Community Forestry in Cambodia

Community Forestry in Cambodia

Participatory management systems are emerging slowly in the wake of poorly controlled forest concessions.

People and Forests in Trouble

By the late 1990s, more than half of Cambodia’s forestland was licensed to 30 companies as logging concessions. The government had expected that under private sector control, forest resources would be well-managed, and the 6.5 million hectares under concession could generate up to US$100 million annually for the country’s coffers.

Instead, the poorly controlled forest concession system was a dramatic failure. A small proportion of rent for concessions reached the state. Meanwhile the timber companies and increasingly rampant illegal logging depleted forests resources at alarming rates. By 1997, it was estimated that 4 million cubic meters of illegal timber were pilfered each year — eight times what could be taken sustainably.

In response, the government ceased new logging concessions in 2002. However, soon afterward, the government began approving more economic land concessions, which allowed forest clearance for agro-industrial crops such as rubber and other plantations. Deforestation has since continued at an alarming rate, and much forestland is slated for conversion to other uses.

The widespread forest loss and damage during this period has been devastating for millions of Cambodia’s rural poor, as most depend on local forests for products such as fuelwood, rattan, resin, and mushrooms. Research shows that nearly half of Cambodia’s rural households, more than 5 million people, rely on forests for 20–50% of their livelihood. For another 15%, or more than 1 million people, forests provide over half of their livelihood.

As the millennium drew to a close, the government’s international commitments, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), underscored the importance of finding a solution to the forestry crisis. In 2002, the country’s National Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, a vital document for continued international support, required all sectors to contribute to the national goal of poverty reduction. And in 2003, the country committed to achieving 60% forest cover by 2015 in order to meet its own MDG targets.

The Emergence of Community Forestry

The government needed a solution to the country’s forestry crisis, so it turned to community forestry.

Cambodia had first experimented with community forestry in the mid-1990s via small pilot sites. A national working group drawn from civil society, donors, and the government forestry agency collaborated to begin developing a national policy and legal framework.

Following the success of these pilot projects, the government began to take steps toward setting up a national community forestry program. In 2002, a new law gave Cambodia’s Forestry Administration the authority to grant areas of production forest to local community management. Soon after, in 2003, a community forestry sub-decree officially recognized community forestry as a national policy.

However, with the 2002 law and the 2003 sub-decree, community forestry existed only in theory. These pieces of legislation allowed donors and NGOs to begin offering considerable support to the Forestry Administration, local governments, and communities to set up pilot sites, but these sites had no path to legalization. For the time, there remained a lack of guidelines on how to establish and implement community forestry and insufficient institutional capacity to handle applications. Thus, community forestry sites remained informal and susceptible to the threat of economic land concessions and other outside influences.

In 2006, the Forestry Administration introduced much-needed community forestry guidelines, called Prakas. In a series of steps, the Prakas clearly established the process for identifying, legalizing, and managing the forests. Although some of the steps still need simplification and greater transparency, their creation was a huge step forward: They allowed theory to become reality and made possible the establishment of a national community forestry program.

Five years later, in early 2011, almost 450 sites were in progress, including more than 100 that have achieved legal agreements. Altogether, documented community forestry sites covered nearly 400,000 hectares by the beginning of 2011. While no national figures are currently available on how many households have community forestry membership, RECOFTC’s project sites, which account for roughly half of Cambodia’s community forestry areas, involve 60,000 households from 450 villages.

Community forestry continues to gain momentum in Cambodia today. Approved in 2010, the National Forest Program provides the policy direction and framework for achieving sustainable forest management through 2030 and earmarks more government funding to expand the national program. It sets a target of creating 1,000 community forests with official legal status by 2030. With the current sites averaging nearly 1,000 hectares, this would mean 1 million hectares under community management — some 10% of the country’s total forest area. The program also names community forestry as the preferred forest management model for engaging in REDD+.

Challenges ahead for community forestry in Cambodia

Other Forms of Community Forestry

While the flagship community forestry form described above is the priority for projects and the government alike, Cambodia also has provisions for piloting the engagement of local people in forest management in other situations.

  • Community-Based Production Forest: A pilot scheme to combine aspects of community forestry with responsible commercial forestry activities over large areas of forest with a longer time frame.
  • Partnership Forestry: A system in which commune councils are the management body, rather than community forest management committees.
  • Community Conservation Forestry: Within the Forestry Administration’s Protection Forests, which are subject to conservation goals, pilot projects involve local communities in forest management with more limited use rights.
  • Community Protected Areas: Within Protected Areas under the control of the Ministry of Environment — a different category of land than those described above — local communities may enter into an agreement to manage specially zoned areas for non-timber forest production. Commercialization of timber is not allowed.

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