Model Forests: Establishing Roots for a Sustainable Future

J. Carlos Collarte R. 1


The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 adopted a commitment to promote the sustainable management, the conservation and the development of all types of forest.

Forest management, use and conservation practices must, however, be accepted and implemented by all stakeholders and executed by the local community. This perspective of grassroots participation underlies the concept of Model Forests which constitute a proven tool of sustainable development for inhabited native forests - which make up the bulk of those that still exist - and generate the active participation of civil society, bolstering its ability to dialogue with the private sector and the authorities.

Why the Model Forest?

For some years, and especially since Rio in 1992, there has been a search for instruments and mechanisms that will halt the degradation of forests and thus the loss of biodiversity of these ecosystems. To the misfortune of most of us - and of others yet to come - virtually the only aspect to have flourished has been the diversity of documents, conferences, agreements and so forth. Concrete action and successful ground work, on a meaningful scale and in real time, are still rare.

Hence the increasing interest being generated by the Model Forests as a means of conserving natural resources while at the same time fostering social development.

The first notion that has to be accepted is that Model Forests can effectively resolve the contrast between conservation and development, with many existing examples of conservation allied to economic growth with social equity.

There are now 25 Model Forests covering more than 19 million hectares of native forest in four continents and 12 countries, including Canada, Chile, Argentina, Russia, China, Thailand, Mexico, Japan and the Philippines. Six further countries have expressed an interest in joining the International Network.

This geographic distribution also represents a wide array of circumstances, government regimes, public forests, endowment of natural and economic resources, populations and cultures which, in our opinion, demonstrates the broad flexibility of the instrument. While no two Forest Models will be the same, they will nevertheless share similarities in operating methods, goals and procedures.

What is a Model Forest?

A Model Forest is a clearly delineated geographical area with a predominant forest profile in which an association of interested parties agree to:

Definition of Attributes

A Model Forest is therefore based on inclusive associations that recognize the diversity of interests but share the common objective of sustainable forest development.

A Model Forest exists in a clearly delimited area of sufficient size to generate administrative critical mass and capable of reflecting the uses and values of local resources. It is often a catchment basin, but may also exist as an ecosystem or a political and administrative unit, whether a district or a province. It ranges in area from 86 500 has. for the smallest (Ulot Basin in the Philippines) to 7 600 000 has. for the largest (McGregor Model Forest, Canada).

It is important to note that the initial Model Forest area can be expanded during the implementation as new alliances of new interest groups are formed.

It operates through a Council or Board of stakeholder representatives that acts as a forum of negotiation and discussion. Once consensus has been reached, the Council or Board converts decisions into policies for the administration to execute. This has proven time and again to be an excellent means of forestalling differences or significantly reducing their intensity, as the existence of a neutral forum that is respectful of all parties encourages and optimizes local participation.

In practical terms, this results in the formation of unconventional associations or alliances, with, for example, ecologists and timber operators teaming up in pursuit of specific objectives, or leaders of indigenous and rural communities presenting their viewpoints to government officials in a search for mutual benefits. It therefore:

Thus, the process reflects a range of options and activities that are directly linked to sustainability. In practice, each Model Forest establishes a set of unique priorities that reflect the values of that particular forest to that particular group of stakeholders.

As this is not a simple task, support from the International and Regional Networks is essential in defining viable options, obtaining initial technical and financial support, identifying and implementing new economic development opportunities for group members and in demonstrating successes, challenges and lessons to outside parties.

Some of the obstacles that Model Forests encounter are tied to existing power structures, with sometimes no major difficulties at national level (ministers and directors of forestry bodies) but significant problems at local level with public and private bureaucracies.

It also takes a long time to build credibility among a community. That is where microproject initiatives can be useful in forging relations based on their reliability and relevance.

There are also significant problems in getting the idea of a "bottom up" project accepted by the communities themselves.

First, communities are initially difficult to mobilize, mainly because of repeated past experiences that fail to produce concrete results and are in fact no more than previous projects with the same political or administrative patronage but cloaked in a different language. That is why building trust is an especially important first step, using external financial and human resources to foster mutual respect.

Second, user communities find it difficult to express their needs and aspirations without the help of advisers, whether these be independent professionals or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But project managers need to tread carefully here to avoid creating dependency and thus replacing one form of paternalism with another. Until now, the principal mechanism for avoiding this has been the Competitive Fund, whereby macroprojects are appraised by outside experts according to pre-determined parameters.

Third, conflicting interests expressed through the Board need to be handled with utmost flexibility and impartiality by the Chair, when drawing up project priorities and objectives, in order to avoid having one component or group of communities monopolize resources. It is surprising how quickly members learn to operate the system. Here too, the Competitive Fund is a powerful determent to the undue concentration of resources in a single group of objectives or beneficiaries.

Goals and Achievements of Model Forests

The outcomes of a variety of Model Forests over the past ten years are summarized below, with analysis on three separate levels (local, national and international) to enhance discussion.

Local Level

1. The Model Forest provides for the collective management of natural resources for the purpose of sustainable management.

2. It reduces conflict through the creation of a neutral forum in which the participation of all local stakeholders is encouraged and optimized.

3. It facilitates contact, association and collaboration through non traditional channels.

4. It generates income opportunities linked to forest conservation rather than destruction (e.g. rural tourism).

5. It builds capacity, and trains and educates persons who would otherwise find it very hard to access these opportunities.

6. It creates mechanisms of response to local needs (the Model Forest as a conveyor or emissary of these needs to local or national authorities, or indeed international agencies).

7. It disseminates the values of sustainability and protection of biodiversity through regional events and fairs, such as the "Biodiversity Fair of Chiloé" which attracted some 30 000 visitors.

Diversity Fair of Chiloé

National Level

But the impact of the Model Forest extends beyond the local to the national level.

8. It demonstrates the viability of a dynamic and practical approach to natural resource management with the full participation of the community (civil society in action ...).

9. It serves as a demonstration and training area for sustainable forest management, thus setting a practicable and replicable example.

10. It serves as a testing site for forest policies. It frequently generates fierce controversy as it contrasts with the traditional "top down" approach to forest projects so cherished by central governments.

11. It focuses on already existing resources and therefore acts as a mechanism of leverage of financial and human resources, which explains how modest initial resources can have such a strong impact.

Demonstration of sustainable forest management

International Level

The impact of Model Forests is also noticeable at international level as they translate the agreements of Rio and Johannesburg of 1992 and 2002 respectively. This is borne out by the support they receive from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), through the International Model Forest Secretariat, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Inter-American Committee for Agricultural Development (CIDA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF), and others, which testifies to the interest of the international community in these initiatives.

12. The Model Forest facilitates the reintegration of local communities in the bodies that decide on the use of the resources of the forest ecosystems in which they live. This is clearly a process and not a goal.

13. It encourages the active participation of indigenous peoples and rural communities, whose representatives on the Model Forest Board relay their concerns and needs.

14. It enriches the stock of instruments and initiatives that are feasible in other countries and circumstances through networking on the Web.

15. It generates concrete opportunities to conduct applied research, measuring progress towards sustainable development through local level criteria and indicators of Sustainable Forest Management (SFM), biodiversity, etc.

16. It provides a tangible means of tackling the issue of SFM in a more economical, participatory and decentralized manner.

Community participation

We can see therefore that the potential impact of a good Model Forest is considerable. This stems in part from the nature of the initiative which operates under conditions as they are, that is to say, with existing land tenure situations, market structures as they are and a given bureaucratic context, however imperfect this might be. The aim is to make a profound change at ground level, introducing the notion of sustainability not as an exhortation of good practice or as a moral or ethical imperative, but as a way of improving community life through active grassroots participation in decisions that affect the community and through conservation initiatives that are immediately profitable to users. This, of course, demands imagination and an ability to offer users viable alternatives, but mindful that incomes are normally so low in absolute terms that even small gains in profitability will have a major impact on disposable incremental income. Examples include rural, ecological and adventure tourism, initiatives to improve the marketing of artisanal products and actions to finance small agroforestry enterprises - there has even been the case of a Model Forest serving as a founding member of a Grameen-like Bank of the Poor.

One question often raised is whether this form of operation generates conflict with traditional forest policies. The answer is yes, there are conflicts, especially when such initiatives acquire a national network and begin to be recognized by central governments and the mass media. However, this stage has only been reached in a handful of countries, notably Canada with its 11 Model Forests. That is where serious opportunities arise to modify traditional forest policies with initiatives that have been proven locally under replicable conditions. This conjunction appears to have been productive, but such a stage is, to all effects and purposes, still limited to a few countries.

In sum, this initiative constitutes a proven tool for the sustainable development of inhabited native forests, which make up the bulk of those that still exist. At a reasonable cost, Model Forests provide alternative economic options to indigenous and rural populations and to communities that have been marginalized from the poles of economic growth. Finally, they generate an active participation of local civil society and strengthen its ability to dialogue with the private sector and the authorities.

1 Chairman of the Board, Regional Model Forest Centre for Latin America and the Caribbean, Huelén 10, Piso 6, Providencia, Santiago, Chile. [email protected]