Reinvigorating World Forestry

Neil Byron 1


This paper examines the symptoms of a malaise afflicting forestry in many parts of the world - lower levels of commitment and allocation of resources from governments, low political priority for reinvestment, questions of relevance and strategic direction. It then examines some underlying causes, such as changes in economic and demographic structures. An accepted cohesive vision of why forests and forestry are important to society seems to be lacking. Related to this are widespread perceptions of lethargy in the sector - loss of vigour, dynamism and innovation.

Previous policies and programmes, national and international, have rarely delivered the social, economic and environmental results promised.

There is no one simple solution, but the following would help:


Imagine undertaking a `medical examination' of "World Forestry"2. We would:

The symptoms

Firstly, the patient presents two very strong positive attributes:

Nevertheless there are indications that our patient may be unwell - signs of serious malaise. The patient realizes that it is trying harder, but still losing ground in many important areas, generating few successes and tiring itself out in the process (Burley, 2002). Many perceive a loss of self-confidence among traditional foresters as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sway public opinion towards forest preservation rather than management.

The Global Forest Resources survey has documented serious trends in the degradation of forest resources, including unwarranted/excessive vegetation clearance, often accompanied by degradation of water resources and catchments, and degradation of fauna and flora.

The value of world trade in forest products has expanded almost three-fold over the past 20 years but remains about 3.3% of the total value of world trade. Employment has been steadily declining, while production has steadily increased; total factor productivity has risen strongly. Many rural areas continue to depopulate. Traditional rural industries, especially smaller family-owned enterprises, seem moribund.

Despite notable exceptions, World Forestry is publicly portrayed as dysfunctional communities, financially unsustainable industries and workers, and ecologically unsustainable practices.

Loss of vision?

World forestry today is attempting `four integrations' of:

Previously, natural forests were mined or locked up as National Parks; the vast industrial plantations of the 1960s and 1970s were generally insensitive to social or environmental considerations. Today's more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the role and impacts of forestry is extremely challenging (Sayer, Elliot and Maginnis, 2003).

An accepted cohesive vision of why forests and forestry are important to society seems to be lacking, giving rise to divisions among society on the purpose of forests and forestry, and thus giving conflicting messages to politicians. Too many previous policies and programmes, at both national and international level, have failed to deliver the results promised.

The diagnosis

These symptoms collectively suggest something is seriously and systemically wrong with our patient, but forestry has long been a "Cinderella" sector - often ignored or exploited. Why?

Similar trends - continuous change in the structure and social characteristics of forestry - are observed in nearly all developed and many developing countries. As societies find other sources of food, fuel, construction materials and medicines, forests have become less pivotal to our daily concerns and less central to our lives (Petrov, 2003). Instead they have become a scenic backdrop to our cities, and/or a resource to fuel socio-economic development (Westoby, 1979; 1987) or at worst, a resource to be depleted, then abandoned. The public in many countries is still very interested in forests, but much less so in timber.

In most OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, the economy's relative dependence on all primary industries, and especially forestry, has declined markedly over the past 30 years. The net value of production has grown in absolute terms, but other sectors of the economy have grown faster. Because of increased technological efficiencies, as well as demand for labour in other sectors, people (workers) have moved into other sectors of the economy. Consequently forestry has steadily declined, relatively, as a contributor to GDP. There are fewer, but larger, forestry businesses. Terms of trade of forest products and the real net value of production have both declined. Foresters have responded by adopting more efficient technologies. Structural changes are the inevitable consequence of economic maturity, as nations move away from a heavy reliance on primary industries.

Many government forestry agencies have been down-sized, corporatized or privatized, as governments pursue efficiency in production and administration.

The trends are not driven by purely local forces or domestic policy settings - very similar trends have been documented in the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and France, so there must be some common generic drivers.

In developing countries many of these trends are just emerging - often forest foods, fibres and medicines ARE still central to people's lives, but the trends are in a similar direction. This will have profound influences for who will manage forests, for what purposes.

The trends were probably compounded by poor advice by governments and their agencies: subsidies for tree-clearance to create farms; very low prices for logs from government-owned forests; lax management of concessions. Agricultural policies have been misguided and perverse in their impacts on forests. Forestry was forced to retreat too far into marginal lands, pushed back from the economic heartlands by highly subsidized agriculture (Kaimowitz and Angelson, 1998).

Many of today's symptoms arise from actions taken 50 to 100 years ago, but current conditions affect our capability to address these symptoms. In developing countries, the processes are still happening, and the imperative is to learn from the mistakes the OECD countries made and must now try to repair, at considerable costs!

The recent drivers that affect many countries are quite general:

Previous treatments

We have had so many Programmes, Action Plans, Strategies - all well intentioned and often based on sensible analysis. Some have worked on a local scale and some have had some residual effects after the direct funding stopped. Few addressed a number of different environmental issues simultaneously, or addressed social or commercial issues concurrently with environmental issues.

Diverse policy instruments are now available at the national, state and local levels3 to influence forest management practices and decision-making (Productivity Commission, 1997):

But it is difficult for a national or state government to know where to begin and which policy instruments to use. The problems of sustainable natural resource management are multifaceted and multidimensional, and there are so many different points of entry.

Many past policy responses defined the problem as something that can (and indeed must) be fixed by governments, by coordinated action, plans and partnerships. Governments coordinate, and are in control of funding, priority setting and, when it happens, evaluation of success. This is strikingly different to how a market economy operates generally. No government agency plans, coordinates and then tells manufacturers what to produce and how.

It is widely assumed that governments must devise a planning system and operate it. Governments might wish to ensure that a management system exists, but not necessarily do it themselves! The role of government may be "steering, not rowing the boat"; or even just setting the broad direction and allowing others to steer. The central coordinating role has been very strong, as is the presumption that government must not only still regulate, but also organize the volunteers or orchestrate the market.

To return to our medical analogy, world forestry seems like the 50-something male who knows he should stop smoking, reduce alcohol intake, lower cholesterol, exercise and try to control stress levels... But "Perhaps next year, when the crisis is over..."

Simply advising our patient to reform his unsustainable behaviour is unlikely to work. Why won't the patient take the advice?

Recommendations for the patient?

Before proposing treatment, consider what a healthy patient would look like.

In this Vision of the Future of World Forestry, sustainable forest management (SFM) systems may have new/different products, different mixes of existing products, or different systems for producing existing products. Each will also require new knowledge and skills and greater management intensity and application of knowledge (e.g. finer scale of management; incorporating biodiversity, soil and water management; control of weeds and ferals; more sensitive timing of management activities).

There is an almost infinite variety of forest and tree production systems. Particularly since the 1960s, small groups of foresters, researchers and NGOs have been researching and advocating redesign of forestry to better suit the new world economy and society. This quest has proven extremely difficult - there are many prototypes, but few are socially accepted and commercially viable, (on a scale that would have significant impacts).

In many countries, governments claimed State Forests, displacing or dissociating indigenous and local communities from forests they had managed for centuries. So devolution is about reversing this process, or more accurately, crafting new arrangements between the State and local people (Saxena, 1997; Wiley 1998). Forestry at the community level is still flourishing in many developing countries, and re-emerging in many OECD countries (White and Martin, 2002).

International case studies demonstrate many ways that devolution has occurred around the world, and there have been enormous differences in:

The cases where devolved community-based management of natural resources appears (for now) to have worked well are characterized by:

People whose lives and livelihoods are directly affected by forest management decisions should have effective mechanisms for forcefully articulating their points of view to the decision-makers, if they don't have the outright decision-making power themselves.

Many of the emerging SFM proposals are small-scale and seem unlikely to ever replace broad-scale forestry. Typically, they are designed and intended to integrate production and conservation. But they focus on what can be done in an individual forest. We need much more management emphasis at a wider scale, the landscape or district - producing complex mosaics of diverse public and private land-uses (Sayer, Elliot and Maginnis, 2003).

Higher levels of government can set broad directions, and lower levels can choose any option consistent with those general outcomes. For example, the higher-level framework conditions could confer freedom on local managers to satisfy local community wishes, provided:

Role of governments?

National or State governments may be unable to directly "fix" either the symptoms or the underlying causes of unsustainable forestry (socially, environmentally and economically), with or without the support of international agencies and agreements. Governments are not well informed about what is needed or possible at the local level, nor do they have the detailed information, or the budget, to do all that needs to be done. Instead, we need to think seriously about systemic change, focusing on re-examining our institutions: rules and regulations; social norms; and (positive and negative) financial incentives for changes in management behaviour.

We need a systemic fix. No cosmetic surgery when our patient has cancer! We must critically examine fundamental incentive structures in our everyday business of forest resource management. Even effective small positive programmes cannot compensate for large, pervasive impacts embedded in our current ways of doing business.

While there may be a few things governments can do that will help, (or at least not make matters worse) there is unlikely to be a single magic solution.

The first and most basic requirement from national and state governments is law and order, peace and good governance. There is now ample evidence from all continents that SFM simply will not occur in the presence of serious corruption, of insecurity of land tenure and other property rights, where illegal logging and land-clearing flourish, where contracts are not binding and enforced by impartial courts, etc. We now observe the FLEG (Forest Law Enforcement and Governance) programme sponsored by the G8 and the World Bank, as recognition that absence of good governance has undermined previous efforts at improving technical forestry and forest administration.

The second fundamental rethink is the levels at which decisions are to be made, and to ensure that organizations at each level have all the information needed to enable good decision-making, and that the levels are functionally linked to each other - what Ostrom (1994) calls a nested hierarchy of institutions. So often forest communities or landowners have to seek permits from multiple local, state or national government agencies, each with different requirements and different information systems. We are exploring `the efficient boundaries of the State'.

Governments need to choose - carefully - from the options in their toolkit - regulation, markets, volunteerism, education, community pressure and moral suasion. Whatever instruments are chosen, they need to work in the same direction, and at different scales, from national to local, not at cross purposes. The "New Institutional Economics" has much to teach us about well defined roles, incentives, accountability and measurability of outcomes.

Governments should seek broad powerful mechanisms that influence the behaviour and decisions of the many - not just the special, enlightened few. Even those who do not know and do not care about SFM need to be part of the solution. Market forces tend to devolve decision-making and spread the costs widely to those who can and should pay. Tax deductions for biodiversity conservation and management, or for soil and water conservation in the broad sense, could revolutionize forest management, as could preferential access to government services for enterprises that have an effective Environmental Management System (EMS). Again it is crucial that there be no blueprint or straitjacket, but rather enormous flexibility with scope for innovative land uses.

There are also very strong external pressures on governments.

The Age of Globalization is important. Through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Multilateral Environmental Agreements, governments have limited control over commodity markets. These international treaties shape the broad economic and environmental context within which national forest policy and management must operate.

Global markets exert intense pressures to produce food and fibre commodities at the lowest possible costs, with maximum productivity, using `best available' technologies. Unfortunately, the social and environmental implications of these technologies have not always been fully explored in advance. But the pressures are unlikely to go away!

World Forestry is characterized by direct and often significant environmental damage resulting not from misguided or defective forest policies, but from policies in other sectors, particularly agriculture and transport. If the root causes of forestry problems lie in other sectors, they have to be dealt with there.

The Age of Environmental Consciousness is important, not only for the expectations and "demands" made upon World Forestry. Some countries are pressuring others to adopt certain environmental (and other) standards that the former think are appropriate; international trade is growing in products with environmental implications (forestry, agriculture, fisheries and energy). So, apart from governmental actions, there is also the prospect that green consumerism, eco-labelling and accreditation/certification may result in price differentials for environmentally preferred products.

Role of international agencies and agreements

To conclude the medical analogy, while many health considerations are personal or local, there is a significant contribution at a global scale by organizations like the Center for Disease Control. It is not a regulator or a hands-on manager, but rather monitors conditions globally and offers advisory services and assistance in extreme cases. This may be a model for the advisory and monitoring roles required to help countries to assist their local communities and forest owners to manage their resources better. The State of the World's Forests, and the Criteria and Indicators for SFM under the Montreal and other Processes are already contributing to this, but could not the monitoring and reporting be further improved within the context of the UN Forum on Forests and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (see Vahanen, 2003)?


Burley, J. 2002. Chairman's Column, Commonwealth Forestry News, 19: 1.

GATT. 1982. International Trade 1981/82. Geneva.

Gluck, P., Tarasofsky, R., Byron, N. & Tikkanen, I. 1997. Options for strengthening the international legal regime for forests. Joensuu, EFI.

Kaimowitz D. & Angelson A. 1998. Economic models of deforestation. Bogor, CIFOR.

Ostrom, E. 1994. Neither market nor state: Governance of common pool resources in the twenty-first century. Washington D.C., International Food Policy Research Institute.

Petrov, A.P. 2003. Through forest research and education towards harmony between humankind and forests. (Paper to XII World Forestry Congress) Québec City.

Productivity Commission. 1997. The role of economic instruments in managing the environment. Staff Research Paper. Melbourne, Productivity Commission.

Saxena, N.C. 1997. The saga of participatory forest management in India. Bogor, CIFOR.

Sayer, J.A., Elliot, C. & Maginnis, S. 2003. Protect, manage and restore: Conserving forests in multifunctional landscapes. (Paper to XII World Forestry Congress) Québec City.

Westoby, J.C. 1979. Forest industries for socio-economic development. Comm. For. Review, 58 (2):107-116.

Westoby, J.C. 1987. The purpose of forests - follies of development. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

White, A. & Martin, A. 2002. Who owns the world's forests: forest tenure and public forests in transition. Washington D.C., Forest Trends and Center for International Environmental Law,

Wily, L. 1997. Finding the right institutional and legal framework for community-based natural forest management: the Tanzanian case. Bogor, CIFOR.

Vahanen, T. B. Collaborative Partnership on Forests - a model for interagency collaboration. (Paper to XII World Forestry Congress) Québec City.

UN. 2000. 1999 International Trade Statistics Yearbook, Vol. 2, New York.

1 Commissioner, The Productivity Commission, Melbourne, Australia. [email protected] Website: www.pc.gov.au

2 By this, I mean the practice of forestry around the world, as well as the state of the world's forests. "World Forestry" is an abstract concept without an implementation or administrative identity, the sum of thousands of unrelated decisions at smaller scale. I will argue that decisions about forests and forestry practice are normally better made locally by forest owners, communities and companies, rather than provincial/state, national or international public agencies.

3 International bodies and conventions can either require signatories to use particular instruments (e.g. regulations) or encourage them to apply other methods (e.g. incentive and voluntary mechanisms). They may act more as a clearing house for exchange of ideas than as a regulator (Gluck et al., 1997).