Right to forests and their multiple meanings

Deforestation continues to be one of the most pressing global and local environmental issues. With forests we lose entire species, landscapes and natural habitats. Particularly in the South, logging threatens not only nature but also human cultures and ways of living. The fastest advancement of deforestation takes place in Indonesia. The figures vary, but even as much as one million hectares of forest may be lost every year. 

The struggles forest communities lead for their forests do not concern only natural values but also rights to livelihood, way of living and culture. The problems faced by the persecuted forest communities are hardly marginal. In Laos, for example, the majority of the population still lives in subsistence economy in which forests and their produce play an important role. In India, the forest-dwelling Adivasi people are a minority group, but hardly a small one; the forest question directly affects approximately 90 million Adivasis. In Indonesia, the lives of 80-95 million people are directly linked to forests. 

Forest communities often face the problem of being themselves blamed for the disappearance of forests. For example, crop-rotation farmers in the mountain regions of India and Southeast Asia have been branded as forest destroyers even though it has only been under pressure from industrial agriculture and large-scale logging that the farmers have been forced to resort to less sustainable uses of land.

The Siemenpuu Foundation advocates environmentally and socially equitable use of forests. Equally crucial is supporting the efforts of indigenous peoples and other forest communities.


Plantations displace

Forests are logged to produce raw materials, to increase the area under cultivation, to make way for development projects of various kinds, and so forth. In Brazil, the destruction of forests is greatly due to the cultivation of soybean, the creation of pastures for livestock, and the production of agrofuels. Currently, major problems arise from industrial tree plantations. In Cambodia and Laos, forests are replaced by Chinese and Vietnamese rubber tree plantations, the products of which are in high demand in the Chinese automotive industry. In Indonesia, natural forests are being destroyed by pulp and oil palm plantations.  Between 1990 and 2010, the number of oil palm plantations in the country increased approximately by 600 percents. Currently, the cultivation of oil palm in Indonesia accounts for approximately 8 million hectares. At least half of the tropical swamp forests in the world are located in Indonesia. The peat bed in these forests holds estimatedly as much as 5 percent of all aboveground coal reserves on earth. The conversion of tropical swamp forests into oil palm and pulpwood fields in particular make Indonesia the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.


Besides forests, tree plantations replace other ecosystems as well, such as steppes, pastures and farmland. In Uruguay, for example, industrial forest has been planted on steppes and pastures, regardless of objections by the locals. In several South American countries, plantation farming has given rise to new environmental issues and further distorted a landholding system that has been unequal to begin with.

Plantations cause diverse conflicts. Occasionally, communities have concluded agreements with corporations either under pressure from local authorities or without understanding what the agreements entail. In other cases, corporations appeal to permissions granted by central or local governments, while communities demand the return of lands they consider theirs.

Forests and development cooperation

During the last few decades, development cooperation in the forest sector has facilitated such development which many consider to have introduced new problems instead of solving the old ones. Large-scale afforestation projects implemented with development funding have often decreased biodiversity, increased poverty and inequality, and generated landholding and land use disputes.  Today, the lessons learned from previous mistakes in forest sector development cooperation are evident, at least on the pages of action plans. In practice, several different goals are pursued within new projects: increasing the revenue from forest sales, developing forestry into more sustainable directions, and empowering local communities that have previously led mainly self-sufficient lives.

Connecting sustainable and equitable forest management with the logic of monetary economics is, to say the least, ambitious in countries in which the elite has accustomed to making their most notable profits from both legal and illegal forest harvesting.  Often in these same countries, forest policy is used as an instrument to control local communities. In such cases, it is of greater relevance to try to consolidate the position and rights of local communities instead of pursuing partnership with corrupt and unscrupulous governmental elites.

In many countries in the South, the governments, international funders and major environmental organisations each have their own intrests in and approaches to forest protection. In countries with incoherent and unlawful governmental policies, r on the fate of forests rarely lead to substantial results. For example in the case of Indonesia and its tropical swamp forests, the most tangible and promising results have been attained through local protection work, especially when the locals have managed to forge alliances on national and international levels.

Community forests and self-sufficiency

Who has the right to the forest? Everyman's rights, taken for granted in Finland, are not reality to the majority of the earth's population.  For example, the 2006 Forest Rights Act in India, which granted forest communities the right to collect forest produce in government-owned forests, was the result of a long struggle. Struggles pertaining to the implementation of the act are still going on.

Community forests and securing forest rights to communities have proved highly efficient in improving the use of forests and decreasing deforestation in the South. The key to sustainable forestry is promoting projects that have been planned on the spot and are grounded on local values and needs.


Forest definitions and delineations should arise from diverse local realities, not from e.g. Finnish ideas of what a good and productive 'forest' should mean. Support needs to be given to processes in which sustainable local uses of nature may fashion the model for sustainable consumption and environmental use of resources in general. Instead of standing in the way of development, encouraging self-sufficiency may actually be the key to sustainable development.

Solutions to forest-related environmental and social issues cannot be found in the South alone, and local communities protecting their forests will not be able to stop deforestation, if the underlying causes to it are left unaddressed. Focus should increasingly be directed at the massive global flow of investments to tropical logging, industrial plantations and mining. Countries with high levels of consumption should restrain the demand for tropical timber (e.g. indoor and garden furniture), paper, livestock fodder, cheap meat, and problematic agrofuels such as palm oil.

The work in which the partners of the Siemenpuu Foundation engage, the campaigns they run and the stories they tell convey a wide spectrum of understandings of the forest and a multiplicity in the ways forests are protected and forest rights defended.  Forests stand for so much more than mere countable profit. The efforts of our partners rarely regard only forest rights but also rights to the multiple meanings of forests and the possibility to maintain or build a sustainable relationship with forests. Realising this multiplicity and incommensurability of meanings could broaden our horizon and introduce new, more sustainable ways of understanding and experiencing the forest up here in the North as well.

Mira Käkönen, Anu Lounela and Otto Miettinen


With Siemenpuu support, the Human Rights Lawyes Association of Thailand (HRLA) has produced a book about the legal struggles of Ms. Naw Haymui and Mr. Di Paepho, two Karen persons living in Ban Mae Omki. They both earn their livelihood by practicing rotational farming according to their traditional way of life. They were both arrested by forestry officials and prosecuted for encroaching and destroying National Forest Reserves.  The narrative in the book is divided into three main parts; (1) a chronology of the legal cases, (2) an analysis of the strategy and the important issues pertaining to the cases and (3) commentaries and papers related to the cases. You can download the Maeomki book here (pdf, 18.4 MB)