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7. The political economy
of forest sector law compliance

Governments often face difficulties in mobilizing the support needed to implement policy and legal reforms in the forest sector, usually because of opposition by powerful economic and political interest groups. Such resistance is quite common, as illustrated in the case studies for Cambodia and Ecuador where interest groups effectively prevented efforts to independently monitor illegal operations in the forest sector. Thus, policy makers need to anticipate conflict and find ways to accommodate the diverse interests that will be affected by changes in government policies, laws and institutions.


Policy, legislative and institutional reforms will largely be shaped by power relationships between various individuals and groups. Reforms to foster better governance in the forest sector are unlikely to survive parliamentary debates and behind-the-scene deals unless they can overcome the opposition of those that will lose out if reforms are approved.

It is therefore of utmost importance to map the structure of power groups and individuals likely to have an influence on the approval and implementation of reforms. Relevant groups include those who have political and/or economic power, such as high-level officials in forest and forest-related state bureaucracies (including agriculture, infrastructure development, energy, etc.), forest industrialists, concessionaires and large-scale ranchers/farmers. Other constituencies, which are generally politically disempowered such as shifting cultivators, indigenous communities, and landless peasants may to a lesser extent exert influence in a more informal way, for instance through NGOs and the media. Different constituencies have different values, experiences, knowledge, institutional loyalties, and political and economic power. Power issues are intrinsically linked to accountability issues. The notion of being accountable to someone or some group implies that people with power will acknowledge their responsibility to those who do not. It is important to understand these issues in order to build society's understanding and support for policy and legal reforms.

Building wide support for reforms

Analysis of how new measures for forest law enforcement will affect various interest groups can help identify proponents and opponents of reforms (including groups outside the forest sector), who may exert pressure on decision-makers. Assessing and understanding the historical and cultural contexts which shape public opinion is also crucial for ensuring the success of any reform. For instance, some societies may tolerate corruption more than others and therefore government initiatives to control corrupt acts may meet with relatively apathetic public reaction and support.

Gaining support from those most adversely affected by reforms

The feasibility of implementing corrective actions in the forest sector depends partly on how intensely costs and benefits are perceived by various actors. Support for law compliance will certainly come from those that benefit from it. For example, the Treasury or Finance Ministry is likely to support reforms if increased respect for the law leads to higher government revenues. Those forest operators who are already following the rule of law will also be likely to support efforts that contribute to creating a level playing field and eliminating illegal competitors. Communities may also support the law if it respects and protects their traditional rights.

Once an analysis has been carried out about how changes will affect different stakeholders, it is crucial to design measures to reduce resistance to change. For example, the Bolivian law which established a single concession fee rate (see Box 28) was strongly opposed by concession holders, and many abandoned large tracts of their concession areas or refused to pay the fee, leading to widespread lack of compliance. A sound economic analysis of how the fee affected the financial situation of concessionaires, of how concessionaires might have organized resistance to the law, and finally of how the system made the forest administration financially vulnerable to non-compliance could have perhaps avoided some of the problems or at least facilitated the planning of contingency actions.

Gaining support from the public at large

Public opinion is often a key factor in winning political support for new laws and regulations. Public support depends partly on the distribution of costs and benefits arising from law enforcement. The Bolivia case shows that although only a restricted group of concessionaires organized the campaign against the new regulations, their efforts were effective because the public at large did not perceire the benefits of enhanced law compliance. Accordingly, mobilization of political support needs to be anchored in an effort to inform political constituencies and the public of the social benefits resulting from law compliance. Public information and education can be a useful strategy to gain political support for change, although it is usually time-consuming and therefore should form part of a long-term strategy for improving forest sector law compliance.


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