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A study that aimed to protect the interests of forest dwellers by measuring the value of biodiversity and improving communications with policymakers has had a profound impact due to an innovative public awareness campaign, scientists have said.
The Multidisciplinary Landscape Assessment (MLA) was launched in 2000 by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in the remote Malinau area of Borneo’s East Kalimantan province and has since been used elsewhere in Indonesia as well as in Bolivia, Philippines, Vietnam and several African countries.
“We wanted to help stakeholders understand more about how local people interact with their landscapes and the importance of certain forest products and values – about what happens to local livelihoods if these forests, products and values disappear and how these people will adapt,” said Imam Basuki, a scientist at CIFOR.
“The toolbox we developed for the study consists of different methods of assessing landscapes physically, socially and culturally.”
A team of scientists, which included Douglas Sheil, Michael Padmanaba and Miriam van Heist, collected a wide range of information about the needs, preferences, culture and aspirations of local communities. They also conducted surveys of the soil and vegetation in 200 sample plots, recorded grave sites, human settlements, farmlands and other cultural sites.
Afterwards, they developed colourful posters and playing cards, which feature visual information from the assessment – including facts about biodiversity and land-use – to help spread knowledge and inspire conversation.
The visual aids have served to help policymakers and forest dwellers to better understand the hazards of such activities as industrial timber harvesting or to oil palm plantations, which threaten some aspects of livelihoods.
A half-hour documentary video, produced by Jungle Run Productions, explains the often devastating impact of poorly managed timber concessions on traditional communities and how the MLA work has resulted in positive local efforts to have a powerful voice in how forests and forest lands are used.
Scientists hope that the messages in the film, titled “Our Forests, Our Prosperity: Exploring Local Views on the Future of Tropical Rain Forests” can also help policymakers to plan carefully before approving activities or business interests that threaten the survival of forest communities.
“The posters, cards and the film summarized our findings visually, so local people, government officials, financial investors or other interested parties can see the values available in the surrounding landscapes,” Basuki said.
“Usually, knowledge about forest values and different features of their landscapes only belongs to elders or knowledge men and women in forest communities, so the visual aids spread information, explaining what development options are viable.”
The posters show how the land is not fertile, has very steep slopes and other requirements that will classify the oil palm plantations not suitable to an area, he added.
Almost everybody canvassed for the study considered unlogged forest to be the most important land cover. Poorly regulated timber extraction was recognised as a major reason why many useful plants and animals were disappearing.
Large-scale timber logging as was being conducted at the time also led to a shortage of construction materials locally — a practice whereby timber companies would slash the undergrowth to clear away “weeds” led to the disappearance of many valuable plants, the research found.
The area also provides a habitat favoured by sago palm, an important source of starch during times of crop failure or other food shortages, especially for the Punan.
In 2003, a grant from the World Bank enabled researchers to create a website for the work, but it wasn’t accessible nor intelligible to people living in remote villages.
“Talking to people can provide some insight, but it’s not always easy, and policymakers rarely commit to consultations with inaccessible communities,” Basuki said.
“Although his project was undertaken several years ago its sustainability is proven because it has been deployed in other regions — that’s important because not only can it lead to further improvements both livelihoods and forest management, but the approach has wide relevance to UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) and other forest initiatives and can be used on a greater scale.”