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How to better manage forests and farms? Start talking

Haze in Riau, Sumatra, is a salutary reminder of how difficult it can be to manage landscapes once some “tipping points” have been passed.
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Editor’s Note: The Forests Dialogue will host a discussion session at the upcoming Forests Asia Summit, 5-6 May in Jakarta, Indonesia. This forum, Dialogue on changing outlooks for food, fuel, fiber and forests (4Fs) in Indonesia: The case of Central Kalimantan, will take the form of a ‘mini-dialogue’, drawing from the Field Dialogue to actively engage participants of Forests Asia Summit in discussion on how to support more sustainable landscape transitions in Asia. Read here for more details.

This article was originally published in the 24 April 2014 edition of the Jakarta Globe.

The persistent, high-impact and high-profile haze problem in Riau, Sumatra, has been a salutary reminder of how difficult it can be to manage landscapes once some “tipping points” have been passed. The adage about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted comes to mind. But recent issues in Riau are only one example of many worldwide — think of the history of conflicts over land use in the Amazon, or the so-called “land grabbing” for agricultural expansion in Africa.

Landscapes have been transformed by people since our ancestors began practicing agriculture. The scale and rate of change have accelerated over the past 100 years, and especially the past 50. And economic and social forces, such as rising demand for food and biofuels, and demographic changes, will continue to transform landscapes globally.

Managing landscape transformations well is the key to realizing outcomes that are sustainable, and that deliver economic and social benefits without unacceptable environmental or social costs. Indonesia, and other land- and resource-rich emerging countries, will continue to be the focus for many of these transformations.

But managing landscape transformations well is hard — often, very hard. Orderly, planned processes like those designed by academics or bureaucrats, and that look good on maps on computer screens, are almost impossible to achieve in practice. There are many competing interests to be reconciled: some of them are pressing and urgent, like improving the income of poor people; some of them are hard to value, like biodiversity and climate change mitigation. And, in all countries, there are limits to the actual power of governments to manage change on the ground.

For these reasons, landscape transformations are usually messy rather than orderly, contested rather than agreed, and thus often lead to suboptimal outcomes — for people and the environment, and between shorter- and longer-term interests. Change processes favor some people more than others, and often leave the poor behind; government, businesses and communities find themselves in conflict; and perverse, unintended outcomes — like the use of fire in peatlands — are common.

So, what to do?

One hard-learned conclusion from experience worldwide is the need to understand the landscape — not just its geography and ecosystems, but its people and values — as a whole, and to share and integrate that knowledge across sectoral interests. Another hard-learned conclusion is that it’s much easier said than done. And a third is that there are many benefits in bringing all the stakeholder groups in a landscape together, in conversation and negotiation, at an earlier rather than a later stage.

A month ago, this is exactly what the Center for International Forestry Research, a global intergovernmental research institute headquartered in Bogor, and The Forests Dialogue, a multi-stakeholder platform hosted at Yale University, did with the support of the government of Central Kalimantan and relevant ministries of the government of Indonesia. Seventy people participated, including 30 from countries outside Indonesia who had experience of these challenges in their own situations, and spanning the diversity of interests in landscapes: traditional and local communities; community-based and non-governmental organizations; government agencies with responsibilities across the spectrum for planning, land management and development; forestry and oil palm companies and their representative bodies; and researchers and practitioners.

They met for four days in and around Palangkaraya to understand and learn from how local, provincial and national governments are planning and managing landscape change in Central Kalimantan — where the governor and provincial government have been promoting green growth that benefits local people, where there are already many degraded landscapes that would benefit from large-scale investment such as that brought by oil palm plantations, and where there are globally significant environmental values such as the carbon storage of peatlands and the biodiversity exemplified by orangutans.

Participants sought to identify practical approaches that were relevant not only for Central Kalimantan, but in the nearly 40 countries they represented or worked in.

The first priority they identified was integrating the province’s development plans (for advancing economic and social well-being) with spatial plans (for determining where and how to do so).

The second was the need to strengthen the capacity of local people — including through greater inclusion, transparency and information exchange — to contribute to shaping these plans, and to ensure that the plans were a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

The third was the need to elevate the status of small-scale farmers and landholders as agents of development, through freer choice, more equitable partnerships and better connections to markets.

The fourth, complementing the third, was that engaging the private sector, whether multinational corporations or small and medium enterprises, is essential for achieving sustainable development.

And the fifth overarching priority that the participants recognized was the need to understand forests as part of a wider landscape, subject to broader economic and development forces; and that social issues — including indigenous and human rights, and better livelihoods for communities — are just as much a part of the landscape as the trees and farms.

The Central Kalimantan dialogue was only one of the many steps that are needed in helping to better manage landscape transformations. More dialogue between stakeholders, more commitment to action, and more research to support good decisions are needed.

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Further reading

Managing landscape transformations is the key to realizing sustainable economic, environmental and social benefits.

Topic(s) :   Landscapes Fire & haze Indonesian Wetlands