The post-2015 ASEAN Economic Community brings huge challenges for trees, farmers and food supply

By Rob Finlayson, World Agroforestry Centre

The ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will form a single economic bloc at the end of 2015. Agroforestry, forestry and agricultural policies, implementation and law enforcement are lagging behind. The gap threatens millions of livelihoods, environmental safety and national abilities to adapt to climate change, despite some inspiring progress:

"For ASEAN economic integration to work for the millions of citizens and national budgets reliant on agroforestry, forestry and agriculture," said Dr Delia Catacutan, "we need a change of mindset and behaviours as well as new, integrated policies, real implementation and enforcement. The risks of failing to provide for our people are real. And the consequences will be severe."

Dr Delia Catacutan preparing to speak at the 6th ASEAN Social Forestry Network Conference, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 1-3 June 2015. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Dr Catacutan was speaking on the sidelines of the 6th ASEAN Social Forestry Network Conference at Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar, 1–5 June 2015. As the country coordinator of the World Agroforestry Centre Vietnam, with a wealth of experience throughout Southeast Asia and Africa, she is well placed to be sounding a warning.

At the end of 2015, the ten countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will form the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), opening trade, investment and labour markets, supported by a new, integrated transport network through previously remote, forested areas that are home to millions of indigenous, poor, smallholding farmers.

While economic growth will likely follow, what’s not yet known is the impact on the 3.4 million square kilometres of treed and agricultural landscapes that represent the major sources of livelihoods for the majority of the region’s citizens and are the primary drivers of national economies.

Experience from other parts of the globe suggest what’s likely to happen is more deforestation, large-scale commercial monoculture crops, extraction of natural resources, environmental degradation, income disparities, environmental degradation and a lack of resilience to climate change that will create a ‘perfect storm’ that threatens not only the region but the planet. Unless the nations work together, quickly, to address some glaring gaps.

But is this likely to happen by the end of 2015? According to Ramon Razal from the University of the Philippines Los BaƱos and the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme, who conducted a study on the forest sector’s readiness for integration, awareness and preparations vary across sectors and countries.

"With the exception of Vietnam, knowledge about the AEC is low, even among government forestry officials, with claims that what little they know about the AEC is what they have learned from the media," he said. "Furthermore, the AEC is weak in terms of resolving trans-border issues, such as haze from forest fires and illegal trade in forest products. There is a need to strengthen law enforcement and install a regional grievance mechanism to resolve conflicts," he added.

While monocultural rubber plantations dominate huge swathes of ASEAN,  farmers in Thailand have better incomes from mixed rubber gardens. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

ASEAN covers 4.4 million square kilometres and has a population of 617 million growing at 1.3% a year. Agricultural land covers 1.26 million square kilometres or 29.4% and forests another 2.14 million or around 50%. Not surprisingly with statistics such as these, the main sources of livelihoods for the majority of the region’s citizens are agriculture and natural resources. Perhaps more surprisingly, average gross domestic product of the ten nations combined is 5.7 % per year, suggesting rapid exploitation of the resource base to fuel such growth.

The disconnect can be seen more clearly when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations informs us, in 2014, that 10% of the total population, or 60 million people, have insecure food supplies, that around 1 million hectares of forest were lost annually from 2000–2010 and that many of the countries are amongst the most vulnerable in the world to the impact of climate change in the form of extended and untimely droughts, extreme and unpredictable storms and floods, landslides and rising altitudes for plant growth, which is a major issue for a largely mountainous region.

Can ASEAN meet these challenges?

"It will be difficult," Dr Catacutan told delegates in the session she led on ‘Agroforestry in multifunctional landscapes: its contribution to social forestry and climate-change mitigation and adaptation in the context of ASEAN economic integration’. She pointed out that in a study of government effectiveness in the 25 countries responsible for 95% of global forest-based emissions during 1990–2005, of the ASEAN member states only Malaysia and the Philippines appeared in the top six most effective; Indonesia was at ninth position but also had the second-highest forest-based emissions of the 25; Cambodia was nineteenth; and Myanmar second last.

"With the planned infrastructure developments funded by the new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and other international development funders, we will see major expansion of road and rail networks, which can help improve agriculture and forest production and incomes by reducing the costs of transporting inputs and outputs and reducing post-harvest losses’ she noted. "But building new roads and railways and improving existing ones can have significant negative ecological impacts directly through habitat loss and fragmentation and, indirectly, by encouraging settlement and land conversion for agriculture."

According to Dr Razal, it’s already happening in one of the poorest and most vulnerable parts of ASEAN: "Because Lao PDR is landlocked, it has strong dependence on its neighbors for trade. But Lao is crisscrossed by old and new highways—with more planned—that connect Thailand in the west to China and Vietnam in the north and east and Cambodia in the south. Not only have these roads opened up remote forests to illegal activities but they have resulted in social problems in communities along them," he said.

A key objective of the AEC is to enhance intra- and extra-ASEAN trade and long-term 

Dr Grace Wong from the Center for International Forestry Research, speaking on ‘Community-based livelihoods and conservation in forested landscapes,’added that, "Benefits to communities who are granted management of forests, particularly those linked to the global agreement known as ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus conservation’ (REDD+), are tied strongly to the rights to land. This becomes really challenging because throughout ASEAN the legal regimes and implementation on the ground vary from place to place. In nearly all cases, procedural equity is very important and provides legitimacy for communities.

"Our research shows that in some REDD+ pilot projects, allocation of rights is more desired than monetary incentives. Rights are a contentious topic that is centuries old but are mostly more important than tenure, or ownership, in the areas I’ve worked. On that note, the AEC could bring more risk in places where there is greater uncertainty and conflict. On the other hand, the AEC could potentially bring greater transparency in decision-making and participation in those decisions, and this is critical."

All agreed that the solution was in greater—and swifter—communication between governments, communities and the private sector accompanied by clear, integrated policies at national and ASEAN levels that are backed up by accelerated implementation of community forestry, agroforestry and agricultural agreements with the millions of smallholders who face an uncertain future under current arrangements.

"Despite all these challenges," concluded Dr Catacutan, ‘I am confident that the people of ASEAN and their respective governments will be able to affect the needed shift of mindset and behaviour. In research-for-development projects dotted throughout the region supported by fellow travellers in securing a stable future for our planet, such as the Swiss International Development Agency, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, European Union, Federal Republic of Germany, CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and our many friends in national and international non-governmental organizations, we see model examples of how poor, smallholding communities enthusiastically embrace new ways of working that increase their wellbeing and incomes while protecting the environment.

"If we embrace the ASEAN tradition of humility and respect for our traditions, we can preserve what is most valuable to us and simultaneously take the place on the world stage that is waiting for us."

Robert Finlayson is Regional Communications Specialist, Southeast Asia at World Agroforestry Centre. This article was previously published as "ASEAN economic integration means huge challenges for trees, farmers and food supply"