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Persson (2003), in an analysis of assistance to forestry in recent decades, concludes that forestry itself will do little to influence the rate of deforestation, as the main reasons for deforestation lie outside the forestry sector. He also concludes that sustainable forest management is rarely practiced in the tropics except on an experimental scale. In spite of this rather pessimistic assessment, there is little doubt that discussion and debate about forestry will continue. A plethora of institutional arrangements (partnerships, alliances, pacts, etc.) has emerged during the past decade at international, regional, national and sub-national levels to address the topic of sustainable forest management. Many, particularly those that originated at international and regional levels, are motivated by an interest in addressing single issues, such as forest landscape restoration, illegal logging, governance, certification, plantation and fire management guidelines as a contribution towards sustainable forest management. Others, such as the national forest programmes and model forests, are focused on achieving sustainable forest management in a more holistic manner.

Many of these new institutional arrangements can be categorized as multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs), which are perceived as being appropriate institutional vehicles for ensuring that:

MSPs have been defined by Steins and Edwards (1999) as:

Decision-making bodies (voluntary or statutory) comprising different stakeholders who perceive the same resource management problem, realize their interdependence for solving it, and come together to agree on action strategies for solving the problem.” (p. 244)

Though individual MSPs can be very different, Faysse (2006) suggests that they tend to have a generic objective, which is:

To enable the empowered and active participation of stakeholders in the search for solutions to a common problem. (p. 220)

The effective functioning of MSPs requires the existence of a dynamic and vibrant civil society that has the ability to become organized, to represent a variety of views and to negotiate durable social outcomes. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region do not have diverse and well organized civil society groups, and these countries tend to retain strong elements of the “government knows best” paradigm and have consequently not embraced MSPs to any great extent. However, even in countries with a well developed civil society, there needs to be sufficient political will by governments, and the associated institutional space, to involve a wider range of interest groups in debate and decision making.

The majority of the processes described in the paper define themselves as MSPs. However, it could be argued that many of them do not really conform to the criteria that would make them MSPs. In many cases, powerful stakeholders such as national governments make use of the processes for informing or consulting, rather than negotiating and deciding together. Many of the national forest programmes would fall into this category, and as a result, the outcomes might not enjoy wide stakeholder support. Even where there is no domination by powerful stakeholders, the primary purpose of many of the processes seems to be to promote discussion and exchange of ideas rather than negotiating outcomes using participatory approaches and involving all stakeholder groups that are likely to be affected by any decisions. In particular, those groups that are marginalized (such as poor local communities) and are likely to be the ones most immediately affected by forest management decisions are often the least represented. Another observation is that most multi-stakeholder processes investigated in this study are relatively recent in origin, and in many cases it is still too early to judge their effectiveness. Indeed, there are few critical evaluations available of the extent to which they have achieved their objectives.

There seems to be little doubt that where MSPs have been applied effectively, they have produced outcomes that are reasonably durable and, on balance, socially acceptable. However, simply applying the form of MSPs without the substance will generally not lead to durable outcomes that enjoy a reasonable level of community acceptance. For example, Edmunds and Wollenberg (2003), in an analysis of forest management decision making in China, India and the Philippines, note that institutional structures and interests of the state bureaucracies remain dominant despite the increasing involvement of diverse interest groups.

A clear message from the experience of the past decade is that, unless there is buy-in from all affected stakeholder groups to policy and practice, the outcomes are likely to be contested to the extent that they will be unsustainable. In the current environment, MSPs offer the best hope to negotiate acceptable outcomes that will be more durable and lead towards sustainable forest management. However, the outcomes should be seen as operational “treaties” and not set in stone for all time. They will need to be continually re-negotiated in an on-going policy cycle of contest, debate, consensus, limitation, re-contest, etc.

In summary, MSPs have become widespread (but not universal) and promise the delivery of more socially equitable and durable outcomes that can contribute to sustainable forest management. However, many of the MSPs that have emerged exhibit one or more of the characteristics that Faysse (2006) identified as being unfavorable for their efficient functioning. These include:

Many MSPs have been stimulated by the interests of international organizations. Some are linked to national frameworks, such as a national forest policy or national forest programmes (NFPs), while some have a more specific regional or local focus. At the national level, it would seem desirable to bring the MSPs operating within a country under a common framework such as a national forest policy or programme. This would enhance coordination, sharing of information and provide opportunities for the exchange of ideas and mutual learning. However, this would need to occur in a way that does not diminish the autonomy of individual MSP initiatives or seek to impose the ideas and/or control of a single interest group. NFP processes, where they exist in any effective form, could focus on developing frameworks and institutional capacity for MSPs to operate. However, there might be a need in some circumstances for capacity building of participants involved in the NFPs to enable them to adopt the characteristics of MSPs that have been shown as being necessary for efficient and effective functioning. However, an important caveat is that unless there is local ownership of the processes, coupled with sufficient political will to engage effectively and respect the negotiated decisions, capacity building is unlikely to lead to improved outcomes.

Many of the MSPs described in this report are concerned with enhancing the quality of dialogue about forest issues where the major participants are often like-minded. They are less concerned with negotiating specific outcomes where the issues are highly contested. However, there are several forest issues in the Asia-Pacific region which are highly contested. Serious application of multi-stakeholder processes to these issues has the potential to contribute to outcomes that are likely to be more durable and at the same time lead to enhanced social, economic and environmental impacts. It could be useful to support the piloting of activities to explore the application of multi-stakeholder processes in situations where serious conflict exists. Among the issues that could benefit from such application include:

In addition to focusing on specific issues such as those listed above, there are several activities that international organizations could undertake to build the capacity of forestry (and other) agencies to facilitate and promote more generalized multi-stakeholder dialogue and decision making including the following:

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