Finding mutual interest in forest conflict – Courtney Work

01 Nov 2018
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Over the past five years, MOSAIC project has looked at climate change mitigation policies, land grabbing and conflict in fragile states with an emphasis on understanding the intersections and transformations in Myanmar and Cambodia. The project’s Courtney Work attended a training at the Center for People and Forests in Bangkok, Thailand where researchers from the DFID-funded, NWO-managed CCMCC programme focused on “Transforming forest landscape conflicts for better governance”. In this blog, she shares an example of conflict transformation and why finding mutual interests is critical to protecting forests.

In the dry season of 2015, migrant communities began encroaching in large numbers across the northern boundaries of the Prey Lang forest in Cambodia. This dramatic increase in land grabbing coincided with strong moves by the Ministry of Environment to establish the forest as a protected wildlife sanctuary. What followed was an increase in pressure on the forest as a natural resource, economic opportunity and place to live.

Migrants report purchasing land from commune and district level officials, who often attempted to establish Social Land Concessions in the unprotected permanent forest estate. Newly settled lands are adjacent to long-standing indigenous villages, and the rapid transformation of forest into market-crop plantations has had a dramatic effect on local livelihoods and has resulted in extreme species decline in the area. In one case, local researchers were able to intervene and while the pressures on the forest continues, aggressive settler expansion has slowed in this

Conflict and Cultivation
The influx of migrants began in 2015, as it became clear that forest jurisdiction would transfer from Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to the Ministry of the Environment. The protected area was established in mid-2016, but by the end of 2017, in the MOSAIC case study location in western Steung Treng province, 968 hectares of forest were cleared by settlers. The impact on the area was dramatic, with heat and species decline being the most reported immediate effects. Loss of forest cover increased the effects of the tropical sun on residents’ shifting cultivation fields. Research also found that the monocrop agriculture that replaced the forest simply did not support the diverse populations that once lived there. There was mounting conflict between local indigenous families and the incoming migrants, and local researchers set out to investigate the areas and meet with the stakeholders.

The first activities involved gathering information about the land itself and exactly where encroachment was happening. Recently trained in research methods and mapping technologies, local researchers captured affected areas using drone photography and mapped the extent of the impact with Geographic Information Systems. In addition to gathering hard data from the landscape, researchers conducted formal and informal interviews with both the affected communities and the incoming migrant families.
New residents were happy to provide their documents issued by the commune chief, and local researchers photographed these documents and gathered testimonies from stakeholders before requesting formal meetings with the commune council. Their investigation revealed clear involvement of the commune chief and his family members in the illegal sale of state land, and a subsequent attempt to apply for a Social Land Concession.

Legal pressures
A Social Land Concession is a legal instrument through which national and subnational government agents can allot state land under their jurisdiction for distribution to landless citizens or for other economic purposes. There is an application process and justifications must be provided for the land allocation. The land is not to be sold, and the concession must be approved before it is settled.

Local residents, whose dense forests were cleared by migrants, felt they had been impoverished by this
transformation and felt sure that their new poverty would be an important leverage point against the commune chief’s concession request. With the data collected by the researchers, representatives from the affected communities were able to file a collective petition to the district and provincial governors, the Steung Treng Department of Land Management, the Steung Treng Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fishery, the Steung Treng Department of Environment and its Ministry, and to NGO partners. against the forest encroachments and illegal sale of land. But local officials were hostile and settlers were entrenched, each having considerable investment in the land.

Despite the hard data, the affected community was unable to make an impact with their detailed report of Obvious forest crimes, and their petition fell on deaf ears. It was not until they leveraged protected area encroachment that they were able to halt the clearing. This concession encroached over 200 hectares into the newly protected area, and it opened up a zone of mutual interest between the local communities and the Ministry of Environment. This case is especially relevant for the Ministry of Environment, and community researchers submitted their report directly to the minister during the annual environmental conference with Cambodia’s Prime Minister in 2017.

This example from one of MOSAIC’s cases studies shows that transforming conflict requires more than evidence. Finding mutual interests is critical; in this case, the blatant encroachment into the newly designated protected area hit a sweet spot in which the interests of the Ministry coincided with those of local indigenous people. The clearing stopped shortly after the community delivered their report to national government representatives.

However, encroachment has not stopped entirely and the forest remains under threat from the various pressures of population growth and economic development. There is no win-win in this scenario, but the progress made was an early and important step in the search for small triangles of mutual interest through which healthy forests can become a global priority.

Courtney Work is an Assistant Professor at the National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan and the Center for Khmer Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Netherlands. The MOSAIC project was one of seven research projects of the DFID-funded Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) programme which, over five years, has added to the scientific body of evidence on the impact of climate change and climate change policies on conflict or cooperation in developing countries. CCMCC was managed by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-WOTRO) and emerged as a second phase to the Conflict and Cooperation over Natural Resources in Developing Countries (CoCooN) programme.

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