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What's at stake in Borneo / Rainforest Action Network via flickr

Deforestation and community-outsider conflicts

Ahmad Dhiaulhaq | 23 December 2013

Deforestation-related conflict reflects the power relations between forest users.

Whenever the media discuss the consequences of deforestation, they often focus on the environmental impacts, like the loss of forest cover and biodiversity, habitat fragmentation, soil erosion, and the loss of carbon contributing to climate change. However, a large amount of research has highlighted that deforestation, including conversion of forests to other land uses like plantations, agriculture or mining, can also have social consequences. One of the most frequent is conflicts between local communities and external actors like logging, plantation and mining companies and government agencies. These are known as community-outsider conflicts.

The link between deforestation and conflict can clearly be seen when overlaying the location of deforestation around the world, as presented in the findings of the recent publication in the journal Science, with where forest conflict hotspots are found. This shows that, for example, Southeast Asia is one such hotspot. The nature and scale of forest conversion basically make conflict inevitable because of competing interests and claims, thereby often undermining the needs and interests of the local communities that inhabit the land.

Forests in Southeast Asia serve as a home for 120-150 million - primarily indigenous – people who rely on forest resources for their livelihoods. In addition, because they consider them as their own, most indigenous forest people see themselves as inseparable from forests, especially in relation to their beliefs, culture and way of life. Therefore, deforestation can be detrimental to many aspects of their forest-dependent lives.

Deforestation-related conflict reflects the power relations between forest users. It is an area in which the legitimate power and interests of different forest stakeholders, like the government, investors, concession holders, local communities, and NGOs interplay. The way in which one of these parties uses its power can be a cause of conflict when it impedes and is unacceptable to other parties. Southeast Asia’s forest policy and governance has a long history of ‘state knows best’ mentality, which is reflected in top-down decision making and in the authority to the government given by laws and regulations, and a history of strong influence of corporations and other businesses in forest management. In order to boost economic development, the governments of Cambodia and Indonesia, for example, conceded significant tracts of land to private companies for investment in large-scale plantations and agriculture expansion through a concession system, which often not only leads to forest degradation but also undermines the rights of local communities.

Considered as a ‘less powerful’ party in comparison with the government and large companies, local communities are especially vulnerable to the displacement and dispossession of land, access restriction and disturbance of sources of livelihoods. Many conflicts arise when local people feel or perceive injustice due to outsiders’ interventions to their forest and land. Unfortunately, weak governance, unclear tenure and economic development policies that prioritize global and national interests over local needs and aspirations only exacerbate the situation.

For companies, conflict with local communities can significantly increase their financial risks, leading to higher operating costs, disruption of or even closure of their operations. Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) can be an important tool to prevent such conflicts. This can be achieved through early consultation with local communities, participatory social and environmental impact assessments, and non-coercive negotiation between the companies or government and local communities. Mutually acceptable agreements resulting from these efforts can provide greater security for the company and reduce the aforementioned financial risks.

It is unfortunate that many efforts to curb deforestation through forest conservation also often lead to conflict. There are many cases where the establishment of protected areas in Southeast Asia, like national parks, where the intention is to prevent or eliminate human exploitation and occupation of forests, does not include early consultation and actually excludes local communities that have been settled in the area for generations. More recently, global efforts to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+), are expected to exacerbate current conflicts, or even generate new ones. Conflicts might arise because REDD+ is expected to create new zoning regimes, which in turn results in more restrictions to forest access, overlaps with other land uses, and competing claims over land, forests, and carbon.

To prevent and mitigate the negative impacts of deforestation-related conflicts, a robust and sound conflict transformation approach is critical. This includes identifying and addressing the overarching issues that can cause conflict in external forest interventions like forest conversion, conservation or REDD+. Researchers at The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) have developed a predictive framework to identify areas that are possible sources of conflicts in forest management: access and use, benefit distribution, competing demands, conflict management capacity, leadership, legal and policy framework, participation and communication, quality of resources, and tenure security. Unless these issues are addressed, it is likely that conflict over forest intervention may arise.

For current conflicts, a timely and proper conflict transformation approach to address their direct and underlying causes is essential. In the event that conflicting parties cannot resolve the conflict by themselves, negotiation assistance by a third party might be needed, such as via a mediator. Our recent study suggests that mediation plays a crucial role in transforming forest conflicts in Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia. Mediation facilitated by a third party has provided a platform for multi-stakeholder dialogue, helped build trust between parties, created an environment for positive dialogue, and has assisted in problem-solving processes.

In the long run, meaningful changes at the policy level should also be pursued, especially since many forest conflicts are policy-driven. But as long as government policies and regulations ignore and/or fail to secure the rights of local people, and tenure is unclear, the roots of conflict may not fully be withdrawn.

Photo credit main picture: What's at stake in Borneo / Rainforest Action Network via flickr