The National Science Foundation awarded assistant professor Reem Hajjar $1.6 million through the DISES (Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems) program to research community forestry in Southeast Asia.

Hajjar, with a team of researchers, will study the impacts that community forestry has had on preventing deforestation while enhancing local livelihoods dependent on those forests. Researchers include professor Matt Betts, associate professors Robert Kennedy and Jamon Van Den Hoek from Geography, and assistant professor Samuel Bell from Applied Economics, as well as participating organizations the Spatial Informatics Group and the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC).

“Scholars and practitioners have long sought answers to the question: what institutional arrangements -such as particular policies, organizational structures, informal norms and rules- are the best way to balance the two, often competing, objectives of rural development and forest conservation?” Hajjar says.

Case studies show that community forest management, where some degree of forest rights and responsibilities is transferred to local communities, can be an effective form of decentralized forest governance but long-term success and sustainability is variable.

“Our project will identify the conditions that lead to positive community forest management outcomes, like increased forest cover, biodiversity, or local incomes, and the contexts and arrangements that lead to substantial trade-offs across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia,” Hajjar says.

In an unprecedented scale of analysis, this project will investigate and model the impacts of changes in community forest management institutional arrangements on forest conditions and livelihoods.

Using spatial datasets, researchers will test the hypotheses that community forest management is more likely to maintain and restore forest cover and biodiversity and enhance community livelihoods relative to forests that national governments manage. However, they expect that the magnitude of these impacts will be affected by the types of rights that communities can exercise over their forests and how secure those rights are. They also expect that impacts will be affected by baseline social conditions, like poverty levels and distance to markets, and baseline ecological conditions, like forest degradation and agricultural suitability. The researchers are hoping to additionally uncover the feedback mechanisms that drive this social-ecological system towards positive outcomes.

“With our research design, we can test to see if a positive feedback loop is driving social-ecological outcomes. Since communities now have some rights over those forests, we can see if communities are benefiting from more forest products and services associated with improving forest condition,” Hajjar says. “That, in turn, could incentivize them to continue to manage the forest sustainably and lead to better forest conditions.”

The result will be generalizable models that recognize feedbacks between forest conditions and livelihoods under community forest management. The goal is to produce models capable of predicting landscape and livelihood changes at various spatial and temporal scales under changing institutional drivers and ecological conditions.

The project will also train two PhD students, a master’s student and a postdoctoral fellow, in data science, qualitative methods and modeling. Course materials will be developed to bring socio-environmental modeling exercises into the classroom at Oregon State and at partner universities in Cambodia. Open access user-friendly datasets, maps and models will be available for scholars and practitioners working on environmental governance systems in the U.S. and beyond. Finally, policy briefs will be produced to inform ongoing debates about community forestry in SE Asia.

“This work will be of interest to governments and organizations promoting local governance of natural resources, including in the U.S., where forests under community management are increasing in number, and in low- and middle-income countries where communities manage over 25% of forests,” Hajjar says.

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