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The Earth Summit at Rio in 1992 was something of a watershed in the evolution of institutional arrangements for planning and managing the planet’s natural resources. The previous paradigm of “government knows best” had been challenged during the previous two decades in many countries, and engaging a wider range of society in meaningful dialogue and decision making was seen to be necessary. New forms of participation were deemed to be an important precondition for success in achieving the goals of Agenda 21. The previous approach was simply unable to provide the social legitimacy needed to meet the challenges facing contemporary forest management. Implicit in this shift to increase legitimacy in forest policy and management was the notion that power over decision making should be shared with a wider range of societal interest groups, although the best mechanisms for doing this were not clear.

The adoption at Rio of the “Forest Principles”, with its emphasis on sustainable forest management, provided for the first time a common basis for action at national, regional and international levels (FAO 2005). However, a social construct such as sustainability is subject to competing claims over its interpretation, and it was inevitably contested at all levels from the global to the local. By definition, this has meant a move towards a more inclusive approach to decision making; one that has involved an expansion of the number of stakeholders involved in debating and making decisions about forest issues.

International initiatives followed quickly after Rio to take forward the policy discussions that commenced there. Many of these initiatives were essentially intergovernmental discussion for a, although international NGOs were invited as observers. NGOs were able to use the major meetings, side meetings and the many intersessional gatherings to promote particular points of view about the way that forests should be managed. Anderson et al. (1998) noted that “International NGOs have taken proactive steps not just to influence global forest policy, but to formulate it; for example, in the WWF/IUCN Forests for Life programme, where protected areas and independent certification are targeted.” (p. 3). Anderson et al. also note that “National and international NGOs are taking over responsibility for the management of some natural resources such as parks and protected areas.” (p. 3)

Many of the intergovernmental processes that followed the Earth Summit addressed forest issues, including the Convention on Biodiversity, where forests were included in the programme of work, and the UN Forum on Climate Change. However, the major forest-related intergovernmental process was the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests-IPF (1995-1997) and the follow-on Intergovernmental Forum on Forests-IFF (1997-2000) with a mandate to promote and facilitate implementation of the “Forest Principles”. The dialogue produced a list of nearly 300 recommendations for action to be taken by the participating national governments. The follow-up UN Forum on Forests-UNFF (on-going from 2000) was established to keep forest issues on the international agenda and to provide a forum for sharing experiences and encouraging the implementation of sustainable forest management.

Numerous positive outcomes have been claimed from all this international level activity over the past 15 years, although it is not possible to ascribe all of them to the international processes themselves (FAO 2005). These positive outcomes are summarized in Box 1.

Box 1. Perspectives on forest policy associated with the international forest debates post-Rio (adapted from FAO 2005, p. 61)

  • Better recognition of the contributions that forests make to sustainable development
  • Increased international cooperation and consensus building in attempts to address complex issues
  • A greater degree of participation of civil society in decision making
  • Acknowledgement of the importance of forests to sustainable livelihoods, food security and poverty alleviation, including their relevance to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals
  • Revised forest policies of multinational and bilateral forest donors and funding agencies
  • New financing mechanisms to capture the value of environmental services from forests such as carbon sequestration
  • The development and implementation of national forest programmes and criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management around the world
  • New efforts to improve governance and forest law enforcement
  • The establishment of innovative partnerships at all levels

In spite of these positive outcomes there have been many criticisms of the processes and their achievements, particularly in terms of positive changes to sustainable forest management. As noted as far back as 1996, “We are now five years from UNCED and have witnessed a vast amount of talking in a multitude of fora. However, the last remaining areas of intact forest in both temperate and tropical regions are being targeted for logging, and deforestation continues apace” (Gilmour, 1996, p. 1). More recently, Carole Saint-Laurent (2002) noted that “…negotiations …have given only cursory attention to substantive forest issues, with greater attention being given to process matters.” (p. 6) In 2005 she went further in referring to the fifth session of the UNFF: “The session ended in failure, with not only a lack of agreement on a future IAF (International Agreement on Forests), but also no real learning from the first five years of the UNFF.” (Saint-Laurent, 2005, p. 5). Persson and Corell (2005) concluded that while the IPF probably had some value, it is doubtful whether the IFF had any, and further: “…UNFF ought to be classified as an expensive fiasco. The world wouldn’t have looked different if UNFF had never started.” (p. 13).

In spite of these negative assessments of the international processes, there are suggestions that consensus on the International Agreement on Forests was reached at UNFF 6 in early 2006, which could see more emphasis on implementation and a focus on the important issues related to the new Global Objectives on Forests (T. Bartlett, pers. com.).

The international initiatives discussed in the previous paragraphs were intergovernmental processes. The World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development (WCFSD) was a parallel process that commenced in 1995 and attempted to engage a wider range of interest groups. The Commission was an independent body made up of a group of political and scientific leaders, and there was an explicit attempt to include NGOs in the forest debate (FAO 1997).

An underlying “sleeping issue” at all of these discussions was the relevance and usefulness of a Global Forest Convention. The idea of a Convention was widely promoted at Rio, but not accepted. However, it continued to be in the background of the global forest debates in the decade and a half that followed Rio.

These initiatives at the international level were often paralleled with initiatives at regional, national and sub-national levels as national governments and other interest groups attempted to broaden the debate on forest management and make it more relevant to their needs. People began to grapple with the paradigm shift from one where one or two key stakeholders held most of the power to make forest management decisions, to one where multiple stakeholders (particularly those representing civil society and those directly impacted by forest management policy) participate meaningfully in decision making. As Mayers (2003) summarized the situation, “There have been two main sources of multi-stakeholder policy reform processes in recent times: responses to pressure from local levels; and, responses to international opportunity or the polite suggestions of international soft law.” (p.1)

In summary, progress has been made in forest governance in recent years in some countries; national policy has opened up to more stakeholders; the rights of forest-dependent people have been widely recognized as an important issue and in some cases these rights have been strengthened. However, while prescriptions for good governance and forest management are widely available, practical approaches and commitment to implementation are often lacking - the challenge is not what to do, but how to do it.

Key concepts

Several new concepts came into widespread usage during the past decade in the various attempts to increase the involvement of interested groups in the forest debate, and the most important of these are discussed briefly in this section.


Stakeholder refers broadly to anyone significantly affecting or affected by someone else's decision-making activity (Govan 2002). Much has been written regarding stakeholders, stakeholder identification and stakeholder analysis (e.g. Grimble and Wellard 1996; ODA 1995). Explicit in the discussions at the Earth Summit was the recognition that there are many different stakeholder groups and individuals with a legitimate interest in the outcomes of forest management. As quoted in Wollenberg et al. (2005), stakeholder analysis is a process that “attempts to define stakeholders by their respective rights, responsibilities, returns from a given resource and relationships.” (p. 20)

Determining which stakeholders should be involved in a process and what weight should be given to their opinions is a vexing question; some people rank or group them in terms of importance for the success of the initiative or as potential beneficiaries. Some distinguish between the core primary stakeholders and secondary stakeholders as well as external stakeholders (ODA 1995). An alternative approach is to distinguish between stakeholders (anyone who has an interest or stake) and rightholders (those who have a right, such as villagers who depend on resources for their survival and livelihood (Madhu Sarin, pers. com.).

During the 1990s, this multiplicity of stakeholder interests and views came to be called pluralism (Anderson et al. 1998; FAO 1999). Wollenberg et al. (2005) define pluralism as “…the co-existence of many values or other human traits in a society with the purpose of enabling individuals to pursue happiness…It views the co-existence of differences in values as real, unavoidable and potentially useful and good.” (p. 5)

A key aspect of engaging a wider group of stakeholders in discussion and decision making is the extent of the power that individual groups can exercise over the outcomes. This is generally discussed in terms of the type of participation that is involved. Participation is a very broad term and it is most useful to distinguish levels or degrees of participation as first suggested by Arnstein (1969). The levels of participation are frequently portrayed as steps on a ladder, moving from informing, to information seeking, to consultation, to deciding together, to acting together. The higher up the ladder, the greater the degree of participation in the process, and the more influence and power that can be exercised over the outcomes. An important point to be made about this typology is that appropriate levels of participation may vary depending on the circumstance, and it may not be appropriate, desirable or possible to seek the “higher” levels of participation in all situations.

A key requirement of effective forest and land use planning is to develop processes whereby all stakeholders accept the outcome of a particular planning decision, irrespective of the desired outcome (Cassells 2001). This cannot occur if any of the key stakeholders are marginalized i.e. if participation is token. Conversely, it will also be compromised if any one stakeholder group has disproportionate power and the potential to influence decision making.

Engaging with multiple stakeholders

Various forms of alliances and partnerships began emerging in the mid to late 1990s, partly in response to a sense of frustration over the limited ability of governments and the intergovernmental processes to create meaningful change on the ground, and partly as a recognition that durable and effective changes at the national level required engagement with a wider range of stakeholders than had previously been the case. A primary motivation for establishing partnerships is to enhance performance in problem solving. It is generally perceived that by collaborating, it is possible to combine the ideas, resources and skills of organizations and individuals, and produce what no organization can produce on its own. Thus, the synergy created by a productive partnership is expected to produce outcomes that are greater than the sum of individual achievements.

The call for a greater emphasis on involving a wider range of stakeholders in discussions and decisions about forest management was given a much stronger voice during the preparatory meetings for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002. A key feature was the decision of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to give even greater emphasis to implementation processes involving stakeholder partnerships, with active participation of government, civil society and business. This led to a call for partnership initiatives to be developed as primary instruments for implementing Agenda 21. Currently, 321 partnerships are registered in the database of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (Uitenboogaart 2007).

One can think of a continuum of institutional arrangements for planning for and managing forests, from single stakeholder management to multi-stakeholder processes. Table 1 gives a simplified schema that illustrates some of the points along the continuum. Defining what constitutes a multi-stakeholder process in this continuum is a somewhat subjective decision. For the purposes of this paper, the first example given in Table 1, i.e., conventional industrial forestry, is excluded from discussion, as it normally operates with a small number of key stakeholders (often only two). Most of the examples used in the paper relate to the final two categories given in Table 1, i.e., issues-based forestry and comprehensive approaches, where explicit attempts are made to integrate economic, social and environmental considerations, and where a range of stakeholder groups is engaged.

Table 1. Schema illustrating continuum of institutional arrangements for forest management decision making based on multiplicity of stakeholders.

Focus of forest management decision making

Key stakeholders

Level of operation

Conventional industrial forestry

Two stakeholders-government (forest department) and industry

National or sub-national

Issues based forestry

Small number of stakeholders with a particular interest in an issue (e.g. illegal logging, forest landscape restoration, biodiversity conservation, protected areas)

Regional or global

Comprehensive approaches to integrating social, economic and environmental aspects

Large number of stakeholders, generally including government forest agencies.

National or sub-national

Multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs)

Multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs) have been widely promoted as a promising means of resolving conflicts over natural resources, first in developed countries and, more recently, as a global good practice (Faysse 2006). Faysse argues that Multi-stakeholder Platforms should be viewed as a negotiation process, always imperfect, but where positive outcomes may nevertheless outweigh negative ones. MSPs can be defined 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” (Steins and Edwards, 1999: 244).

Wollenberg et al. (2005)1 prefer the term “process” rather than “platform”, and describe multi-stakeholder processes as:

…courses of action where two or more interest groups provide their views, make a decision or coordinate an activity together.” (p.45)

Throughout the remainder of this paper the term “process” rather than “platform” is used without entering into any debate about which term is to be preferred. However, it is worth noting that MSPs invariably imply a process that evolves over time. A problem with the definition of MSPs suggested by Wollenberg et al. is that this would include negotiations between two interest groups such as government and the timber industry, without any involvement of other interested parties. MSPs generally imply that the stakeholders involved in the process include all those with a legitimate interest in the outcomes, and not just one or two interest groups as in the example given above. Hence, MSPs in this paper refer to those processes where there are multiple stakeholders representing a wide range of relevant views, including those from civil society. Wollenberg et al. (2005) note that “Many groups see the use of MSPs by civil society as more a flexible, efficient and responsive alternative to heavily politicized, bureaucratic government processes.” (p.45)

Common features of MSPs

Though individual MSPs can be very different, Faysse (2006) suggests that they tend to have a generic objective which he defines as: To enable the empowered and active participation of stakeholders in the search for solutions to a common problem.” (p. 220) Empowered and active participation refers to the highest rungs on Arnstein’s ladder of participation. Faysse goes on to suggest that there are usually two main expectations behind a decision to set up a MSP. First, MSPs are expected to lead to decisions that are more widely acceptable than decisions resulting from State-led processes with no stakeholder participation. Second, they lead to better and more acceptable decisions than those arising from one-to-one negotiations. It is believed that they facilitate integrative negotiations (i.e., leading to win–win solutions) and that these solutions are found more easily through discussions in which all participate. Experience suggests that a foundation of mutual respect, trust and the will to cooperate needs to be developed between stakeholders at an early stage of the process. Without this, effective participation, including negotiation of outcomes, is unlikely to be achieved.

Wollenberg et al. in their comprehensive review of a large number of MSPs identified five common features that are relevant to understanding how MSPs accommodate, coordinate and manage diverse stakeholder interests. A summary of these features includes:

  1. Characteristics of the stakeholders, conveners and facilitators: How this group was selected and to whom they are accountable; their legitimacy and the influence and control over decision making both inside and outside the MSP; and the stakes involved for each stakeholder.
  2. Context that frames the process: The history of different groups’ demands and conflicts, and factors beyond the boundary of the forest or beyond the control of the stakeholders.
  3. Shared principles and strategies guiding decisions: The principles for making decisions in the MSP; shared vision or interests; agreements about roles; and people’s commitment to the process.
  4. Cycles of conflict and cooperation: Processes of negotiation or bargaining to manage conflict and build cooperation and agreements.
  5. Mutual adjustments: Processes are ever changing and iterative; participants make adjustments as they learn from experience.

(Adapted from Wollenberg et al. 2005, p. 47-48)

Strengths and weaknesses of MSPs

Wollenberg et al. (2005) identify the key strengths and weaknesses of MSPs, and these are worth repeating before going on to consider MSPs in the Asia-Pacific region.



Adapted from Wollenberg et al. (2005) p. 72

1 Wollenberg and her co-authors have synthesized, analyzed and summarized the results of a large number of case studies on pluralism and MSPs in which 13 additional authors participated in workshops and other activities. Their guide is the most comprehensive study on accommodating multiple interests in forestry yet undertaken, and is thus used as the primary authoritative reference for this paper.

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