How Kriengkrai Cheechaung and fellow indigenous persons made it to a global forests meeting


The RECOFTC members at the World Forestry Congress

The voices of rural and forest-dwelling communities—the true stewards of the world’s forests—must be heard in the urgent debate on the future of the world’s forests.

But bringing people from these areas to international meetings where forests are discussed is not an easy undertaking. Most members of such communities live in remote areas far from airports, may be averse to travel, and often, they do not speak international languages.

RECOFTC, The Center for People and Forests, is one of the organizations that sponsored a group of indigenous people to the World Forestry Congress (WFC 2015), currently underway in Durban. Caroline Liou, Communications Manager of RECOFTC, was involved in the process.

She told Daisy Ouya, Communications Specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), what it took to bring six members of indigenous communities in Asia-Pacific to Durban, and why it was worth it.

Your organization, RECOFT, has sponsored several members of indigenous communities in SEA to the World Forestry Congress. Who are they and what message are they bringing to the Congress?

With support from the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and RECOFTC’s donors (Sida – Swedish International Development Cooperation, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation – Norad and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the RECOFTC delegation to WFC includes 6 local community members – two  women and four men. Three are members of ethnic minorities/indigenous groups.

They are:
Ms. Theya Chaw, Naga ethnic group, Layshee township, Sagaing region, Myanmar. Ms. Chaw is a trainer on REDD+ on the sub-national level presentation on what it is like to raise awareness on climate change in remote areas of Myanmar, how she is bringing local concerns on climate change and forests to government, and why we need to invest in participatory processes in forest management.
Mr. Krirk Meemungkit, forest farm smallholder and branch manager of Tree Bank, Srakaew province, Thailand. He will present on what he is doing to promote tree ownership despite unclear land tenure in Thailand, and why we need to invest in funds and resources for community enterprise development.
Ms Hoang Thi Chuyen, Tay ethnic group, and member of the Women’s Union of Ba Khe village, Cat Thinh Commune, Viet Nam. She will present on how she earned an income from the forest without tenure rights, how this has changed after she obtained the Red Book, and why we must invest in formalizing tenure rights.
Mr. Em Sophoan, Deputy Chief of Chrous Svay Community Forest, Cambodia. He will present on how he developed a profit-making sustainable bamboo enterprise in Cambodia, and why we need to invest in capacity development for local communities and other stakeholders.
Mr  Khun Zaw,  Youth representative from Myanmar
Mr. Kriengkrai Cheechaung, a member of the Karen ethnic group of Thailand.  Mr Krengkrai is an indigenous peoples representative and youth movement leader. At the Congress, he will discuss how the preservation of traditional knowledge and youth education is key to the future of forests in the Youth Dialogue.

How do they feel about being here?

They are all  very excited, as this is the first global meting any of them have been a part of.

Now that they have been here a few days, they are still feeling very excited, but have found that they haven’t met or seen many other people from their countries —only RECOFTC staff and in some cases, one or two forestry department staff from their country.

Although they all speak some English and RECOFTC has staff accompanying each of them as ‘translators’ (so they are able to communicate), more spontaneous interactions and full understanding of the presentations is a little more difficult.

The Congress is also an eye-opening experience for them. One of our representatives (Mr Zaw, the youth representative) told me that he never really understood how important forests were to the world before coming here. He is amazed to see so many people from around the world traveling here for the sake of forests.

When and how did you start the process of organizing the travel to Durban?

The process on deciding which local community members would be a part of the RECOFTC delegation to WFC began when RECOFTC began organizing  the Pre-WFC regional meeting for Asia—the meeting took place in July 2015 in Bangkok.

At the regional meeting, participants (local community members from 7 countries, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand and Nepal)  identified four priority areas, from local perspectives, that forest decision-makers must invest in for forests to be managed sustainably:

  • Participatory processes for policy and enabling regulatory framework development
  • Formalizing tenure rights and the establishment of community forests
  • Funds and resources for community forest implementation, and livelihoods/enterprise development
  • Capacity development for leadership empowerment, information access, network advocacy

At the end of the regional meeting, the local people participating in the meeting voted and elected four local people to represent them on the global level at the World Forestry Congress.

RECOFTC, which focuses on empowering local people through participatory processes and promoting forestry from local peoples’ perspectives in Asia, conducted the meeting with simultaneous translation in seven languages. The process enabled local people, who are oftentimes not directly included in regional meetings (as they are frequently conducted in English), to participate fully.

What challenges did you face in arranging the travel? 

Making sure women were represented was a challenge. Some representatives that we invited to come to the regional meeting could not come. One woman, in particular, had to first ask her husband – he said yes, but asked that she be accompanied by another woman from her village. RECOFTC did agree to that, but in the end the woman decided to back out, nevertheless.

In terms of visas, there are no South African embassies in Cambodia & Myanmar,  so our local representatives from those countries had to come to Bangkok for their visa—a process that normally requires 3 to 5 days. Luckily, Trevor Abraham’s office (WFC 2015 Secretary General) was able to contact the South Africa embassy in Bangkok and expedite the process, so the local people were able to get their visas in one day.

Another challenge was  communicating with the local representatives prior to the Congress. For example, Theya Chaw, the woman from Myanmar, has no electricity or internet in her village. So we could call her on phone to discuss her presentations at WFC, but there was no way for her to send photos and other things we needed to prepare. Her travel from her village to Yangon (where the Myanmar airport is)  took 7 days by foot, boat and bus (she’s from Naga,  the tri-junction of Myanmar, China & India). So in total, it took her about more than 10 days just to get to Durban (including a couple nights in Bangkok for her visa). The others have similar stories…

What advice do you have for any organization wishing to bring local communities to international fora?

Do it! It’s really worth it. The bottom line is, forests will not be sustained without the efforts of leaders like these people.

I hope future global meetings to discuss forests and sustainability are more global in nature, and cut across not only nationalities, but include more local people who live in and around forests. We cannot have meetings and make decisions without their full participation.

RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, is an international organization with a vision of local communities actively managing forests in Asia and the Pacific to ensure optimal social, economic, and environmental benefits.

Learn more about RECOFTC’s work.

Blogpost by Daisy Ouya (ICRAF) – D.Ouya(at)
Picture courtesy RECOFTC

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