Conservation of agrobiodiversity in Southeast Asia depends on improved management by local communities

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

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

Will community stewardship persist over time?

In examining the intersection between agriculture and biodiversity conservation, the question of long-term community stewardship rests on two central principles: the productive capacities of the land and security of tenure.

“The management of biodiversity by indigenous and local communities reflects [the] wisdom and good practices impacting food security, livelihoods and conservation… And if that [land tenure] is secure, it would automatically help protect and improve indigenous knowledge systems and practices,” said Femy Pinto, Executive Director of the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Program in Asia.

In many cases, community stewardship depends on the ecosystem services provided by the land, whether tangible or intangible. These services manifest themselves in various forms, such as agricultural production, water resources, cultural values ​​and recreational functions. Specifically, the productive capacities of the earth will likely remain the same over time, or even decline, due to weather anomalies and loss of soil productivity. Therefore, they might not be able to meet the needs of a growing population.

While farmers who manage private agricultural land have the option of improving the productivity of their land or switching to other crops, those who manage public or common land do not have 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 receive a management license for a certain period with the possibility of extension, but with substantial government control and discretion. In the process leading to 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, tenure security, the stewardship of local communities is often undermined, resulting in the loss of agrobiodiversity.

Inclusive real estate planning

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

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

Although the public land process may be simpler since the land use status is predetermined, communities should be involved from the design and planning stages. Ensuring inclusive community planning for public lands can strengthen communities’ tenure security and ensure they maintain local stewardship.

However, this proposal comes with two caveats. First, land inheritance in Southeast Asia is often linked to traditional and customary rules. When planning land inheritance scenarios, it is essential that stakeholders avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and instead consider each context and local need. It also highlights the importance of a gender-sensitive approach in land use planning, as this could change the tendency to meet the needs of men as community representation.

As Cynthia McDougall, Senior Researcher at SEI Asia, pointed out, “An important pathway to keep in mind is to think about generating meaningful choices for women. This means fairly and explicitly assessing the 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 must provide institutional and political support. This is especially true for private lands, which may require additional policy measures to provide tenure security if their lands are designated for biodiversity conservation. For community-managed public lands, the legacy scenario should reflect on the realization of the ecosystem services that communities depend on, as this can result in successful local conservation efforts.

While securing community land rights is essential, policy makers and researchers must anticipate to ensure long-term community management through inclusive land inheritance planning.