Asia has a unique opportunity to fight climate change and lift many more people out of poverty if it invests more in the communities living in its forests, experts said.
More than 450 million people in the region rely on forests for income and food, but forest dwellers often struggle to make a living as rural poverty, deforestation and climate change threaten their livelihoods.
"If we truly want to sustain Asia's forests, we need to address inequality and poverty by investing in people living in the forests," said Tint Lwin Thaung, executive director of RECOFTC, which promotes community forestry in Asia.
The Asia-Pacific region's forests, which account for almost 20 percent of the world's forested area, play a big role in fighting climate change because of trees' ability to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2).
Studies have shown that strengthenening commmunity forest rights can cut CO2 emissions by reducing deforestation, and improve forest health.
Trevor Abrahams, secretary general of the World Forestry Congress, said Asia had a unique opportunity to ensure that its forests were managed in a more sustainable way, as attention focuses on global leaders' adoption of new development goals in September.
"But the question is not just how do we manage forests in a sustainable way, but how do we make sure that the people living in them are at the centre of decision making," Abrahams said.
The World Forestry Congress, the largest global gathering of the forestry sector, will take place in Durban, South Africa, in September.
Power to the people
Amid growing recognition that the people who live in forests are their most effective protectors, Asian governments have been earmarking an increasing amount of land for community forestry.
In 2013, 8.8 million hectares of forest land were managed by local people through community agreements or forest titles in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, an increase of about one third since 2010, according to a RECOFTC survey.
But this is still only 3.5 percent of total forest land in members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, RECOFTC said, noting that no data was available for Laos and Malaysia.
The most notable expansions of locally managed land were in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In northern Thailand's Mae Thae, forest communities have established a self-governing system and worked together to improve land management, deal with drought and address conflict arising from illegal logging.
As a result, Mae Tha has become Thailand's first and only community to be awarded land tenure rights for 30 years for more than 1,000 hectares of forest land, according to RECOFTC.
"We can save our forests by putting the whole community at the heart of development and focusing investment on the people," said Kanoksak Daungkaewroen, a local leader from Mae Tha who has worked at educating communities about their rights.
Although more community forest agreements have been signed, progress in handing the land over to local people has been very slow, said Thaung.
Less than than 10 percent of forest land covered by such agreements has actually been transferred to communities in Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, according to RECOFTC.
Thaung said inadequate legal frameworks, the complexities of land allocation and overly bureaucratic procedures contributed to the problem.
Progress in community forestry is also being hampered by governments' allocation to it of poor quality forest land, which reduces local people's chances of making a living out of it, he said.