents joined forces to protect a natural resource that had served their community for generations.
The threat emerged in about 2005 and it worried the mainly ethnic Karen villagers, who had seen the destruction wrought by charcoal burners on mangrove forests in nearby coastal areas.
Then the villagers had some good fortune. A retired professor from the University of Forestry and Environmental Science lived in a nearby village called Aout Thayet Chaung. He told them they could apply to manage the mangrove forest for 30 years under what’s known as the Community Forest Instructions, which were issued by the military government in 1995, the same year it released a Myanmar Forest Policy.
As well as preserving a precious natural resource, the villagers hoped to turn their community forest into a sustainable form of income through a community-based tourism enterprise. However, a long wait lay ahead of them.
“We started applying in 2007 but it took almost 11 years for us to be able to establish this as a community forest,” said U Win Zaw, secretary of the Kanyin Chaung community forest, in Tanintharyi’s Thayetchaung Township, near the regional capital, Dawei.
Eventually, a user group of 269 members from the village of around 1,900 people was granted a certificate to manage the 205ha (508-acre) mangrove forest.
“Our mangrove forest is very rare; it has remained untouched because our ancestors never allowed charcoal burners or timber merchants to get into the forest,” Win Zaw said.
Community forestry – the control, protection and management of forest resources by rural communities – provides a model of conservation that, in principle, avoids the marginalisation of communities associated with top-down, state-led forms of forest governance.
Providing for the participation of people in the conservation and use of forests is among the six core objectives of the 1995 Myanmar Forest Policy, which remains in effect despite a new Forest Law being passed last year replacing a 1992 statute.
However, the number of community forests in Myanmar remains low and the manner in which the instructions have been implemented over the past 25 years seemingly contradicts the idea of community-led forestry. Many attempts by communities have been frustrated or substantially delayed by the Forest Department, which is the key player in authorising community forests, and the burdensome bureaucracy entailed in the application process.
A 30-year forestry master plan launched by the Forest Department in 2001 set a target of establishing community forests on 918,636ha, or three percent of total forest land in Myanmar, by 2030. As of November last year, community forests had been established on only 221,169ha, or about 24 percent of the target, according to data compiled by Voices for Mekong Forests, a European Union-funded project being implemented by a consortium of national and international NGOs.
Government figures show that community forest approvals have increased significantly since 2014, however. Over the past four years, 162,480 ha of community forest has been created, compared to less than 60,000 ha in the preceding two decades.
“Community forests are 100 percent important for the forest sector of our country but there are many challenges, even [in turning] three percent of all forest land into community forests, as in the master plan,” said Dr Maung Maung Than, country director of the Center for People and Forests (Recoftc), a Bangkok-based group that trains communities on local forest management and is part of the Voices for Mekong Forests project.
He said community forests could be an effective way to protect mangrove forests like Kanyin Chaung, but so far just a small proportion have gained community forest certification.
Tanintharyi Region has the largest remaining stand of mangrove forests in the country and has mostly been spared the destruction seen in Ayeyarwady Region and Rakhine State, where mangrove forests have been decimated for use in charcoal production and to make space for aquaculture.
“There are currently 1.5 million acres (about 607,000ha) of mangroves in Myanmar, but if compared with other types of forests inland, the deforestation rate of mangroves is about three times faster,” said Maung Maung Than.
Forestry experts say one reason for the slow progress in establishing community forests, despite the efforts of groups such as Recoftc, is that few people in rural areas were properly aware of the scheme, and those that were lacked the resources to overcome government bureaucracy.
When it receives an application, the Forest Department is required to conduct a survey of the proposed forest. The group that submitted the application then draft and submit a management plan. The department considers whether the plan is suitable and whether the group applying is capable of implementing it; if the department is satisfied, a 30-year community forest certificate is granted to the group. The department is then supposed to monitor whether the group properly manages the forest, and it has the power to terminate the community forest certificate if the forest is not managed well.
But the reality on the ground is quite different. Win Zaw said it would never have been possible for his community to apply for permission from the Forest Department to establish the community forest without the support of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been active in Myanmar since 1993.
Win Zaw said the first problem the community encountered when it initiated the application process a decade ago was that the Forest Department did not have a sufficient budget for land surveys and other preliminary tasks.
The assistance the WCS provided to the community was invaluable, said Win Zaw, and included covering the cost of transport and surveys for government employees as well as sponsoring the training of community forest users.
Saw Pay Kay, 42, once harvested timber from the mangrove forest together with some other residents. It was more than two decades ago, he says, and the amount was relatively small – just enough to supplement his income selling fruit and vegetables in Dawei.
“We did it because we lacked awareness [of the environmental consequences] and wanted to earn more income from selling firewood. But I only did it for a couple of years before I stopped, and now I focus more on my farming,” said Pay Kay, who has coconut and areca palm plantations and also grows cashews, pepper and cardamom.
Today he is chair of the Kanyin Chaung community forest. He said he hoped that the community forest could help stem the outflow of young people to Thailand by creating new job opportunities, particularly in tourism.
“When they came back to the village, many of them were addicted to drugs and alcohol,” he said. So we community forest members have decided to implement a community based tourism [project] using this forest.”
But amendments to the Community Forest Instructions mean there is now a new and controversial means for user groups to generate income from their forest: logging.
The 1995 instructions had prohibited commercial logging but allowed trees to be felled by community members to build houses, schools or public health centres, but amendments introduced by the National League for Democracy government relaxed the ban.
U Kyaw Zaw, deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, said logging would enable communities to benefit commercially from community forests while also conserving the forest.
Community forests can take many forms but each requires their own management plan. Although the mangrove forest next to Kanyin Chaung village is well preserved, other sites need rehabilitation and re-planting.
Saw Nho Hpaw chairs a group that manages a 971ha community forest at Kot Hlaing village in Tanintharyi’s Yebyu Township, near Dawei.
Nho Hpaw said the creation of the forest group had benefitted the community in many ways, for instance in enabling coordinated responses to fires that had been common in the forest next to Kot Hlaing village, as well as permanent fire mitigation measures.
“Since we formed the community forest group, we all help to fight fires in the forest, and we have also started building fire breaks,” he told Frontier.
Nho Hpaw said his father was once involved in the logging industry. Although his family did not become rich like the contractors or illegal loggers who came from other parts of Myanmar to exploit the area’s forests, he said he wanted to “give back by planting and other conservation work so that this forest that has nurtured us in so many ways does not disappear”.
The forest in Kot Hlaing is one of 21 community forests in the township. Yebyu now hosts more than any other township in Tanintharyi Region, said Saw Nho Hpaw, who also chairs a network of forest user groups in Yebyu that have received support and funding from several international organisations.
Until 2012, active armed conflict had also held back the establishment of community forest groups in the vast forested areas that stretch from Dawei to Myeik, where there had been decades of fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Union, and earlier between the Tatmadaw and the New Mon State Party, another ethnic armed group.
“Before the KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement in 2012, some of the forest areas around those townships were not peaceful. Clashes could break out at any time between the Tatmadaw, KNU and NMSP,” said U Zaw Thura, the founder of the Dawei Research Association.
The growing number of community forests since 2012 was one of the dividends of the peace process, he added.
Myanmar’s political reforms had also enabled international organisations to play a more active role in the country, he said, and their support had been crucial for establishing community forests.
Others though are critical of community forests, arguing that they can facilitate land grabs and only give user groups, rather than the entire community, the right to use the forest. At the end of the 30 years, the Forest Department can decide to cancel the certificate, and even during the 30-year period the community forest can be forcibly acquired with compensation.
Activists like Naw Pe Tha Law, an adviser to the Tarkapaw Youth Group, are instead urging the government to allow indigenous and community conserved areas, or ICCAs, that would give indigenous communities greater control over forest governance in perpetuity.
“Under existing laws, the government only allows community forests. A major concern for communities is that the existing [community forest] laws favour production more than conservation,” she said.
Naw Eh Htee Wah, coordinator of the Conservation Alliance Tanawthari, said the government should introduce an ICCA Law, such as that being considered in the Philippines.
Despite these concerns, the number of applications for community forests continues to rise in Tanintharyi Region. Zaw Thura said 90 groups were waiting for a decision on their community forest applications – around three times the number of existing community forests in Tanintharyi.
Zaw Thura said several factors had contributed to the delays, including overlapping administration between the government and non-state armed groups, a lack of viable access roads and a shortage of Forest Department staff.
An access road is essential even for approved forests, said Nho Hpaw. “We need an earthen road at least 10 feet wide to have access for plantations and conservation work and it would also be useful for when we are trying to attract visitors who want to go hiking in the jungle,” he said.
The community forest leaders at Kanyin Chaung say they also need a road to support their plan to establish a community-based tourism enterprise.
The Kanyin Chaung mangrove forest is bordered on one side by a 6.4 kilometre (four-mile) beach with beautiful causarina trees lining the shore. Following a visit to the area in late June, regional government officials in early July outlined the rules for establishing a community-based tourism project in the community forest area.
Win Zaw said the application process for the project had been fairly smooth, in contrast to efforts to establish the community forest.
“The government is ready to grant permission if a majority of our 200 members agree to the rules, but the problem is that we would need a two-mile road to reach into the mangrove forest and would also have to build walkways for visitors to observe nature,” he said.
If the tourism enterprise showed potential, the community forest group would also need to build accommodation for visitors on vacant land owned by the village, he added.
Win Zaw said the objective of the tourism project was to generate income for all the community from what he described as a “unique” mangrove forest.
“The more we earn, the more we can invest in conserving the area, including by accessing modern conservation technology and doing research,” he said.