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Forestry for sustainable development: The social dimension

D.D. Gow

David D. Gow was a member of the Planning and Institutions Service of the FAO Forestry Department when this article was written. He is currently with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

Forestry is uniquely positioned to make a major contribution to addressing the problems of environmental degradation and rural poverty, given the multiple roles that trees can play in the provision of food, the generation of income and the maintenance of the natural resource base. The concept of sustainability implies ideas about resource stewardship, on the one hand, and quality of life on the other. Differentiating between ecological and social sustainability is the first step toward clarifying some of the confusion. One way to do this is to incorporate the social dimension into the forestry sector through the use of social analysis, which describes and analyses the potential effects of planned interventions upon specific groups of people. This article describes social analysis and indicates how it can be effectively applied in the design of forestry projects for sustainable development.

"When all is said and done, conservation is about people. It is about the balance that must be struck between humans and nature and between generations. And if it is to be relevant to the developing world, it must address the needs of the poor and the dispossessed who ironically share their rural frontier with the earth's biological wealth."

(Wright, 1988)

The issue of sustainability assumes crucial proportions when confronted by the twin challenges of environmental degradation and rural impoverishment. In much of the developing world, conservation for the sake of conservation - environmental fundamentalism - has become an anachronism. There is an increasing awareness and acceptance of the fact that if the natural resource base is to be sustained, it must be done so in a productive manner which benefits the local population. Respect for natural resources must be accompanied by respect for human needs.

The growing recognition of the links between environment, poverty and sustainability has been an important step forward in development thinking. While this interlinkage poses a formidable challenge to those who worry about the future of the planet, it also offers an opportunity for integrated, multidisciplinary solutions - an approach often honoured with little more than lip-service in the past.

Sustainability for whom?

While everyone believes in sustainability, just what it is that everyone believes in remains open to interpretation:

"The concept is variously used to convey human needs, levels of economic production and consumption, and the desirability of conserving natural capital. It is difficult to formulate a definition which is comprehensive but which is not tautological, and retains analytical precision."

(Redclift and David, 1990)

The fundamental premise of much mainstream thinking about sustainable development is a direct link between poverty and environmental degradation; however, the reality is really much less simple since both have deep and complex causes. A convincing argument can be made that differential access to resources and the resulting affluence for some, in the form of over consumption, may be linked much more directly to environmental degradation than is poverty per se, in either the North or the South (Lele, 1991).

Distinguishing between ecological and social sustainability is the first step toward clarifying some of the confusion. Sustainability should mean that the local population does not degrade its natural resource base, at least not irretrievably, but rather maintains or even improves it. For example, the definition favoured by the Brundtland Commission (WCED, 1987) refers to the maintenance or enhancement of resource productivity on a long-term basis which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It should be noted, however, that this definition does accept that ultimate limits exist. In this context, it is necessary to go beyond the notion of sustainable yield and consider the dynamic behaviour of the resource in question, particularly in response to environmental conditions, human activities and the interactions between different uses or features of the same resource (Lele, 1991).

Equally important from the perspective of social sustainability is the fact that the Brundtland Commission's report regards sustainable development as a policy objective, the end-point of development aspirations. But this also demands that the quality of human life improve somehow. Perhaps the simple definition of a "continuously improving quality of life" is best, since it allows for cultural gains as well as material ones and for a future of continuing hope (Jolly, 1989).

The flak between poverty and environmental degradation is complex: both have deep and multiple causes

Sustainable forest management requires a delicate balance between protecting resources and providing opportunities for their use

The uniqueness of forestry

Two aspects of the forestry sector's contribution to sustainable development distinguish it from others concerned with natural resource management (Miranda et al., 1990). First, forestry has evolved from tree production to management of vast and complex ecosystems, with a wider set of concerns - the provision of a broad range of forest products, revenue generation, community forestry and local environmental benefits. Added to this is the growing concern about global environmental issues and the increasing public interest in the role that forestry can play in addressing some of the more acute problems.

The second unique aspect concerns resource control. The forestry sector, in addition to lying within the control of both the public and the private domain, must also deal with all of the gradations of common property ownership. This requires a delicate balance between protecting the resource and providing opportunities for its use, especially by the poor. The sector must determine which areas of the forest and which aspects of forest resource management would best be devolved to local groups and which should remain under the control of government authorities. The critical issue in the determination of property rights is whether the responsible forest institution can promote and strengthen the vested interest of the local population in the forest resource while, at the same time, accepting the idea of joint management or even local control of the resource in question.

Recent research indicates that there is more potential for success where the forest department introduces joint management of forest land, building on the mutual benefits to be obtained from greater access to forest products by local people and reduced protection costs for the forest department. This potential appears to be greater where the technical knowledge already exists at the local level and the missing ingredient is an effective agreement between the local organization and local representatives of the government (Arnold, 1991). Two main impediments to progress have been identified the unwillingness of forest departments to devolve responsibility to the local level, and the inward migration of outsiders eager to take advantage of the changing local situation (Seymour and Rutherford, 1990).

The case for social analysis

One way to improve the social impact of forestry activities is through the use of social analysis, designed to describe and analyse the real or potential effects of planned development interventions on specific population groups. Social analysis - in its most practical form - is a methodology which provides guidelines for studying and identifying the social, economic and political factors that may affect or be affected by project activities as well as the people who are expected to benefit, particularly subgroups of the local population - men, women, indigenous groups, etc. On the basis of this information, analysts are expected to identify potential problems that may arise during project implementation and suggest ways in which they can be addressed.

Recently, we undertook an assessment of the literature on social analysis, interviews with those familiar with the technique and a review of the documents produced by rural development projects (Gow et al., 1990). Although we found evidence to support the general belief that social analysis has contributed to the design and implementation of better rural development projects, our report also made a number of broad criticisms. First, we noted that social analysts were not being sufficiently critical and rigorous. A second criticism pinpointed the need for a much broader unit of analysis. Finally, there was a clear need for increasing emphasis on the decision-making process, with a focus on the dynamics of power and the process.

Sustainable development means increasing the potential of rural people to influence and control than future on a long-term basis

Social analysis for sustainable development

The application of social analysis implies that development projects, whether in forestry or other sectors, also have social objectives some overall or specific improvement in human welfare and well-being. Underlying this is a belief that sustainable development means increasing the potential of rural people to influence and control their future on a long term basis, a goal that can be achieved by strengthening capacity, supporting equity and fostering empowerment (Gow, 1988).

For social analysis to make a significant contribution to design and implementation at both programme and project levels within this broader context of sustainable development, a framework that is simple yet broad enough to capture the complexities and constraints that characterize development interventions is called for. The emphasis should be on concerns involving the environment and the natural resource base, the political dimensions of donor-financed interventions and institutional implications - public and private, regional and local. A key concern is the level of inquiry: the need to move beyond the local to the provincial, the national and, if necessary, the international level. While the analysis is grouped under three major components, social feasibility; institutions and organizations; and social and distributional impacts, the latter are most crucial for achieving some degree of social sustainability.

Social feasibility analysis focuses on the extent to which planned interventions respond to local needs, conditions, potential and capabilities. A project is socially feasible if it is sufficiently adapted to local conditions that people can see the advantages of making changes and modifying their practices to attain new benefits. This must be a two-way process during which both the project and the local people change (Ingersoll, 1990). Key issues are land use, infrastructure, risk and uncertainty and potential implementation problems.

The interests and needs of forest communities must be integrated into forestry development activities

A case in point is the Agroforestry Outreach Project (AOP) in Haiti, which incorporated detailed social analysis in the design. The project was based on the premise that farmer motivation is a function of the realistic expectation of a reasonable economic return in the relatively near term. The basic aim of the project has been to promote the planting and maintenance of substantial numbers of hardwood seedlings that are drought resistant and also good for charcoal and basic construction needs. These have been planted by individual farmers on their own land as an economically viable crop which they have the right to harvest in the same fashion as maize, millet, sugar cane and other crops (Murray, 1987).

By the end of 1989, after eight years of implementation, the AOP had produced and distributed more than 50 million trees to 20000 peasants, 30 percent of whom were planting for the second time. Some 40 percent of the trees survived out planting. In addition, the AOP carried out a comprehensive programme of soil conservation in which live vegetative barriers, litter terraces and gully plugs were promoted and monitored. Some I million m (linear) of hedgerows helped stabilize soil on the hillsides. There were also demonstration gardens where soil conservation, agroforestry and intensive gardening techniques were applied on a pilot basis (Gow, 1990).

During this period, certain significant changes were made in response to changing local conditions and needs. Although payment of incentives to the farmers was envisaged in the original design, after the first year this payment was found to be unnecessary and was eliminated. A second major change was in the modest assumptions that had been made about peasant motivation for planting trees. The project designers had assumed that the farmers would want to plant the trees primarily for charcoal production, but the analysis revealed that a primary motivation, for some, was to improve soil conditions. Others were using them as key elements in an effort to transform on-farm production: for example, deploying project trees to establish or re-establish coffee groves on land that might otherwise never have been put to this relatively sustainable use. Still others were using project trees as an alternative strategy for dealing with relative and absolute labour shortages within the production unit (Conway, 1986). As a result, the project diversified its technical activities and also the species it made available to the farmers.

One of the underlying social objectives of development projects should be to ensure a more equitable access to development resources. Distribution of the ensuing benefits and the impact of project in this regard should also be analysed. Care must be taken to distinguish between the various groups indigenous people, settlers and migrants, the very poor and those outside the forest who are dependent on its resources, etc. and their differing priorities and needs.

For example, the Forest Protection Committees of West Bengal, India, provide specific villages with preferential rights to certain tracts of degraded forest. The user groups, often composed of both male and female villagers from tribal communities, take on more of the protection and control of harvesting in return for a substantially greater share of the eventual proceeds from the resource. Current sharing arrangements for major forest products are based on an equal division of benefits among members. However, initial sacrifices in the form of income lost in cash and kind are heaviest among disadvantaged groups. The Forest Department has attempted to compensate by providing employment opportunities while the new production system matures. In addition, the multiple products from the regenerated forests are exploited on a continuing or seasonal basis by women (Poffenberger, 1990).

A decision to restrict access to non-timber forest resources such as food and fodder often has a direct negative impact on woman

Social analysis should also specify which benefits are to be sustained once the external assistance ends. This may include all the benefit flows or, more likely, certain specific benefits. Ways in which sustainability is to be achieved should be outlined and the analysis should include information on specific programme measures to provide the necessary economic and political security required for both individuals and institutions to pursue sustainability on their own. The analysis should also identify the key constraints financial, institutional, economic, environmental, technical, political - to achieving this.

During the design of the AOP's second phase, sustainability was a major issue. What could the project do in teens of working toward financial, technical and institutional sustainability? During the design effort, it became apparent that farmer training and the institutionalization of local demand were the most relevant and important points, given the prevailing political situation in Haiti. In several regions, participants in the first stage of the AOP were already experimenting with the on-farm propagation of trees, but there was a large, unmet demand for seedlings by both new planters and repeaters. The continued stimulation of this demand for hardwood seed and seedlings and the development of a methodology to satisfy this demand would be the bottom line of sustainability within the project.

A final word

A superb social analysis, by itself, will change nothing. To ensure that recommendations are taken seriously and acted upon, the analyst must lobby continuously for the concepts being proposed. The key is to ensure that decision-makers - be they local people, organizations, government officials or donor agency staff - adopt the ideas and recommendations proposed as their own and assume some "ownership" of them. This may well be the case anyway if the analyst has played the role of an honest broker, i.e. having used social analysis to modify the ideas and recommendations put forward by the implementing institution and to provide weight and voice to the needs and suggestions of the local population.


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