Conservation news

Does social forestry always decrease deforestation and poverty? (commentary)

  • Many governmental and non-governmental organizations see community forestry in Indonesia as a new approach to reducing environmental degradation and increasing social welfare. Despite a decade of experimentation with the concept, very little is known, however, about actual impacts.
  • Studies by the Monitoring and Evaluation of Social Forestry program (MEPS) reveal that Village Forest (Hutan Desa) areas reduce deforestation in forests allocated for watershed protection and limited timber extraction
  • In forest allocated to normal timber production and conversion, Hutan Desa areas, however, have higher deforestation than comparable forests not managed by communities. Community forestry can achieve positive outcomes, but not everywhere. The government needs to take this insight on board to help in allocating licenses and investments for this scheme.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author.

Despite decades of hard environmental battle against deforestation, tropical forest losses continue unabated. Forests are cut down to make way for cattle-grazing land, oil palm plantations or other non-forests uses. Often, governments justify this deforestation by pointing to the prospective economic and social benefits that are generated when a natural forest is turned into a plantation or other agricultural use.

While deforestation continues in many parts of the world, there is, at the same time, a growing realization that forests are actually quite important for many rural communities. For example, 66 percent of Indonesia’s poor live in or around forest, and these forests provide vital goods and services to those communities, including flood prevention, clean water, fish, medicinal plants, bushmeat and many others.

The tricky question for governments is where the balance lies. How much forest needs to be kept to maintain traditional forest livelihoods and other services derived from natural systems, and how much forest could be cut down to provide land for agriculture-based development? Which of these two options provides the best overall outcome in terms of economic development, increasing social welfare and protecting the environment? Unfortunately, with the true costs and benefits of deforestation unknown, such crucial questions remain largely ignored, and governments generally remain supportive of the well-worn path of deforestation.

Figure 1. Degraded peat swamp area in West Kalimantan where currently very little agricultural production is possible because of high fire risk, low soil fertility, frequent flooding, and remoteness of the area. When do the benefits of deforestation exceed the costs? Was this area worth more when still forested, and, if so, to whom?

Community forest management is currently often championed as a way to benefit both local livelihoods and forest conservation. This is especially relevant in Indonesia, which still has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, but is also increasingly recognizing community forest rights.

A 2012 decision of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court and subsequent ministerial regulations in late 2014, oblige local governments to reallocate 12.7 million hectares of state forest to forest-dependent communities. To put this in perspective, this equals about 7 percent of the total land area of Indonesia, which makes it one of the largest social and environmental experiments in recent history.

Two major assumptions underlie this Indonesian experiment. The first assumption is that integrating communities into forest management will increase their social welfare. The second assumption is that communities are better land managers than the industrial operators that would otherwise log or clear forests. Both assumptions combined result in the untested premise that community-managed forests in Indonesia will have lower deforestation rates than forests under government or company management.

Figure 3. The estimated mean avoided deforestation rates (ha/km2) contributed by Hutan Desa in Sumatra and Kalimantan every year between 2012 and 2016 across different land use histories (protection HL, limited production HPT, and permanent and convertible production HPTK).

To assist the Indonesian government in its decision-making, these assumptions are currently being tested through the Monitoring and Evaluation of Social Forestry program — Monitoring dan Evaluasi Perhutanan Sosial (MEPS). This program is funded by the UK-based Darwin Initiative and the Woodspring Trust, and implemented by a consortium of organizations, including the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, Flora and Fauna International (FFI), The University of Queensland, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and Borneo Futures.

The initial MEPS findings give food for thought. A recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change looked into the extent to which deforestation has been avoided as a result of Indonesia’s community forestry scheme, Hutan Desa (Village Forest).

The study found that Hutan Desa management has successfully achieved avoided deforestation overall, but performance varied substantially between study sites and between years (see figure below). Hutan Desa allocated on watershed protection forest or limited production forest typically avoided between 0.6 and 1.5 ha/km2 of deforestation compared to non-Hutan Desa sites with similar characteristics, with performance in different years being relatively constant. Conversely, Hutan Desa granted on permanent or convertible production forest did not always reduce deforestation, especially during very dry years when extensive areas of degraded forest and peatland burned. Overall, Hutan Desa on peat land performed poorly, because of the associated fire risk.

The study further indicated that limited management capacity at the village level underlies some of this underperformance in Hutan Desa, and that capacity building is a crucial component of successful community forest management. It seems that blanket deployment of community forestry programs is unlikely to lead to improved outcomes across the board, and therefore careful evaluation of this new policy is called for.

Results of these studies were recently presented to and discussed with local governments in the Ketapang and Hulu Kapuas Districts in West Kalimantan. Government representatives were surprised to see that the performance of village forest could be monitored remotely through study of satellite imagery. So far, the MEPS program is piloting its approaches in two districts and government representatives have requested a rapid scaling-up of the program to cover larger parts of Indonesia.

Figure 2. A village forest (Hutan Desa) in West Kalimantan. The sign says: “Reminder. Based on the Ministerial Decision SK 493/Menhut-11/2011, the Manjau village forest in de Laman Satong village is declared to have an area of 1,070 ha. It is prohibited to fell trees, burn the forest, damage the village forest, or hunt protected species”.

To complement the landscape-scale analysis, the MEPS team is currently also looking at social dynamics at the site-scale to investigate the role of different actors in the process of decision-making and management of Hutan Desa and how these internal and external networks influence the environmental and social performance of Hutan Desa.

Finally, the same MEPS program is also assessing the impacts of Hutan Desa development on various aspects of social welfare and a range of poverty indicators. Preliminary analysis indicates that Hutan Desa approaches do not always achieve positive outcomes for social welfare. Such studies provide valuable insights as to where and when community forest management programs are most likely to achieve their environmental and social objectives.

The tricky questions about the relative costs and benefits of alternative land uses can only be answered through robust evaluation of land use policy and on-ground outcomes. This takes time, but it ultimately facilitates better decision-making and prevents adverse outcomes for the most marginalized people in Indonesia.