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Forest Governance failure

In this article, Dr Oliver Springate-Baginski discusses what we mean by forest governance and why it seems to be failing to reduce forest losses.
Ends of trees that have been chopped down

Let us look at what we mean by forest governance and why it seems to be failing to reduce forest losses.

Regulation and governance

Societies are comprised of numerous individuals and for many issues it is important that individual behaviour is coordinated. Regarding resource use for instance, if there is no regulatory system everyone can take as much as they want of the resource, and as soon as extraction exceeds the sustainable offtake levels, the resource begins to diminish. This is what we call a ‘tragedy of open access commons’.

So most people accept the principle of regulation. Although regulating the activities of the individuals in society may impinge on their liberties, it can protect a ‘common good’. Regulating the use of natural resources like forests or fisheries within sustainable levels is essential to assure their availability in the future. So in a society if you want the freedom to use a natural resource you probably need to accept some regulation impinging on your freedoms to some extent. Without that regulation society may eventually lose the resource.

So this leads us to the concept of governance – which is the general term for the ways in which society regulates itself. Although it’s quite an old term in the English language it is increasingly used to refer to all the sorts of social regulation, both government and non-government, and to distinguish from government alone.

When we use the term governance we are hinting that we know regulation is necessary but we don’t necessarily think the government alone should do it. Government is one way that societies regulate activities, but it is not the only way. Local communities can also manage rule making, monitoring and enforcing in a self-organised way. There are lots of different ways in which societies can be self-regulating without reference to government, for example, developing acceptable behaviour or how trade is conducted. Furthermore, governments can lack the capacity to compel people to actually follow their stated regulations, and communities can often be more effective.

We don’t want to dismiss government regulation, as in so many ways government is the foundation for modern social regulation. But we don’t want to be restricted to only government either. In reality we tend to see around the world combinations of government and non-government governance arrangements. Academics say that governance is typically multi-scale and multi-layered, meaning that we can have village level organisation and national governments both seeking to regulate use but having different strengths and weaknesses that can sometimes be complementary and sometimes contradictory.

Why is forest governance so complex?

On the ground forest governance is really complicated for three key reasons:

  • Biophysical complexity: each forest is different, and each is infinitely complex: forests are composed of numerous components – trees, plants, animals, soil, water – each interacting in complex ways, and forests are integrated systems so that removing any component affects the whole system, also in complex and sometimes quite unpredictable ways.
  • Social complexity: because forests are multifunctional there are many different agents seeking to use the forest in different ways (e.g. logging companies, conservation organisations, citizens’ rights groups). Each agent is at a different scale and part of different networks.
  • Governance complexity: this refers to the combination of national governments, with their legislatures, executives and judiciaries, interacting in various ways with citizens and interest groups. There is an increasing proliferation of different governance instruments, whether it’s spatial planning and categorisation, silvicultural (tree management) interventions to produce certain sorts of timber conservation measures, village use watershed management, forest carbon management and so on.

In addition to these three reasons, we also have to recognise that the current state of the forest resource is an outcome of the history of plants growing in the past, and how they have been affected over time by patterns of use, so we have long-term feedback loops to consider.

The paradox of forest governance

The fundamental paradox of forest governance is that everyone says forests are valuable, important and good, but they continue to disappear. So it does not seem that these rhetorical statements are being successfully transformed into action. A key determinant of forest governance is the political economy, by which we mean the linked economic and political power balance, including around policy making, so who influences and controls the actual decisions? One of the problems is that although the common goods which forests provide focus people’s attention on protecting them, the benefits available to the individuals who extract timber or convert the land to other uses like palm oil plantations can give a much higher motivation. Those individuals, if they have influence, may really work hard to get their way, as they have so much to gain. In many countries the most powerful influences on government policies are not the electorate but business lobbies, who often frame the furthering of their interests in terms of economic development and job creation to make them politically palatable.

National governments are always struggling to balance diverse political pressures from different constituencies. Most developing countries in the post-war period have prioritised economic development and economic growth, investing in industrialisation and promoting job creation and revenue generation, in order to provide a range of services to citizens, in order to alleviate poverty, improve incomes and modernise.

For countries endowed with forests, logging may present an easy way to generate revenues for investment. No matter how much the technical foresters complain that we must observe sustainability, politicians who may have a limited time in power are often more inclined to get the quick payoff, partly to enable them to deliver benefits to their constituents. Therefore, it is a struggle to prioritise sustainability over the opportunities for short-term benefits. The consequences of unsustainable forest use (declining availability in the future, loss of biodiversity, loss of ecosystem services) are very real but maybe more remote, and the people who suffer the direct impacts may not be influential.

At the international scale there have been numerous attempts to strengthen forest governance and reduce deforestation. However, these initiatives inevitably have to work through national governments trying to influence the same political processes. The incentives that international agreements and organisations can offer are rarely sufficiently persuasive to moderate policies. Therefore, many sustainable forestry campaigners return to trying to work at the local level with communities to strengthen their ability to protect and manage forests sustainably, which is a very long-term and detailed process.

© University of East Anglia
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