By Myat Ko Ko Oo and Noe Noe Aung (FFI Myanmar); Charlotte Hicks (UNEP-WCMC)
Why do people set up community forests and continue to participate in them? The most common answers in a recent survey of several community forestry user groups (CFUGs) in Myanmar included the desire to restore and maintain forests around their villages, to protect these forests from outsiders, to make an investment for their children, to promote more sustainable use of forest products, and to secure irrigation water for agricultural crops. But how often do community forests deliver on these expectations?
Community forestry - a participatory approach to the management, conservation, and use of forests, where local communities play a central role in decision-making and benefit-sharing - can deliver multiple economic, social and environmental benefits. These benefits not only flow to community members, but can also contribute to achieving national goals for the sustainable management of forests and economic development. At the same time, poorly managed community forestry can lead to negative outcomes for local communities and the environment, such as unequal distribution of benefits or use of inappropriate tree species.
Monitoring the progress and impacts of community forestry is essential if it is to deliver these benefits, while minimizing risks. Yet few countries or communities have put in place systematic and regular monitoring. Where monitoring exists, it tends to focus on process and more traditional forestry parameters, like number of trees planted, amount of wood harvested, and so on. Barriers to regular monitoring of social and environmental impacts include accommodating the specific context of community forestry projects, difficulties in generalizing or synthesizing findings across different community forests, the lack of baseline data for comparisons, and limited resources for ongoing monitoring and evaluation.
Community forestry in Myanmar faces similar challenges in terms of monitoring progress and impacts. As of February 2021, there were a reported total of 6,402 community forestry groups, covering an area of 873,856 acres, and involving 163,788 members . However, this is likely to be an underestimate of the extent of community forestry in the country. Additional challenges for implementing, strengthening and monitoring community forestry also stem from uncertainties and insecurities due to the current political crisis in Myanmar.
There is a clear need to develop a practical approach that can collect information from communities to understand the interim and long-terms impacts of community forests. Through the UN-REDD project ‘’Sustainable Forest Trade in the Lower Mekong Region’’ (SFT-LMR), FFI Myanmar, UNEP-WCMC and partners have begun to tackle this need with the development and initial testing of a Community Forestry Impact Monitoring Framework.
The framework itself is based on a series of logical tests to generate information on whether or not desired impacts of community forestry are being realized, and why positive or negative results are being achieved. The main method is social surveying, meaning interviews and focus group discussions with community members, making this a practical and accessible way to advance impact monitoring.
The framework also focuses on three fundamental and interlinked factors that are identified as helping to drive effective governance and sustainable outcomes for community forestry: decision making, participation and income generation, which are also correlated and mutually reinforcing .
Three interconnected factors for sustainable community forestry
Initial piloting of this framework took place in four villages in Indawgyi region and three villages in Mohnyin region of Myanmar in 2023, and highlighted the potential of community forestry to deliver benefits, but also several barriers faced by CFUGs. The community forests in Mohnyin region have successfully acquired official certificates (i.e. registration with the authorities), while those in Indawgyi region have encountered difficulties, due to challenges in securing the required approvals from the relevant departments. The impact of community forests on village development is substantial, from creating employment opportunities to contributing to increased forest cover. Nonetheless, these CFUGs still struggle with issues like illegal logging, declining membership, and decreasing populations of wildlife. The initial pilot study emphasizes that CFUGs need to be supported to address these challenges to ensure the enduring success of community forestry initiatives.
The newly developed Community Forestry Impact Monitoring Framework is a step forward for improving the monitoring and evaluation of community forestry and the benefits it can deliver. Further testing of the framework and generating more evidence on the impacts of community forestry are still needed – to ensure that community forestry initiatives are designed and implemented in ways that benefit communities, the environment and the economy over the long term.