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Model forests: partnerships for sustainable management

P. Besseau and C. Mooney

Peter Besseau is Executive Director of the International Model Forest Network Secretariat (IMFNS), Ottawa, Canada.
Christa Mooney is Communications Officer of IMFNS, Ottawa, Canada.

The XII World Forestry Congress put harmony between people and forests at the centre of the sustainable forest management debate, and one of the strongest themes to emerge was partnerships. In a variety of meetings and declarations, participants consistently recog nized the vital role that local communities, non-governmental organizations and workers, including indigenous people and women, must play in sustainable forest management and decision-making processes, alongside governments and industry.

Throughout the congress, an example many participants repeatedly turned to as a demonstration of broad-based collaborative partnerships in action was model forests.

Model forests were the subject of one invited paper and one other lead paper for the congress and figured prominently in more than ten voluntary papers, while they were mentioned in nearly 20 more. A side event held jointly by the International Model Forest Network and the Canadian Model Forest Network on 22 September was a success as nearly double the expected number of attendees packed the room to hear speakers from Chile, China and Canada talk about their diverse experiences as partners in the model forest initiative.

What is a model forest?

A model forest is a clearly delineated geographical area with a predominant forest profile in which an association of interested parties agrees to:

• develop a shared local understanding and vision of sustainability;
• define strategic goals, objectives and management processes;
• adopt concrete actions and specific activities geared towards these goals;
• put these into effect by working together and by sharing experiences through the International and Regional Model Forest Networks;
• share results and challenges with interested parties, including local communities, governments and public and private institutions – hence their value in testing replicable forest policies (Collarte, 2003).

The concept of model forests was initiated in Canada in 1990. Ten sites were originally selected for the implementation of the concept; 11 model forests now exist in the country. The idea of expanding the Canadian initiative into an International Model Forest Network (IMFN) was launched at the 1992 United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (UNCED), and the international network became operational in 1994. As with the Canadian Network, the purpose of the IMFN was to stimulate the field-level application of new concepts and ideas in sustainable forest management and to create opportunities to demonstrate and share these experiences.

Existing model forest sites range from 86 000 ha to more than 7 million hectares and differ widely in ecological and socio-economic conditions. Because each has its own history of use, patterns of settlement, laws, customs and resource endowments, no two model forests are identical. However, successful model forests include the following attributes:

• partnerships;
• commitment to sustainable forest management;
• a land base large enough to incorporate all of the forest’s uses and values (including towns, rivers, farms, forests, and protected areas);
• a range of activities reflecting the value of forest resources and addressing the needs of the community;
• a governance structure in which partners with different values can work comfortably together;
• capacity-building and knowledge sharing with others across the worldwide network of working model forests.

The term “model” is not intended to denote a static, rigid or unalterable blueprint. Rather, these forests provide an opportunity to test and demonstrate best forest management policies and practices which can then be shared or adapted to suit other model forests, regions or countries. National governments are also encouraged to adopt these best practices for application beyond the boundaries of the model forest itself.

Model forests are supported by national governments, whose role is essential because political will is required to make a model forest work, and because of the critical need to create a dynamic link between sustainable forest management policy and practice. As the guardians of public land, or by virtue of their policy and regulatory responsibilities, governments are important stakeholders.

Model forests are directly relevant to national forest programmes, as demonstration areas of national significance and as testing grounds for innovative forest management policies and practices.

“Internationalizing” the process

Today, there are 31 model forests in 14 countries around the world, covering a total area of more than 27 million hectares (see Map). Another nine countries are currently developing model forests or have expressed a strong interest in doing so.

The Regional Model Forest Centre for Latin America and the Caribbean, headquartered in Santiago, Chile, was established in October 2002. The regional centre’s main purpose is to define and articulate a regional programme of sustainable forest management that reflects the priorities, strengths and opportunities unique to the region. Work is also now well under way to establish a regional network in Asia, where interest in model forests has been equally strong.

An approach based on partnership

The model forest approach to forest management is based on the view that local participation is key to sustainable forest management, and that those who have an interest in the land base must be actively involved. In a given region, model forest partners can include private landowners, industry, farmers, community organizations, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, academics, governments and institutions.

Model forest partners strive to harmonize economic and non-economic priorities and to advance understanding of the trade-offs involved. To that end, they are involved in activities such as education, research, biodiversity conservation and the development of local indicators to monitor progress towards sustainable forest management goals within the model forest area. In several model forests, stakeholders have stated clearly that sustainable forest management must demonstrate an economic dividend, and they are engaged in identifying economic opportunities that are not based on timber alone.

Participation is voluntary and does not affect land tenure or resource administration. Instead, partners sign on because they see, or wish to identify, viable alternatives to existing practices, and believe in finding solutions to shared problems.

Some examples

A model forest in the Russian Federation. Located in the boreal forest of far-eastern Russia, the 385 000 ha Gassinski Model Forest is home to a number of rare and endangered species, including the Himalayan bear and Siberian tiger. Its main objectives include construction of an accurate ecological database, the preservation of biodiversity and integration of social, economic and environmental factors into an overall development plan. Economic diversification is seen as a major factor in reconciling the interests of inhabitants, including indigenous peoples, with the needs of the forest. Research, technology transfer, public education and broad community involvement are the principal tools for achieving sustainable development in this forest.

Achievements of the Gassinski Model Forest include: the setting aside of forest land where a ban on harvesting protects the habitat of the endangered Siberian tiger; mapping and protecting areas of threatened flora; the development of value-added wood processing and non-wood forest product industries to help sustain forest-dependent communities; and the design of the region’s first long-term development strategy explicitly focused on sustainability.

A model forest in Chile. The first model forest established when Chile’s model forest programme began in 1998 was the Chiloé Model Forest, located on an island in Chile’s southern archipelago. The original 173 000 ha tract includes private agricultural land, undeveloped stands of native trees and a national park. Indigenous peoples, community leaders, the Catholic Church and a number of non-governmental organizations form part of the model forest’s partnership team.

When the model forest programme began, the forests of Chiloé were threatened by excessive timber harvesting and clearing for agriculture. Even national park authorities were unable to protect forest land from tree poaching and other unauthorized uses. Five years later, this situation has changed. Value-added activities such as ecotourism, charcoal production, basket weaving, wood carving, nut harvesting and production of natural dyes are generating considerable income for local inhabitants and provide alternatives to indiscriminate uses of the forest.

Because of its success, the land base of the model forest has been increased to cover the entire 1 million hectares of Chiloé Island. The long-term goals for the Chiloé Model Forest are to improve living conditions, conserve biodiversity and promote the island’s unique traditional culture.


The model forest concept may not be applicable in all countries. The essential ingredient to success is a supportive government with the political will that enables sustainability. Those countries that have developed national forest programmes, for example, have demonstrated this political will. In countries a where a sufficiently strong framework exists, the model forest concept can provide an excellent approach for translating forest policy into action and providing continuous feedback.

More information is available on the International Model Forest Network Web site ( or by contacting


Collarte, J.C. 2003. Model forests: establishing roots for a sustainable future. Congress Proceedings, XII World Forestry Congress, Quebec, Canada, 21-28 September 2003, Vol. C, p. 125-130. Quebec, Canada, World Forestry Congress.

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