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Seeking Peace and Saving Asia's Forests: Forest Conflict in Asia

January 30, 2007 // 2:00pm4:00pm
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Mismanagement of forests undermines efforts to strengthen governance, slows economic development, impoverishes rural people, and can contribute to instability, argued Mary Melnyk, senior adviser for natural resource management in the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Asia and Near East Bureau. She was joined by ARD, Inc. Senior Associate Jim Schweithelm to discuss the findings of USAID-supported projects that sought to analyze and reduce forest conflict and deforestation in Asia. The meeting, hosted by the Environmental Change and Security Program on January 30, 2007, also included the screening of a new USAID video examining efforts to preserve forests and promote peace in Cambodia. The conference built on a December 2005 panel discussion held at the Wilson Center about ways to reduce conflict and promote conservation in Asia's forests, as well as explore the role of partnerships among governments, NGOs, and the private sector.

Forest conflict in Asia remains a pressing issue today—in fact, of the 27 countries in USAID's Asia and Near-East Bureau, nearly half are affected by ongoing violence over forest land and related resources. Governments, rebel groups, and warring factions often use revenue from timber and other wood products to finance armed conflict. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge used timber sales to finance its dictatorial regime. Forest products have also funded conflict in Afghanistan, Burma, Nepal, and the Philippines, while political officials in other countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia, have used forest revenue to buy political support and generate income to maintain security forces.

Examining the Causes of Forest Conflict

Drawing on the findings of two recently completed USAID assessments, Schweithelm argued that forest conflicts are brought about primarily by weak governance. In the absence of rule of law, various stakeholders—loggers, political and security officials, migrants, and communities—compete over the same pieces of forest for "mutually exclusive" purposes, he explained. Consequently, these groups often exercise what power they have to gain control over scarce forest resources, fueling tension and often leading to conflict. Contentious relationships between stakeholders are often exacerbated by population growth, forest clearing, expanding road networks, and poorly conceived economic policies that provide short-term financial gains but lead to long-term environmental problems. Schweithelm stressed that the underlying forces of each case are contextual: "You can't really make generalizations."

Fierce competition over forest resources often leaves forest-dependent communities unable to sustain their livelihoods, forcing those affected by the violence to relocate. In Cambodia alone, 1.7 million people have been displaced from their land over the last 10 years as a result of ongoing forest conflict. At the same time, Melnyk explained that local-level conflicts, in the form of protests and armed assaults, have become more widespread. The USAID-funded video, Resolving Cambodia's Forest Conflict, chronicles the impact of illegal logging practices, forest degradation, and conflict on local communities that rely on forests as their sole source of income. One Cambodian woman told the filmmakers, "[I] would rather die by the bullet than starve to death," offering a stark illustration of how dependence on natural resources can drive violent behavior.

Ending the Violence

Efforts to bring an end to forest conflict must include measures to strengthen the legal framework governing forest management and protecting the land tenure of those living in forest-dependent areas, argued Schweithelm. Describing the current legal framework governing forests in many Asian countries as "outdated," he urged those governments to implement policies to fight corruption, and also to improve control over their militaries by reforming the security sector. He emphasized the need to build partnerships with representatives from local communities, government, and security forces, as well as engage the private sector and NGOs, to ensure the creation of legitimate policies. He cited Indonesia's attempt to rapidly reform forest management through decentralization as an example of how poorly conceived policies can lead to more conflict and increased forest degradation: "Getting everybody to the table is…extremely important."

Initiatives to improve governance must be coupled with efforts to provide forest-dependent communities the necessary tools and knowledge to engage competing forestry stakeholders in a peaceful manner. This engagement can be achieved, said Schweithelm, by educating local forest users about their legal rights, as well as facilitating a dialogue between community representatives and government and private-sector officials. Empowering communities can be beneficial in other ways, particularly in the peacebuilding process. The results of a USAID assessment in Nepal show that fostering grass-roots ownership can be rewarding: strengthening the community's capacity for governance of the forest helped establish influential small-scale democratic institutions that, in turn, improved the management of Nepal's valuable forest resources and provided more economic opportunities.

Moving Forward

Encouraging consumers and forest-product industries to purchase conflict-free wood products is critical to saving Asia's forests, said Melnyk, urging the creation of internationally recognized definitions of illegal and conflict-sourced wood to help companies make responsible purchases. She also encouraged U.S. policymakers to influence domestic demand by implementing a more comprehensive supply chain tracking system. Finally, Melnyk called on NGOs, as well as the academics and policymakers, to work with USAID to raise awareness about the links between forest and conflict, and to promote the sound management of forest resources as a critical component of economic development, environmental conservation, and good governance. With the destruction of Asian forests continuing at an alarming rate, she cautioned that the international community must work fast to address the issue before it is too late: "Now is the time to act."

Drafted by Ken Crist.

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • U.S. Agency for International Development
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