Forest rights create new livelihoods in Myanmar

In Myanmar, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is transferring the rights to forest land – and all its potential bounty – to local communities. Duncan Macqueen explains how this important move, supported by peer-to-peer learning, is helping to establish new long-term livelihoods.

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Insight by 
Duncan Macqueen
Duncan Macqueen is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group
05 December 2017
New Community Forest Instructions give communities rights to commercially sell timber and non-timber forest products, such as such as rattan and honey (Photo: Duncan Macqueen/IIED)

New Community Forest Instructions give communities rights to commercially sell timber and non-timber forest products, such as such as rattan and honey (Photo: Duncan Macqueen/IIED)

It is impossible to talk about Myanmar without acknowledging the persecution of the Rohingya by the country's armed forces over which the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi's governing party, has no constitutional control. 

Yet, away from this ongoing situation – which highlights the tense power dynamics between the elected government and the military – the NLD is supporting positive changes in forest and agriculture through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC).

This is a hugely significant policy area in a country where around 70 per cent of the population live off the land and 17 million people are classified as 'forest dependent'. 

Putting communities in control 

In 2015, MONREC established a Community Forestry National Working Group and a Community Forest Unit, tasked with transferring 918,000 hectares of forest land from government hands to community forest management by 2030. 

The following year, MONREC clarified, in new Community Forest Instructions, communities' rights to commercially sell timber, non-timber forest products (NTFPs), and ecosystem services, in line with the government's 'market-led approach to community forestry'. 

These developments are bearing fruit. Just over 800 community forest areas in 2015 have grown to more than 3,000 in late 2017, with many government and non-government organisations aligning to support the transition. 

For example, the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) has been providing direct support to 15 forest and farm producer organisations (FFPOs) in Rakhine, Shan and Ayeyewaddy states both at community level and at township level, where several community forest user groups have associated to market their products. 

Training to grow income opportunities 

Not only are forest user groups restoring and better managing the land they now control, FFF-sponsored training has enabled greater income from forest compatible crops (such as understorey coffee and tea), timber thinnings, and NTFPs such as rattan and honey.

Last month, an annual monitoring and learning meeting of FFPO grantees shared success stories. These included news from Kyeintali, where a township-level community producers association has upgraded the sorting, processing and packaging of palm leaf roofing materials and achieved a 20 per cent increase in price for its products. Training on how to sustainably manage bamboo forests and innovate in product design has further helped the association access new markets for baskets, fish traps, chairs and sunshades. 

Participants at last month's annual monitoring and learning meeting of forest and farm producer organisations shared success stories (Photo: Duncan Macqueen/IIED)

The power of learning exchanges

An FFF-funded learning exchange also took place this November in Kachin State, another area of longstanding conflict between ethnic groups and the Myanmar military. Supported by the Asian Farmers Association, 57 forest farm producers from ten Asian countries experienced new community forest developments in that state, where NGOs ECODEV and Shalom have, like FFF, built a township-level community forest product producers association. 

The participants traded ideas with the nine civil society member organisations of the Kachin Conservation Working Group about a wide range of support activities, including seedling and nursery development, plantation of both timber trees and crops, carpentry and craft business development. 

Learning exchanges serve three crucial aims. First, they give community forest user groups confidence in what they are doing, and reduce the potential sense of isolation for groups based in remote areas (either hosts or visitors). 

Second, they are useful for spreading progressive ideas. In this case, an association of community forest user groups showcased a new rattan enterprise in Wuyan community, producing products from understorey rattan cultivation. Within the Wuyan community forest user group itself, participants were shown how 263 households have been assigned individual responsibilities for restoring – and then benefitting from – the forest landscape. 

Third, growing confidence and ideas mean participating forest farm producers can be more persuasive and influential in pushing for a more enabling policy environment for community forest businesses at home, by pointing to progress elsewhere. 

A vision for the way forward

Recognition of, and respect for the resource rights of Myanmar's many local ethnic communities is a vital part of the peace process. 

It was fitting, therefore, that following the exchange, a regional conference on forest and farm producer organisations (FFPOs) was hosted in Myanmar's capital city Nay Pyi Taw to advance the cause of community forestry regionally. 

The conference, titled 'Forest users to producers: scaling up FFPOs business to implement Sustainable Development Goals in climate resilient landscapes', delivered an outcome statement comprising six messages. 

They all emphasise the role of empowered forest and farm producers in meeting many of the Sustainable Development Goals in Asia, alongside any more specific contributions to the Myanmar peace building efforts. It was noted that many Asian countries have recently seen:

  1. Strong progress by forest and farm producer organisations (FFPO) in delivering sustainable development
  2. Reforms aimed at securing of FFPO land and forest tenure, business rights, and product transport and export processes, which are driving forest restoration and poverty reduction
  3. Innovations in better business incubation support that are accelerating the profitability, sustainability and social cohesion of FFPOs
  4. FFPOs engaged in increasing numbers of useful partnerships with government and the private sector
  5. Active entrepreneurial experimentation by FFPOs in their organisational and business models which is creating new knowledge, and
  6. Better opportunities to upscale FFPOs positive economic, social and environmental impacts, which are emerging due to a growing strength in numbers of FFPOs themselves. 

Duncan Macqueen ([email protected]) is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group.