Updated 4 March, 2004

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Policy that Works for Forests and People

Executive Summary of Series Overview

James Mayers and Stephen Bass

Forests and people on the world stage

We are used to being told that forests are good for us all. Certainly, the range of benefits that can be derived from forests and trees are legion. But there are costs too, and no-one thrives on forest goods and services alone. Forests must also be transformed, in some places, to make way for farming and settlement to meet other needs. In theory, policy should be able to ensure some kind of balance so that forests are conserved, developed - and cleared - in the most suitable places.

But policies that affect forests are a reflection of the dramas being played out on dozens of stages at the same time. It is difficult, and perhaps meaningless, to attempt to understand what is happening to forests and the people who depend upon them without seeing the bigger picture of political and economic realities - from pressures for local control, to globalisation of markets, capital flows and technology, to rising inequality.

In some places, forests and people are doing well. But others are experiencing continuing decline in quantity and quality of natural forests, where conventions for using forests, based on trust and a sense of fairness, are eroding. The results are cronyism, gangster methods and the predatory business practices of timber kings; poorly-resourced, inflexible forestry institutions; one-sided forest revenue shares; and loss of 'location' through forest evictions or nomadism in forest employment. For those who can afford it, insurance and armed guards in protected enclaves are available. Many of those who cannot seek ways of opting out of a global economy which is overwhelming them; losing commitment to legal and non-violent norms of behaviour, and increasing demands for local autonomy.

If policy is going to work for forests and people - to produce forests that people want and are prepared to pay for - it needs to engage with these political and market realities. Finding out how this can be done is the challenge addressed in this report. We aim to discover what it takes for policy to provide a working, trusted, guiding framework - a process for tackling forest problems and delivering equitable and sustainable benefits. Our work is based substantially on consultative, multi-disciplinary country studies led by local professional teams in six developing countries: Costa Rica, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, India and Papua New Guinea. We also draw on studies of: Sweden, Scotland, Australia, Portugal, and China; international forest policy processes; and the interactions of the private sector in policy processes.

The policy play - a deceptively simple plot

Policy is what organisations do. Policy has content - in the form of policy statements and policy instruments - and it has process - policy making, implementing and reviewing. We need to understand the complicated area between policy pronouncements and practice, and to explain the difference between what people say they will do and what people actually do. And policy is not only the business of government - but of civil and private organisations too. 'Real world' policy (in contrast to formal policy documents) is the net result of a tangled heap of formal and practical decisions by those with varying powers to act on them.

Forest policy is no longer the main influence on forests and forest stakeholders. Bigger effects are often produced by policies that influence demands for forest goods and services, and those that determine the spread of farming and settlement. So we need to bear in mind the prices of farm, energy or mining products; the cost of capital (interest rates); and the cost of foreign exchange - all these shape the effects of the above policies. Many of these policies are, in turn, influenced by international processes and market movements.

Thus we must also watch the international forestry stage - on which some very grand sets have been erected over the last few years. Is this effort genuinely forging useful consensus, or is it doomed to failure because of the unconquerable diversity of forest values amongst the players, and the irrelevance of the plot to local circumstances? And, given the increasing influence of the (international) private sector in forest policy, how can this introduce the knowledge, capital and technology for good forest management - and close the doors to continued forest asset-stripping?

Recurring themes: conflicting intentions, murky practices and muddling through

There are many policy players and a lot of enthusiastic spectators. But, as we shall see, there are also many key people who are not allowed to come to the show, whilst others don't bother or can't afford it. Since policy positions, statements, practices, and even outcomes, are based fundamentally on value judgements, there are no absolute, 'true stories' in policy. Instead, we have found it useful to identify what appears to have worked for most stakeholders under known conditions - what contextual factors are conducive to effective policies; and, given a context: what processes lead to policy decisions that are agreed to be sound; and (although secondarily in this study), what policy contents and instruments have proven useful.

Changing power ....over time. Power is manifest by participation in real decisions or, in other words, the degree of influence on policy. Where policy is inert it is usually because weighty institutions are 'sitting on it'. But such institutions can and do change, given time. Indeed, policy is often more susceptible to change than has been assumed. In Costa Rica, government's main forest policy tools - financial incentives for reforestation - used to benefit only larger landowners, and were generally insensitive to other people's motivations for forest management and conservation. The main losers were the smallholders, who collectively own about two-thirds of the country's land. However, the shortcomings of the incentives system generated considerable debate, and stimulated the formation of smallholder forestry organisations at local level. These eventually federated at regional and national levels and were able to exert enough influence over the policy process to swing the incentives programme significantly in the smallholders' favour.

Pushing formal policy reform. A range of technocratic approaches have been used around the world to bring about comprehensive policy change. The impact of some approaches has been a mixed blessing. Some have lasted only as long as donors prop them up, and many have benefited only a few. However, some approaches have kicked off considerable stakeholder engagement which has, in turn, generated novel institutions with real motivation for sustainable forest management. In response to a widespread perception of crisis in the forestry sector of Papua New Guinea, a national programme involving wholesale policy and institutional change, and a range of donor-funded projects, began in the late 1980s. But the programme over-estimated the power of the state to regulate customary land - which covers most of the country - and the instruments deployed were not flexible enough. A new forest revenue system could not cope with the wide differences in forest type and the range of deals between companies and local people. However, the process of debate brought many stakeholders to the table and resulted in an increased recognition that state roles, along with the roles of others, need to be negotiated.

Reinventing state roles. The imperatives of financial belt-tightening, and the demands for more social and environmental benefits from forestry are putting pressure on government in many countries. In the past, government has often sought, to varying degrees, to be forestry player, manager, owner, referee and coach. Recent pressures tend to focus government - often reluctantly - on the last two of these roles, whilst private sector and civil society actors take over the other roles. But this is often a painful process, and its results cannot be guaranteed. In India, federal and state-level forest agencies have different decision-making powers and are often fighting with other sector agencies for institutional turf. As a result, policies often become paralysed in practice. However, over the last decade, national and state-level policy resolutions have supported each other in formalising many joint forest management agreements between forest departments and local people. In some locations this has translated into little more than a new strategy for government to reassert control over forest land. But in others, an interface between local people and government staff has developed, which may yet lead to a flexible match of government roles to the ecological and social environments in which they operate.

Linking the people who change things. Many initiatives to change policy and institutions are premised on 'rational' arguments about objectives and roles which 'make sense'. But old institutional ways are found to persist because these initiatives fail to get to grips with people's real motivations. Even those fired up to change things often founder because of institutional cultures that reproduce inertia. Yet innovative managers and other 'new foresters' of various kinds do sometimes 'break through' from government and NGO backgrounds. They tend to be characterised by their ability to: see the big picture, take on tactical battles, use a mix of 'insider' and 'outsider' traits in their institutions, make alliances, and use these alliances to tackle bigger issues. In Zimbabwe, the Forestry Commission's traditional approach to forestry extension, based on woodlots of exotic species, was criticised by NGOs. These criticisms were listened to because certain of the Commission's senior managers had good connections with the NGOs. Experiments with natural forest management followed, with the support of astute donors, and these built on government-NGO links. This resulted in the emergence of broader alliances, led by the Commission, and a policy approach providing for a wider range of forest extension efforts.

Looking beyond the forest reserves. Traditionally, forestry has focused on a reserved forest estate, often under government control and management. As a result, forestry institutions were missing the real action - on farms and mixed farm-forest landscapes - where a wide range of forest goods and services are being used, nurtured or abused. There is ample evidence that farmers will grow trees and take responsibility for private forests and woodlands, but government's enabling role is key. This often means paying more attention to smallholder forestry. In Pakistan, government forestry departments traditionally focused their efforts on the remaining natural forest area, and on attempting to control a 'timber mafia' that has controlled the market and kept timber prices high. Meanwhile farmers were all but ignored despite having demonstrated - given improved information and a little support for organisation - that they are adept tree-growers. A shift in policy emphasis has begun, and price liberalisation is now being examined with a view to providing incentives for woodfuel production by many small farmers rather than timber production by a favoured few.

Improving learning about policy. One of the key elements of a policy process that 'stays alive' is its ability to link directly to experiments with new ways of making things work on the ground. Local projects allowing stakeholders enough slack to investigate alliances and roles can be vital learning grounds - but they only really become useful on a significant scale if they seize the attention of at least some of the current power-brokers or 'policy-holders'. In Ghana a forestry departmental unit was set up with a specific mandate to develop understanding of local capabilities for forest management, and to undertake experiments which modified foresters' roles in relation to those of other local stakeholders. The innovations in the experiments undertaken and the communication skills of the unit staff were very effective in attracting the interest and support of senior ministerial and departmental staff. These policy-makers were keen to associate themselves with the experiments and this association catalysed considerable learning amongst other 'high-level' staff. The results are now being seen in a broader process of institutional and policy change in favour of local forest management capabilities.

Dealing with tensions in devolution. Decentralisation is the proclaimed way forward for forestry in many countries. However, this often involves confused or conflicting objectives, sometimes from the same stakeholders: saving money for the central authority, or empowering the people? transferring land and incentives to promote large forest industries or encouraging farm foresters? These tensions may take the lid off a Pandora's box. Whilst much may be said for the centre strengthening its effectiveness through deconcentration, to do so at the expense of the periphery's forest management capabilities is a step backwards. There are worries that just this may be happening in some decentralisation programmes. Experience in West, Central and Southern Africa, India and China suggests, again, that experimentation is generally the best way forward - trying through experience to come up with spreadable models.

Building policy communities. Those engaged with a policy process on a regular basis constitute a policy community. Such a community needs to be able to channel the ideas of all those who are important to the prospects for sustainable forest management - the stakeholders - onto the policy stage, and disseminate the outputs. Mechanisms are needed which can recognise who has power (to help or hurt the cause of good forestry) and capability (actual or potential), and which can engage with them. If the process is too broad-ranging it will be unworkable; too narrow and the ideas will be the wrong ones. In Sweden, where a strong public interest in forests prevails, government has put high priority on access to good information in the policy process. The forest authority's major role is disseminating guidance and information about policy and how to implement it, while another body was set up specifically to act as a brokering agency between forest owners, users and researchers. Membership of this body covers most of Sweden's forests. By channelling its members' needs to researchers and, in turn, making research information useful, a high degree of engagement of forest owners and users in influencing and implementing policy has been achieved.

International forestry shows - hot tickets and dull side-events

National policy processes are an opaque mix of decisions, both overt and covert, often with murky pasts and uncertain intents. In contrast, international processes tend to be relatively easy to understand: they have involved more or less clear, time-bound, written policies with well-documented participation and decisions - although the interests of powerful groups similarly prevail. Some international policy initiatives appear promising, although all of them need to evolve further:

  • Some of the multilateral environmental agreements which focus on specific global forest services, and include (under-utilised) implementation provisions - but which need informing about good forestry and need to be better recognised in key trade fora

  • The Criteria and Indicators processes, which encompass the main elements of sustainable forest management, and allow for local interpretation - but which need application to the key areas of trade, investment and multilateral environmental agreements

  • The process of developing and implementing certification, which can provide real incentives for good forestry - but which needs to continue to improve its 'fit' with local policy, livelihood and land-use realities, so as to solve real forest problems and not merely service the needs of particular markets

  • Country-led national forest programmes, which could be major vehicles for reconciling pressures of globalisation and localisation - but which need to be built on local knowledge and institutions as well as the internationally-agreed elements such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests' Proposals for Action

  • Focused regional agreements, which offer the right political and operational level for integration of local and international needs - but which need to ensure they are strongly purpose-led, not to become vehicles for other agendas

It appears that we are reaching the limits of what can be achieved by intergovernmental effort in the forest sector alone. By the same token, the really big extra-sectoral problems - world trade rules, debt, foreign investment, technology access, etc - can only really be dealt with intergovernmentally. They are too big for the forest sector alone to handle effectively.

Policy instruments - argument is healthy

Both forest practice, and the balance of power between stakeholders, have often changed significantly through implementation of, and/ or reaction to, policy tools such as log export bans, certification and national plans. It is often argument over particular policy instruments that brings people together in the first place.

Policy instruments are even more context-specific than policy processes. However, it is possible to make some conclusions about those policy instruments which serve not only as implementation tools, but also as means to feed back to the policy process itself. Two such instruments are:

  • Mechanisms for increasing local negotiating capacity, through legal, financial and information means: 'Public interest' objectives for forests need to be balanced against conflicting private interests through location-specific negotiation. Similarly, only through negotiation can potentially good forest managers at local level - currently marginalised from the policy process - hope to achieve the capacity to protect their interests in the long term. In such contexts, experience in Papua New Guinea suggests that state agencies should take the lead to: scrutinise the plans of developers; publish model contract provisions; legislate for court review of manifestly unfair contracts; and create finance arrangements, where local groups can borrow against future income to pay for professional advice.

  • Property rights changes: Such changes are difficult, but not impossible with practice. Local security of resource tenure, by itself, is not sufficient to ensure long-term sustainable forest management. When customary tenure is not backed up by sufficient local institutional strength - both to be able to deal with outsiders, and to maintain the local side of the bargain in any deals made, the long term management of any piece of forest land cannot be guaranteed. But it can be done! New legislation, in places as diverse as Ghana, China and Scotland, is tipping the balance in favour of more control of trees and forests by local farmers and communities. Here too, improved formal tenure is only part of the story. The considerable technical problems of integrating timber and forest trees with agriculture also needs to be addressed - hence the close linkage of tenure change with research and experiment, and with information, extension and support systems.

Each of the above policy instruments are, effectively, 'power tools'. They both implement policy and increase its information base and reliability, by providing feedback. In so doing they are instruments of change, helping to unblock situations of entrenched excessive power and stifled creativity.

Characteristics of good policy

In the last decade, policies for forestry and land use have become more numerous and complicated. They limit stakeholders - rather than free them to practise good forestry. They do not seem to 'fit' well, even with the rather limited number of over-structured and under-resourced institutions charged with implementing them. We need to turn this around - we need straight-forward, motivating policies that people believe in and organise themselves to implement. This will enable the emergence of a greater diversity of more flexible, still learning and better integrated institutions.

'Policy inflation, capacity collapse' syndromes are paralysing the world of forests. They need replacing by simple, agreed policies with vision, and with strong capacities to interpret and implement them. This requires engagement with the varied actors demanding specific forest goods and services, and with those in a position to produce them - not just engagement amongst authorities and élites. Good policy will:

  • Highlight and reinforce forest interest groups' objectives

  • Provide shared vision, but avoid over-complexity

  • Clarify how to integrate or choose between different objectives

  • Help determine how costs and benefits should be shared between groups, levels (local to global) and generations

  • Provide signals to all those involved on how they will be held accountable

  • Define how to deal with change and risk, when information is incomplete and resources are limited

  • Increase the capacity to practise effective policy

  • Produce forests that people want, and are prepared to manage and pay for

In short, effective real world policy connects local action to plans and programmes through integrating institutions and top-bottom linkages. These linkages comprise information flows, debate and partnerships. As the linkages strengthen, so also does the mutual understanding amongst stakeholders.

Seven desirable processes to achieve good policy, and four key steps to put them in place

Wherever we look, there are recurring themes in the processes of policy- making and implementing: the way some people are involved while others are not; the common requirement for institutions which integrate people in varied ways; the way institutional capacity and practice tend to defy policy aspirations; the special power of some policy instruments which are not mere implementors of policy, but actually help to improve the policy process itself; and the ways in which these things change over time. Some of the processes which help to achieve good policy include:

  1. A forum and participation process: to understand multiple perspectives and needs, to negotiate and cut 'deals' between the needs of wider society and local actors, and to initiate partnerships.

  2. National definition of, and goals for, sustainable forest management: focusing on the forest goods and services needed by stakeholders, and on broader sustainable development objectives.

  3. Agreement on ways to set priorities in terms of e.g. equity, efficiency and sustainability, as well as timeliness, practicality, public 'visibility' and multiplier effect. This will require methodologies such as forest valuation and organised debate. Without agreed approaches to setting priorities, an overly-comprehensive 'wish-list' policy may arise but be ineffective.

  1. Engagement with extra-sectoral influences on forests and people: using strategic planning approaches, impact assessment and valuation, but also emphasising the active use of information and advocacy to influence broader political and market processes.

  2. Better monitoring and strategic information on forest assets, demand and use: as the 'hidden wiring' which allows a continuously-improving policy process.

  3. Devolution of decision-making power to where potential contributions for sustainability is greatest: Decisions are best made and implemented at the level where the trade-offs are well-understood and there is capacity to act and monitor.

  4. Democracy of knowledge and access to resource-conserving technology: Openness to information from all sources, and communication of both information used in policy-making and information on policy impacts, are vital processes for empowering effective forest stewardship.

This list of desirable processes for some will be Utopian. The more important challenge to address is likely to be: how do we get there, from where we are now? We outline four critical steps to make the transition to the kinds of policy process described above.

Step one: Recognise multiple valid perspectives and the political nature of the game. Policies are based on assumptions. The challenge is to promote recognition of different conceptions of what the problems and priorities are. People's priorities for forests should be judged not on whether they are 'true' or 'rational', but on the level and degree of social commitment which underlies them - who 'subscribes' to them, and what impacts that has.

Step two: Get people to the negotiating table. Each group of actors needs to present their priorities in ways which they can 'sell' to others. Current inequities, forest asset-stripping or stakeholder stalemate may persist because of poor knowledge amongst stakeholders of each others' perspectives, powers and tactics, and the potential for change in these.

Processes which help identify and build shared vision or consensus on key goals can be effective. Cross-institutional forestry working groups in Ghana and Zimbabwe, the Sarhad Provincial Conservation Strategy in Pakistan and the Joint Forest Management institutional support network in India, have all made notable progress on this. However, multi-stakeholder processes in forestry which assume that societal consensus is possible have often grossly under-estimated the time and resources (of goodwill and money) needed to generate or refine such a shared vision, and especially to get the necessary power transfers to make the vision a reality.

Step three: Make space to disagree and experiment. Where policy involves people with completely different levels of power and resources, with a history of disagreement, consensus can be illusory, disabling or merely a sham. In some contexts, 'consensus' ends up as synonymous with 'conventional wisdom' - remaining stuck with its patchwork of anomalous or untested assumptions. Emphasis on consensus can lead to cynicism and disengagement from policy as people feel unable to change things, and may thus impede creativity and innovation. Where people are at odds with each other (but not actually at war) on the methods or content of forestry or policy, it can result in greater richness of debate and of needed checks and balances. It can allow the interplay of groups with differing objectives to flag errors and provide corrections.

Non-consensus-based approaches are often needed, which can accept dissenting views. Such approaches may temporarily manage conflicts, but they seldom permanently resolve them. Collaborative management approaches in forestry are in some cases - such as in Ghana, Zimbabwe and parts of India - being treated as collaborative learning processes. The learning element is critical: policy experiments cannot be whims, but require deliberate monitoring by stakeholders with different views, and an open process to consider adaptation and review.

Step four: Learn from experience, get organised and fire up policy communities. It has been said that, since human understanding of nature is imperfect, human interactions with nature should be experimental. Forestry actions and policies should thus be treated as experiments from which we must learn. Good policy helps 'learners' from different groups to come together, to pose questions, solve problems and evaluate information for themselves. It allows local experimentation and initiative to thrive and aggregate at national and international levels. Experiments with different forestry pilot projects and trials of policy tools are vital for stakeholders to explore each others' claims, make mistakes, learn, and make changes for themselves.

This can help to move the policy process out of the exclusive hands of foresters and consultants, spread information, and allow mutual recognition amongst stakeholders of power, claims and potential. Improved understanding leads to improved potential to change policy for the better. Some people will need to be empowered to make positive contributions, whilst others may need to be restrained from wreaking havoc, and clear tactics are needed for this. In some cases this will mean working directly with the current 'policy-makers' to improve policy where opportunities arise. Well focused, often highly detailed, analysis may be needed to get the mix of policy instruments and options right. In other situations, effective policy work requires pointing to new information, challenging deeply-held assumptions and contributing to a new vision of what policy should be aiming for. It is becoming increasingly apparent in many forestry contexts that this requires collaborating on analysis and organisation with those who are currently marginalised from the policy process, so that they can 'muscle in' on policy in the future. We discuss some of the tactics for analysing and influencing policy in Annex 1 of this report.

Summing up: Linking the corridors of power to local reality

To sum up, the four 'steps' describe a learning, adaptive process brought about by a regular forcing open of the policy debate by stakeholders and their ideas, and a continuous sharpening of priority problems and proven solutions. A premium is placed not on one-shot 'planners' dreams' but on step-wise approaches that notch up shared experience - making visible progress and building momentum for broader change.

To improve policy, we need to unite decision-making with its consequences, such that policies, plans and strategies are not separated from practice, but are linked to it. This means that they benefit or suffer from it; that they learn from it; and that they improve it. Both policy processes and instruments are needed to make such links. Good policy becomes defined, and refined, through experience of those who have the potential to deliver good forest management and work for equitable livelihoods - often the very people who are marginalised by current policy processes. The challenge for all those who can get their teeth into policy for forests is to find the right 'power tools'for the right people. They will then make their own policy space.

There is a common perception amongst foresters that the fate of forests is determined by forces beyond their control. In the face of these extra-sectoral influences, foresters are inclined to declaim a 'lack of political will', retreat into their shells and encourage the illusion of stability: if the determining forces are beyond control, it is appropriate to ignore them. Yet foresters do often have considerable powers, and these confer responsibilities. Foresters can make progress which engages and tackles some extra-sectoral influences. Policy that works showed that much progress has, in fact, been made by policy processes learning from local solutions to forest problems, both indigenous and project-driven. It has also been made by local user groups and farmers coming together to tackle local forest problems, and by 'policy-makers' giving them the chance to experiment. This has widened the ownership of policy and formed larger policy communities.

The type of work now needed is collaboration on analysis and institutional change with those who are currently marginalised from the policy process, so that they can present their views and experience, and make their claims, more effectively. In a sense, this means turning the conventional approach on its head, i.e. we need more policy process challenges for the powerful, and policy content analysis for the marginalised. It also implies that work needs to be better targeted such that policy-makers can learn, and be subject to checks, balances and incentives from below, e.g. due process/ diligence.

Almost every aspect of forestry is a political activity. All those who want forest goods and services need to find ways to act on this reality, rather than shy away from it. 'Policy that works' is not a dream about 'saving' forests, or 'halting deforestation', or 'afforesting the earth', all of which would match the desires of only a few. Neither is it about introducing comprehensive and logical master plans for all forests and people, and then expecting everyone to comply quietly and implement 'the plan'. This approach does not recognise historical and political contexts and the ways in which real change is made in practice. Rather, we should aim for a unity of theory and practice - constructive engagement with each other in processes of debate, analysis, negotiation, and the application of carefully-designed instruments of policy - from taxation to certification to extension. Forestry can and should be an activity which changes the political environment for the better.


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