Key lessons for REDD+ schemes in swidden landscapes
Most forests are rich in ‘natural’ resources but they are also rich because local people have enriched forests through their knowledge and practice, such as in shifting cultivation, or swidden. Understanding how this works is critical for any well-functioning scheme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation
Swidden practices, also known as shifting cultivation, have received bad press for many decades but more recent research has contributed to changing beliefs about the impact of rotational clearing of forested areas for cultivation on carbon stocks, biodiversity and other environmental services.
At the 6th ASEAN Social Forestry Network Conference held at Inle Lake, Myanmar, 1–3 June 2015, Dr Maria Brockhaus presented the latest findings on swidden practices on behalf of fellow researchers, Dr Moira Moeliono, Dr Thu Thuy Pham, Ngoc Le Dung, Tien Nguyen and Dr Maarit Kallio, all from the Center for International Forestry Research and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
The team had set out to discover what were the key lessons for the global scheme to ‘reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus conservation’ (known as REDD+) and payments-for-environmental-services schemes when analysing 1) the formal and informal structures of swidden communities; and 2) the social networks in such communities through which information and resources were exchanged.
Dr Brockhaus, first, pointed out that, most importantly for the purposes of REDD+, swidden practices have shown potential to enhance carbon stocks rather than being a primary driver of overall deforestation, with recent studies highlighting the need to better understand the flux in carbon stocks in such systems over longer periods of time, larger areas and, particularly, below ground.
She emphasised that swidden-farming communities are dynamic, that is, always changing and adapting, such as seizing opportunities offered by migration that allow support for home communities through remittances. While such communities often farm remote, mountainous regions, they are linked internally and to each other through multiple social networks that exchange knowledge and resources. In this process, communities also adapt, ignore, bypass and manipulate the various constraining rules placed upon them by outside agencies.
The team’s study examined environmental governance, that is, the means by which a society—in this case two swidden communities in Lay and Que villages in different provinces in Viet Nam—makes decisions on how natural resources are managed. They looked at the formal structures—the formal organizations and institutions and how hierarchies operate—and informal structures, such as how people work together in practice, creating a social network. Both structures include sets of rules and procedures that guide objectives and outcomes of environmental governance.
Viet Nam’s formal governance structure features a three-tier administrative system: province, districts and communes. The main actors in local government are the People’s Committees, village heads and village governments. Mass organizations in the communes and villages also play important roles in governance, with most people belonging to one or more. In Lay village, people mostly joined to obtain access to information whereas in Que people joined mainly to follow others. Access to micro-loans was a motivating factor for membership in both villages. The team also noted that the mass organizations had already begun to shift from being extensions of the Party towards more civil-society formations.
Importantly, the research team found that in both villages almost all innovations (seeds, new techniques) and information (about new techniques, market prices and opportunities) were brought in by outside traders and that this greater influence of informal actors might indicate a governance vacuum brought about by the limited presence of government agencies (forest protection, agriculture extension) .
The team speculated that the traders in their role of purveyors of information and new ideas might inadvertently help ‘open the door’ for large-scale drivers of deforestation and forest degradation.
What was also clear was that government efforts to reforest and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from deforestation had not considered the widespread diversity in communities implied by the research of Dr Moeliono and team.
When considering the implications for REDD+ and payments-for-environmental-services schemes from the small study in Viet Nam, the researchers concluded that 1) such schemes will need both monitoring, reporting and verification (for information sharing) and benefits-and-costs sharing architectures; because 2) swidden communities and related governance systems are highly diverse—both formal and informal elements—with dominance and relevance of these elements depending on multiple factors; 3) in formal governance structures, misconceptions of swidden are still dominant, their diversity isn’t understood and the lack of consultation may lead to misinformed policies; and 4) in informal governance and the absence of the State, unbalanced power relations dominant, often to the disadvantage of people and forests.
This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry