Challenges in managing the “forest commons” in the Mekong Region

Rajesh Daniel By Rajesh Daniel - Sep 8, 2013

Forest resources with common pool characteristics face new and complex challenges in sustainable management, was the message that emerged from the SEI-SUMERNET roundtable on “Forest Commons in a Rapidly Changing Mekong”.

(cc) 2013 Photo by SEI Asia

On 23rd August 2013, at a roundtable held in Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University organized by SEI-ASIA and the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), scientists and policy practitioners discussed the management of different types of forest commons in the Mekong Region.

Forest commons play a significant role in the lives of many local communities in the Mekong Region. Many forestlands have common pool characteristics in being used, shared and managed by communities for timber, non-timber products and also to maintain stream quality for irrigation. Nearly everywhere in the Mekong Region, forests and woodlands as well as fishing grounds in wetlands and rivers are being used as common pool resources i.e. shared for multiple purposes by a defined set of users often working under a non-formal set of rules and regulations.

The users of these “commons”, usually the local communities that depend on these resources for livelihoods, often have agreed-upon rules or certain prohibitions on the use of harvesting tools and methods (e.g. mesh size of fishing nets), specified seasonal uses (no mushroom collection during specific months or no fishing during the breeding season), and rules protecting against the over-harvesting of resources (eg. collection of non-timber products in certain areas).

icird01The roundtable, chaired by Dr. Louis Lebel, SUMERNET Advisor and SEI Associate, opened with reflections on the recent rapid changes in land-use, livelihoods and patterns of investment and trade in the Mekong Region that are providing a dynamic context to how forestlands are being managed.

Dr. Eric Kemp-Benedict said that the contestations over the multiple uses of forests often arise due to how a “forest” or “forest land” are defined as it often depends on the perspective of the forestry department, ecologist and conservationists, or grassroots resource users.

Dr. Pornchai Uttarak of Mahasarakham University in Thailand said that communities often had their own classification of forest areas depending on their use such as for firewood collection, grazing or conservation.

Evaluation and monitoring of forest resources can be complicated especially in countries like Myanmar where logging has expanded in the absence of proper assessment of the loss of forest areas. Mr. Win Htut Aung from Asian Development and Research Institute in Myanmar stated: “We do not know even the amount of forest area remaining due to lack of accurate studies.”

Apart from socio-economic changes, perspectives about forests are also changing, according to Dr. Chusak Wittayapak of Chiang Mai University, leading to newer forms of contestation that is quite unlike in the last few decades when the state was viewed as the sole agency involved in disputes with local people over the control of forested areas.

“Nowadays, forests are viewed in terms of ecosystem services. These areas are contested in terms of how to control and regulate forests with an increasing trend to introduce market-based mechanisms”, Dr. Chusak said. He pointed to global issues like global climate change and natural disasters as examples of the changes in the way that forests are viewed and the terms by which access is being negotiated.

The roundtable looked at the key social justice issues including aspects of women’s rights and gender issues arising from the use of forestlands. The influence of the larger political economy also was reflected upon as structures of resource management policies can often result in the unsustainable use of forestland.

“Many forestry projects often end up exploiting women’s labor and time but the women themselves may not obtain any benefits from these projects despite their increased workloads,” said Dr. Bernadette P. Resurrección of SEI-Asia.

Mr. James Bampton from the Bangkok-based RECOFTC-The Center for People and Forests said that conflicts and killings of people due to land-related conflicts have been increasing over the recent years. This can be attributed mainly to state agencies handing over forestlands to companies for mining, hydropower reservoirs, and tree-planting concessions leading to local resource-users being displaced or prevented from access to these forest areas.

icird02But for Dr. Bui Duc Tinh from Hue College of Economics in Vietnam, social justice issues are sometimes only of indirect concern for communities who are more worried about how to maintain their own livelihood security.

Despite many challenges, a “commons logic” in forest management could offer a way forward for beneficial results for forestland management and ensure that people who depend on forest-based resources are also involved in its management.

For instance, community-based or co-management approaches in the “commons logic” can improve social and environmental outcomes in forestland management. The forest commons can be integrated as part of governance systems to protect and promote the interests of poor and vulnerable groups in society.

The SEI-SUMERNET “forest commons” roundtable was organized at the 3rd International Conference on International Relations and Development (ICIRD 2013) “Beyond borders: Building a regional commons in Southeast Asia” held in Chulalongkorn University, 22-23 August 2013. The roundtable was supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network ( through SUMERNET.

More information is available from the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) at

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