BOGOR, Indonesia (19 August, 2011)_Local communities that depend on forests for livelihoods are not always conservationists by nature, as is often assumed in forest policy and programme design with a recent study by CIFOR in Indonesia’s Jambi province, on the lush island of Sumatra, showing that forest-dependent communities in one particular district usually favour economic development at the expense of forest conservation where developments will improve livelihoods.
“Whatever the community’s attachment to traditional livelihoods and beliefs, if they have to chose between economic development and forest conservation, they rarely chose the latter,” said CIFOR’s Laurene Feintrenie, head author of “Local voices call for economic development over forest conservation: trade-offs and policy in Bungo, Sumatra”.
In 2009 CIFOR carried out a perception survey in 12 villages, including interviews with the regional government. While local communities are often characterised as victims of commercial forest-destroying projects, communities in Bungo said that their relationship with local governments was healthy and that communities’ voices were well taken into account in decision-making processes.
Feintrenie said that this romanticisation of forest-dependent communities has long been problematic in Western anthropology. Dating as far back as the 18th century, when the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described humankind as being good by nature, and naturally made to live in harmony with the environment.
“He described what you could call a romantic image of the noble savage in his forest. This optimistic view of human kind was widespread in Western anthropology when discovering new geographic areas with forest dependent communities.
“But once you understand that living in the forest creates a number of difficulties, like in sanitation and health, you are able to hear local communities’ will to change their way of life, even though they might hope to conserve their culture and believes.”
Ignoring communities’ economic goals can be dangerous for policy and programme design to conserve forests, particularly in the global scheme, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+).
Key to ensuring REDD+ goes ahead in a fair and equitable way is listening to what individual communities say they want. In many cases, communities are supportive of companies who develop their forest as long as they are fairly compensated.
“Communities want actual improvements to their livelihoods. If you come to a community and promise that you will pay them, build a school, or bring hydro-electricity in exchange from them to conserve their forest and stay in a remote and not accessible settlement, they might be happy with it. But if an oil palm company offers to build a road to their village so that they can access other villages and marketplaces, they will not hesitate long to exchange their forested land for it,” Feintrenie said.
Of course, such community participation in forest conservation and development is not the same across Indonesia, highlighting the need to tailor policy to the regions. Because population density in Jambi is quite high, the people can voice their concerns during local elections.
“But in places with low population density, and remote villages where people do not vote, and where huge natural resources are available, the easiest way to economic development is through large-scale natural resources exploitation. Local isolated communities there are powerless in comparison to Jambi’s people,” Feintrenie said.