Protecting forests to preserve livelihoods

FAO project in Mongolia stresses community involvement

7 November 2011, Bugat, Mongolia – A UN Food and Agriculture Organization programme that helps local communities in Mongolia protect their forests is being seen as a model for regional action, as an Asia-Pacific forestry event gets underway in Beijing.

The Participatory Forest Management project has effectively stopped illegal logging and forest fires in 15 pilot districts since it began in 2007, and is set to go nationwide when the pilot programme ends in January 2012.
With funding from the government of the Netherlands, the project is helping Mongolians learn techniques to preserve the forest resources that are crucial to their well-being.

Community involvement in forestry management is one of the methods being touted during the 7-11 November Asia-Pacific Forestry Week event, which is organized in part by FAO. The event is anchored around the 24th Session of the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission (APFC), comprised of 33 countries in the region.

Challenges and opportunities

Mongolia holds roughly 188 000 square kilometers of forestland, occupying 12 percent of the nation’s vast landscape. Yet these forests have been shrinking, due to greater demand for timber, human-induced fires, mining, and overstocking of cattle. In the 1990s, as many as 400 square kilometers of forest were disappearing every year.

“Local people for many years were suffering because there was a lot of illegal logging in their areas, a lot of fires, strangers coming and doing whatever they wanted to,” said Dashzeveg Tserendeleg, the national coordinator of the Participatory Forest Management Project. “The locals were basically helpless. They couldn’t do anything.”

Communities are now discovering that they can, in fact, do something. Through the project, Forest User Groups receive training in forest assessment, mapping, management planning, fire prevention and marketing of forest products. They then develop their own plans to put into action.

“We have seen in many countries in the world, and not only in Mongolia, that involving the local population is key to stopping forest degradation, but it’s also a major challenge,” said FAO Chief Technical Adviser Dominique Reeb.

A sense of ownership

Batjargal, a herder in Mongolia, makes a living keeping a few hundred sheep, goats and horses in the district of Bugat, about 450 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar. Until recently, he and his family could do little but watch as outsiders poached the resources of his valley.

“We saw that things were going wrong when trees were logged illegally and streams and rivers started to dry up,” said Batjargal. “So the local people wanted to establish a forest user group,” a move that Batjargal says has given community members a “feeling of ownership.”

In the three years since the group was founded, illegal logging and forest fires have essentially disappeared. In areas covered by the project, new trees are taking root and herders say they are no longer dependent on outside forces to protect their environment and livelihoods.

New income

The project allows rural communities to tap into new sources of income. User groups clear dead trees from the forests, and sell the wood for firewood or use in construction. They also sell non-timber products like pine nuts and berries at local markets. Batjargal has just signed a contract to sell the district government 1 500 cubic meters of fuelwood for the winter.

“In our district we have only one state environment inspector and three rangers in three sub-districts,” said Oyumaa, the governor of Bugat district. “They give permission for felling trees but cannot exercise permanent control over our forests. So, the primary benefit of having forest user groups is better control over their own forests.”

The next step is to scale up nationwide, a long-term task that involves drafting policy and refining the legal framework for woodland resources at the national level. Informally, the programme continues to grow, as group members share news of their success with other herders, who, in turn, start up user groups of their own. 

Photo: ©FAO/Sean Gallagher
Involving local populations is key to stopping forest degradation.