The murder of Ou Yon, a local NGO activist in Kompong Thom who was assisting a local
community to defend its rights against a "land grab" by powerful officials
and business interests, is sad and deplorable (Foul play stalks community forest,
PPP Nov 10-23).
Unfortunately, it reflects a problem that is widespread and worsening across Cambodia:
rural Cambodians are losing access to natural resources on which their livelihood
depends. The losses are occurring both because of "grabbing" by those with
power and influence and because existing laws, policies, and institutions fail to
adequately recognize and protect the interests and customary rights of rural people.
The reliance of rural Cambodians on agricultural resources and fisheries is widely
recognized. Although less recognized, forest resources are also essential to the
livelihood and welfare of nearly all rural Cambodians. These resources are used for
direct needs such as food, medicines, construction materials, and farming and fishing
tools; as a vital "safety net" in times of shortages and stress; and as
important elements in cultural, spiritual and environmental systems.
Unfortunately, forest laws, policies, and institutions generally deny local people
the right to use and benefit from forests, and thereby prevent harnessing the capacity
of rural people to contribute to sustainable forest management. Based on conventions
unchanged (and unquestioned) since colonial times, forest laws and policies vest
authority for forests in centralized state agencies, and have weak requirements for
public participation, transparency, accountability, or independent review of agency
decisions and actions.
As an instrument of conventional forest management, large industrial-style forest
concessions - currently the favored strategy for improving forest management in Cambodia,
especially promoted by the World Bank - have a dismal record of disrespect for local
use and customary rights to forests. Needless to say, rural communities are often
the losers in conflicts involving forest concessions.
Millions of Cambodians depend daily on forest resources, and thousands of rural communities
have de facto customary rights to local forests. The failure to adequately recognize
these needs and customary rights in forest law and policy results in ambiguity and
lack of guidance to rural communities, to agencies and officials responsible for
rural communities and forests, and to organizations supporting rural development
and forest management.
The participation of local people in forest management ensures that the needs and
customary rights of rural people are recognized and reflected in forest management.
Moreover, worldwide experience provides compelling evidence that efforts to manage
forests without the participation of local people are inefficient and usually doomed
to failure, leading many countries to adopt policies that promote and enable community-based
forest management. A number of pilot projects around Cambodia - in coastal mangroves,
flooded forests of the Tonle Sap, and upland and highland forests - are demonstrating
that community forestry is a viable strategy for sustaining forests and meeting local
These projects and experience from elsewhere are informative for establishing law
and policy in Cambodia that enables the participation of local people in forest resource
management. Community forestry is not the only viable strategy for managing forests
in Cambodia, but it is the only viable strategy for forests in which rural people
have customary rights or economic dependence. Recognizing community forestry as a
key element of national strategy for forest management - in law, policy and practice
- is essential for achieving sustainable forest management that responds to the needs
and interests of Cambodians.
Forest-related needs and rights of rural communities are beginning to be recognized
in limited contexts, including the management of forest concessions, protected areas,
and fisheries. However, there is no comprehensive or general policy recognizing and
upholding the rights of rural communities to forest resources, nor policy coordination
across agencies responsible for forests or between agencies responsible for forests
and rural people.
Efforts to formulate a national policy for community forestry have stalled over differences
among government agencies and other community forestry advocates, particularly over
institutional authorities in relation to community forestry. In a proposed subdecree
submitted by MAFF to the Council of Ministers, sole authority for community forestry
would be vested solely in MAFF. This proposed policy does not reflect earlier recommendations
by a joint government-NGO working group for a broader institutional framework for
community forestry. And it has been criticized by community forestry advocates who
point out that it fails to provide assurances of genuine community participation,
decentralized decision-making, and fair resolution of conflicts needed for community
Several principles need to frame and guide community forestry and distinguish it
from conventional state-centered or concession-based forest management. These include:
- Law and policy should provide local communities with rights to manage and benefit
from local forests on which they depend or to which they hold customary rights, and
guarantee that community interests and investments in forests are not violated or
revoked without fair compensation.
- The institutional strategy should provide for the integration of community forestry
as part of civil governance and rural development, thereby enabling rural communities
to manage local forests in coordination with locally based development planning.
The strategy should emphasize decentralized decision-making and assure local communities
of participation, transparency, and accountability in decision-making by authorities.
This strategy is best expressed in the SEILA rural development framework, into which
community forestry should be integrated.
- Law, policy and development assistance should enable a pluralistic and pragmatic
approach to community forestry, wherein a range of government agencies and non-government
organizations can participate in promoting and supporting community forestry in relation
to their respective mandates and capacities in community-based development and resource
It is especially important that community forestry not be simply be amended to
existing centralized state-based forestry, but instead be recognized as a fundamentally
new approach to forest management, requiring a new institutional strategy that can
effectively represent and blend community values, rural development, civil society,
and forest management. The need for enabling law and policy for community forestry
is widely recognized. However, the status of community forestry in the draft forest
law is not known, and the proposed community forestry policy currently before the
Council of Ministers does not meet the principles outlined above and is not broadly
supported by community forestry advocates outside MAFF.
It is noteworthy that Prime Minister Hun Sen recently took actions to protect the
rights of local fishermen and to ensure that fisheries will be managed more effectively
to benefit Cambodians, reversing the trend in which a small powerful elite was capturing
most of the benefits from the nation's fisheries.
The forest sector is in need of similar reform, which would be much more far-reaching
than that proposed to date in the draft forest law and proposed community forestry
policy. If the sad death of a community forestry advocate in Kompong Thom can serve
to raise awareness and bring about the establishment of law and policy that adequately
protect the rights of local communities to forest resources on which they depend,
then millions of rural Cambodians will benefit from the vision and courage of Ou