The Playing Field Needs a New Slant

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In 1978, Jack Westoby – already a legendary figure in international forestry having retired after 25 years at the FAO – challenged participants in the World Forestry Congress in Jakarta to make forest management serve the needs of local people. Thirty years later, how have we done?

Not very well at all, according to a new article by Anne Larson and Jesse Ribot. In “The poverty of forestry policy: double standards on an uneven playing field”, they detail how forest policies continue to privilege the extractive interests of richer and more powerful urban elites. Such bias perpetuates poverty and exclusion in rural communities that might otherwise benefit from meaningful participation in forest management.

National forest law and policy often embody double standards, imposing additional burdens on local communities or granting special privileges to commercial actors. Prior to the enactment of a new forestry law in Honduras, outdated legislation precluded the granting of title over most forestland. Regulations limited community rights to “traditional uses”, while permitting forestry authorities to grant logging rights over those same forests to third parties.

In other countries, the law is fair on paper, but not in practice. In Senegal, progressive decentralization laws in the late 1990s gave local governments the right to manage forests within their jurisdictions. But almost ten years later, the old system of granting permits for charcoal exploitation through a centrally-managed quota system persists virtually unchanged. The new Honduran law, passed after this article was published, is now raising similar concerns regarding implementation.

In both countries, attempts to tilt the playing field toward local communities have had perverse consequences. A Social Forestry System, set up in Honduras to encourage access to forests by peasant and indigenous cooperatives, has been co-opted by large-scale timber interests operating in collusion with forestry authorities. In Senegal, donor-supported projects to demonstrate application of progressive laws have provided an excuse for the Forest Service to delay their implementation more generally.

Analysis by Larson and Ribot is a timely reminder that improving forest governance is not just about reforming the formal laws and regulations that ostensibly set the rules of the game. It’s also about reforming the many formal and informal institutions that determine what happens in the day-to-day interpretation and implementation of those rules.

The authors stress that while strengthening local rights to forest resources may be necessary, such rights are by no means sufficient to guarantee actual changes in community access. Structures of political power, markets, and information all conspire to reinforce local disadvantage. In particular, “rules are only applied to those too weak to circumvent them: the poor rural majority”. More radical changes are needed to tilt the playing field decisively in their favor.

And now a word about CIFOR…

Larson and Ribot suggest that “good analysis” can help rural communities and their advocates leverage change, and CIFOR aspires to be a leading provider of just such analysis. CIFOR’s new strategy, the product of many external consultations and internal debates over the last 18 months, was approved by our Board of Trustees in May. Please check it out at http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/publications/pdf_files/Books/CIFORStrategy0801.pdf and let us know your comments and ideas on how we can collaborate to achieve common objectives.

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Further reading

Anne M. Larson and Jesse C. Ribot. 2007. The poverty of forestry policy: double standards on an uneven playing field. Sustainability Science, Volume 2, Number 2 / October, 2007.

The article is available at http://pdf.wri.org/sustainability_science_poverty_of_forestry_policy.pdf

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