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Agrobiodiversity conservation in Southeast Asia depends on enhancing local community stewardship

Providing recognition for land tenure and empowering local communities, especially indigenous people, can promote successful biodiversity conservation in food production.

Dimas Fauzi, Pimolporn Jintarith / Published on 14 January 2022
Farming communities in Simancuang Village Forest, West Sumatra, Indonesia conserve forest to protect water resources for agriculture

Farming communities in Simancuang Village Forest, West Sumatra, Indonesia conserve the forest to protect water resources for their agriculture. Photo: Dimas Fauzi / SEI.

Agrobiodiversity is the wealth of herbs, plants and animals that are conserved and used by local communities in Southeast Asia as part of agricultural production. Many empirical studies have suggested strong links between enhanced land tenure and land security to promote successful agrobiodiversity conservation. Local dependency on ecosystem services for livelihood needs also shapes environmental attitudes and influences conservation outcomes.

In Southeast Asia, community-based forest management programs emphasize ensuring economic development through agriculture and timber production while promoting forest conservation. However, community-based forest management is not always intended for these production purposes as it can also be allocated purely for conservation to prevent land use changes. Despite the empirical findings, there is still much to be done in terms of action on the ground to promote successful local stewardship and agrobiodiversity conservation in the long term.

Will community stewardship persist over time?

Looking into the intersection between agriculture and biodiversity conservation, the question of long-term community stewardship is based on two central tenets: the land’es productive capacities and tenurial security.

“Indigenous and local community management of biodiversity reflects [the] wisdom and good practices impacting on food security, livelihood, and conservation… And if this [land tenure] is secured, then it would automatically help protect and enhance indigenous knowledge systems and practices,” said Femy Pinto, Executive Director of the Non-Timber Forest Product – Exchange Programme Asia.

In many cases, community stewardship is dependent on the ecosystem services that the land provides, both tangible or intangible. These services manifest in various forms, such as agricultural production, water resources, cultural values and recreational functions. Specifically, the land’s productive capacities will likely remain the same over time, if not decrease, due to weather anomalies and the loss of soil productivity. As a result, they may not be able to meet the needs of a growing population.

While farmers who manage private agricultural lands have the flexibility to improve their land productivity or shift to other crops, those managing public or common lands do not possess such an option. In the case of community forestry in Indonesia, land ownership is not always the norm and land use designation is strict. Communities managing the forests are given a management license for a certain period with the possibility of extension, albeit with substantial government control and discretion. In the process leading up to the license extension, registered members may seek to retain and pass on their land management rights to the next generation.

In the absence of long-term land use planning, and more importantly land security, local community stewardship is often undermined, resulting in the loss of agrobiodiversity.

Inclusive land legacy planning

One of the gaps in the existing research and policy framework in Southeast Asia is on the land legacy scenario for community-managed private and public lands. The land legacy scenario plays a vital role in creating a land-use “lock-in” effect, in which the lands are designated for agrobiodiversity conservation and become difficult to reverse. There needs to be a range of different approaches in implementing land legacy scenarios between private and public (or common) lands given the different ownership status.

For private lands, landowners maintain full discretion to determine the type of land use. They have the right to keep agrobiodiversity land use as is or change it, especially when they inherit the land. One possible scenario is to designate a parcel of their private lands for biodiversity conservation. Payment for ecosystem services can serve as a potential incentive for the landowners, which can encourage them to implement sustainable agricultural practices.

Although the public land process can be more straightforward since the land use status is predetermined, communities need to be involved from the inception and planning stages. Ensuring inclusive community planning for public lands can strengthen the tenure security for the communities and ensure they maintain local stewardship.

However, this proposal comes with two caveats. First, land legacy in Southeast Asia is often tied to traditional and customary rules. In conducting land legacy scenario planning, it is essential for the stakeholders to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and instead consider each individual local context and needs. This also stresses the importance of a gender-responsive approach in land use planning, as it could alter the tendency to cater to men’s needs as a representation of the community.

As Cynthia McDougall, Senior Research Fellow at SEI Asia, pointed out, “An important pathway to have in our mind is to think about generating meaningful choices for women. This means equitably and explicitly assessing needs and priorities of women, especially women who have been underserved or under-recognized in these systems, including indigenous women [and] economically poor women.”

In order to create a “lock-in” effect, the government needs to provide institutional and policy backing. This is especially true for private lands, which may require additional policy measures to ensure tenure security if their lands are allocated for biodiversity conservation. For community-managed public lands, the legacy scenario should ponder the fulfilment of ecosystem services that the communities depend on as this can result in successful local conservation efforts.

While securing the tenure rights of the communities is vital, policymakers and researchers should think ahead to ensure long-term community stewardship through inclusive land legacy planning.

This piece is based on the regional event organized by the Mekong Institute with support from the Strategic Collaborative Fund Phase 2.

Written by


Cynthia McDougall

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

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