The rapid depletion of Filipino forests by logging, mining and settler encroachment was officially acknowledged as requiring a policy response in the late 1980s. The need to limit and regulate logging and to promote community forestry alternatives was accepted by government by the end of the decade. In 1990, the government adopted a Master Plan for Forestry Development which entailed an attempt to ‘scale up’ previous community-level initiatives in forest management.
Under the plan, communities were entitled to leaseholds of State-owned forest lands under Forestry Stewardship Agreements which gave them rights to plant trees and market forest products over a 25 year period. Concerns were expressed early on in the process that Forestry Stewardship Contracts made no provisions for unresolved indigenous land claims and might even be used to extinguish native rights. Modifications were subsequently introduced to reassure indigenous communities entering into contracts that their historical claims were unaffected.
During the 1990s international assistance was poured into the forestry sector by bilateral and multilateral agencies. The Asian Development Bank gave substantial support to plantation development and the World Bank provided additional funds to overall forest sector development. Both lending programmes were modified to accommodate the Forestry Stewardship initiative, while the interests of communities in the face of plantations were promoted through ‘contract reforestation’ initiatives by which individuals, co-operatives or communities could secure financial and technical assistance for tree-planting schemes. At the same time, USAID targetted community forestry through two large Natural Resource Management Projects which provided special funds for the Department of Energy and Natural Resources to provide outreach to the rural poor. Although indigenous peoples made up at least 30% of the rural poor inhabiting Filipino forests, specific provisions for indigenous peoples were not prominent in the overall programme.
Despite the good intentions on the part of the donors, the overall impact of the forestry reform programme for the rural poor in general and indigenous peoples in particular has not been a great success. The main beneficiaries of the programme have been the plantation and seedling companies that have developed the plantations. Contract reforestation has been less successful in servicing local markets than anticipated and most of the contract reforestation schemes that have endured have been out-grower schemes for large-scale pulp and paper mills such as PICOP. In northern Mindanao, contract reforestation has actually drawn settlers onto indigenous lands and provoked serious conflicts.
NGOs and indigenous spokespersons note a number of other unhappy results of the forestry reform programme. One has been that the sector has become almost entirely dependent on donor support and is deprived of funding and political support from central government. As a result the programme has not been ‘rooted’ in domestic processes of policy or institutional reform and the connections between the aid-funded reform and local political processes have been weak or absent. Community forestry has thus become a donor-driven enclave within the political economy, tolerated as a way of capturing foreign exchange rather than one promoted to achieve sustainable development. Consequently, the affected communities have been further distanced from national reform politicians and instead of being empowered and better connected to national policy processes find themselves burdened by the new community forestry bureaucracy which has expanded massively thanks to the foreign funding. The overall verdict of many NGOs and community activists is that forestry reform has suffered from too much top-down money. The donor-driven programme tried to build on an incipient civil society initiative before there had been any real institutional change nationally. The result was a programme which swamped the national reform process and which has left indigenous peoples less empowered than before.
By Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org