Mongolia’s 10.8 million hectares of forests are under threat. Despite these forests’ importance to sequestering carbon, maintaining soil stability, and providing habitats for Mongolia’s endemic flora and fauna, over 60,000 hectares of forest cover is lost every year, mostly due to illegal and/or unsustainable logging and forest fires. The Government of Mongolia has enacted a variety of laws and policies in an effort to curb the loss of forest cover. One of these, the Law on Environmental Protection, was amended in 2005 to allow for the creation of Forest User Groups (FUGs), voluntary organizations of local citizens that are tasked with the appropriate utilization and rehabilitation of local forests in accordance with civil law.
Furthermore, the Forest Law was amended twice (in 2007 and 2015) to shift from state forest management (as all land, including forests, belong to the people of Mongolia) to private and community-based forest management and, as of 2018, about 1,082 FUGs hold the lease for some 3 million hectares of forest area, and 106 private enterprises lease about 601,700 hectares. The implementation of FUGs has resulted in a significant decrease in illegal logging wherever these groups are active. However, as the years have passed, FUGs are proving to be unstable and perhaps even unsustainable in the long run, with only about a third of FUGs registered with the state currently considered to be active.
Sustainable forest management through improved livelihoods
Funded by the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction and the Government of Mongolia, the Sustainable Forest Management to Improve Livelihoods of Local Communities Project (TA 8874 MON) was launched in 2014 and implemented from 2015 to 2018. NIRAS and local partner MonConsult LLC, Mongolia, were contracted to provide technical assistance.
The project aimed to lead to sustainable livelihoods and increased resilience of forest ecosystems in five aimags (provinces) containing most of Mongolia’s forest cover. The implementation of the project required the selection of a pilot area with dissemination to the rest of the aimags done towards the project’s end. The Tunkhel Village district was chosen, as it would provide the best testing grounds due to its proximity to potential target markets and infrastructure such as railway lines, the number of sawmills and other wood processing facilities available in the area, the number of active FUGs (seven), the area’s dependency on forestry, and the availability of dead wood resources (as FUGs are only allowed by law to remove fallen dead wood and non-timber forest products).
The overall intention of the project was to support Mongolia’s policies around forest protection while encouraging private enterprises and forest user groups to get involved in forest management. To achieve these goals, the project took three main approaches: improving the capacity of (governmental) forest management line agencies; strengthening forest product value chains and improving FUGs’ capacities, thus improving members livelihoods while making them more efficient at managing the forests for which they are responsible; and demonstrating technology for wood processing systems. All project activities were implemented with an orientation to mainstreaming gender.
Pursuing these objectives, the project engaged in a variety of activities, including business management training; the integration of global information systems (GIS) in the planning of the sustainable forest management (SFM) process; the analysis of deadwood harvesting, extraction, and marketing; the establishment and training of members of the Bayan Tunkhel Cooperative, a legal entity that was created as a pathway for FUGs to derive economic benefit from harvesting forest products, utilizing wood processing technology, and providing biomass for heating; and exploring a possible public–private partnership for a German–Mongolian cooperation in support of the forest industry.
During the phasing out stage, the project focused on targeted information dissemination to facilitate the scaling up of project activities to the other aimags, discussions of follow-up actions with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and the smooth handover of assets that had been acquired in the running of the project, mostly to the Bayan Tunkhel Cooperative.
Challenges and opportunities for improvement
During the project’s active period, various challenges complicated the project’s implementation. Most of these issues were institutional in nature, and mostly took the form of hampering the FUGs’ ability to derive economic value out of the forests they leased.
An excellent example of this is the Mongolia Forest Policy. It shows the intention to:
…gradually decrease the permitted logging amount of timber from forests, increase substituting products, follow the strategy of meeting industrial demand for wood and wooden materials through imported wood…
This has a negative impact on the local forest industry, lowering the value of forest resources to the point of disincentivizing locals from protecting the forest through sustainable use.
Furthermore, policies such as these make it difficult to make a profit in the industry, which has negative impacts on financing and therefore the modernization of equipment to manage forests according to international standards. Added to this is the fact that FUGs may not take anything from the forests except for lying dead wood (i.e. they can’t even cut down dead trees) and non-timber forest products. Neither of these are highly valuable, which means that it’s almost impossible to generate a good income off FUG activities. In short, FUG members are expected to take responsibility for protecting the lands under their control, at their own expense and using their own assets, but without offering them valuable benefits for doing so.
Therefore the project found that truly improving the livelihoods of local communities through sustainable forest management would require policy changes to, amongst others, allow for community-based forest management planning (so as to create plans that can realistically be implemented by FUGs on the ground), the removal of ineffective timber quotas in favour of handing in management plans (to allow FUGs to harvest more valuable products under controlled circumstances), and a greater sense of ownership for FUGs that allows FUG members to derive economic value from their activities, incentivizing them to implement sustainable practices as they protect and nurture their areas of forest.