Institutions should facilitate local forest monitoring

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Elinor Ostrom at IASC 2011

For many policy analysts and scholars, turning forest management over to governments, particularly as protected areas, is one way to preserve forests. But according to Elinor Ostrom, at the CIFOR pre-conference workshop “People, institutions and forests: Moving toward a new governance agenda,” research increasing shows that self-governance in the form of monitoring by user groups can be as important as formal designation as protected areas. This workshop was held as part of the International Association for the Study of the Commons biennial conference in Hyderabad.

An IFRI study asked foresters and biologists to evaluate forest density after completing a random sample of forest plots, and to compare densities among several forests in the region. The results were surprising: officially designated parks did not yield significantly higher densities than non-park forests. “We were not able to find that being officially designated as a park led to any improvement in terms of local vegetation density.”

So how can user monitoring be encouraged? When local groups secure the right to harvest from a forest, they are more likely to engage in monitoring. These findings, at first, seem counterintutive to many policy analysts. “This has driven some people crazy. ‘Give people local rights to harvest and then the forest is better, that’s ridiculous!’ But it’s not.”

A working system of user monitoring can only develop when long-term user rights are secured. “If a group of people are going to get together and say, let’s not harvest in a way that is destructive to our forest, they’ve got to have a long-term interest,” says Ostrom. In order to build trust and long-term interest on the part of a community, an important factor is that they have at least some rights, if not timber rights then access to non-timber forest products. “Having at least some rights to that forest turns out to be a very important factor affecting whether people do engage in monitoring.”

Research is also opening up new understanding of how rules developed by self-organized groups differ from current “textbook” remedies. Local rules controlling the use of forests often do not address quantities of resources, but more often look at the spatial and temporal dimensions of access to and use of forest resources. “In some places, harvesting at night is forbidden. It’s a lot easier to administer, because if you hear someone out in the forest at night harvesting trees, you know it’s not right. But if you have to measure quantity harvested, the measurement problem is much worse.”

Other characteristics of self-organized regimes include very clear boundary rules, rules based on unique aspects of a local resource, and graduated sanctions. Ostrom’s years of urban research, where sanctions are higher because the likelihood of being caught is small, did not prepare her for the relatively low-sanction governing systems she encountered in the forest. There, violations more often incur social censure rather than heavy penalties. Her research findings have found such informal rule enforcement to be effective in ensuring compliance with rules and encouraging trust and reciprocity over time, essential for cooperation in resource management.

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