Five forest myths obscure the path to transformational and sustainable forest governance

Amazonas sunset, trees and river in view. Photo: Torsten Krause.
Amazonas sunset. Photo: Torsten Krause.

Are financial instruments really the solution to deforestation and degradation? Do states truly manage forests for societal benefit? And to what extent are so-called sustainable forest governance initiatives really including local people in decision-making? These are some of the questionable myths that currently obscure the path to sustainable forest governance according to a new publication in the Journal Global Sustainability that three LUCSUS researchers have co-authored.

The paper goes to the heart of the unprecedented global challenges we face in managing our forests and points to the need to open new debates and perspectives on transformational actions', says lead author, Izabela Delabre, researcher at  Sussex University.

– We need to see forests as a socio-ecological systems: as places with a rich biological, cultural and social history and having numerous ecological, socio-cultural and economic values. Only then can we truly understand and address both the drivers and the effects of deforestation and forest degradation, says Torsten Krause, one of the authors of the study, and researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

Deforestation and forest degradation are the biggest threats to forests worldwide. Deforestation occurs when forests are converted to non-forest uses, such as agriculture, construction and mining sites. Forest degradation, for instance through selective logging, climate change or disruption to the ecological community through overhunting, also means that forest ecosystem functions are disrupted and with it their contribution to human well-being. Since the 1960’s, over half of the world’s tropical forest have been destroyed, in spite of efforts such as the Paris Agreement to halt the global forest crisis. 

In the study, Torsten Krause and his colleagues at Lund University, Sussex University, Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Helsinki University, use the concept of myth to highlight how five persistent narratives currently shape discussion, practice and politics relating to forest governance. 

The five myths listed in the study are:
•    ‘States manage forests independently for societal benefit’
•    ‘Sustainability is threatened by small-scale farmers and people seeking a living on the forest margins’
•    ‘Markets are the solution to deforestation and forest degradation’
•    ‘What is counted – through valuation – counts’
•    ‘Sustainable forest governance initiatives currently “include” local communities in decision-making

For each of these myths, or narratives, the researchers highlight a set of negative effects to underscore how a one-sided approach can lead to undesired consequences, or so called lock-ins, where forest management gets locked in to a specific political, institutional or cultural and social system or process.

– Take the myths: ‘state manage forests independently’, and ‘sustainability is threatened by small-scale farmers’, for example, says Torsten Krause. There are many developing countries where there is widespread corruption surrounding forest management. States give land rights to certain groups, and powerful lobby groups exert a lot of influence to access rights to mining and infrastructure projects. Also, states often see forests as an economical resource only.

– In the case of the second myth, the responsibility of deforestation is put on small-scale farmers, thus ignoring that the majority of forest loss is caused by the production of commodities like beef, soy, palm oil and wood products, commodities that are all pervasive in everyday life and are often exported by the producer countries. This myth also ignores that poverty is what causes small-scale farmers to cut down trees. These effects highlight that such myths or narratives do more harm than good in discussions of how to manage forests.

Other effects are noted for the myth about financial instruments, for instance carbon payments and payments for ecosystem services, as a solution, and the myth of valuation.

According to the researchers, a market-based approach tends to favor those who already have land rights, and it is also quite technical. Rather than supporting those without access to land, it risks to perpetrate the status quo, which depending in the context can be very unequal. The myth of valuation on the other hand, argue the researchers, views forests not like complex social-ecological systems, but reduces them to something that can be measured, most notable the carbon content stored in a certain hectare of forest.

– The carbon approach tends to focus on forests in terms of climate change mitigation. This is a very reductionist approach, and one that is becoming more popular as we contemplate and implement initiatives to reduce global carbon emissions. You also have to ask yourself important questions, for instance who is receiving the financial benefits and funds from a market-based approach? How are the projects to restore forests designed and managed?

Finally, Torsten Krause, debunks the myth that sustainable forest governance actually includes local communities in decision-making. 

Participation as a concept is very fraught. How are local people involved, and what groups of people? Power and marginalisation plays a big role, who gets access and whose needs are taken into account? We cannot assume that having local people involved in a conservation project automatically means that they are included in decision-making.


Squirrel monkey. Photo: Torsten Krause.
Squirrel monkey. Photo: Torsten Krause.
Squirrel monkey. Photo: Torsten Krause.

A more holistic approach 

Torsten Krause and his colleagues want to shine a spotlight on how certain narratives tend to become dominant in forest governance and management, and ultimately obscure pathways to transformational political and social change.

– Often, we can’t see the wood for the trees. This proverb is really relevant since we hope to start a debate on how to achieve sustainable forest governance, and make policy makers, organisations, academics, and even individuals question established ideas and practices surrounding forests. 

– People have shaped, and been shaped by, forests for thousands of years. We need to design holistic strategies for forest governance and forest management in order to halt deforestation and forest degradation. We must realize that one-size fits all solutions, like the myths we identify, do not exists, we need a range of actions and initiatives by differet actors to protect our forests, and truly work with and listen to those people who live in and of these forests.

Counteractions for sustainable forest governance

The researchers instead pose a set of counter actions to the effects that the identified myths causes. 

They include actions like:
•    Scrutiny and transparency over forest sector transactions and registries of commercial links of state officials
•    Defending environmental justice activists who fight to protect forests from illegal land grabbers, industrial activities and exploitation. 
•    Nuanced analyses of deforestation drivers, and serious consideration of alternatives by involving forest dwellers in the co-production of assessments, 
•    Development and enforcement of progressive laws and regulatory frameworks suited to context; dismantling of perverse incentives
•    Diverse science-based and equitable policy responses that include non-economic values and criteria; 
•    Understanding forests as social-ecological systems, and a pronounced push to analyse the non-economic values of forests
•    Plural lenses recognising diverse indigenous and scientific knowledge and experiential knowledge
•    Law and legal frameworks that uphold rights of indigenous peoples, women and marginalised peoples
•    Participatory practices forming part of a wider political project or empowerment

– I have worked with forest governance for many years, and in different places. For me, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have to have an open, inclusive approach to forest management, where we strive to include many voices, needs and contexts. A crucial start is to debunk the persistent myths and narratives, like those we highlight in the study, and to recognize that forests are complex social-ecological systems, that require nuanced and considerate solutions. 

Last but not least, we have to recognise that our current consumption patterns plays a major part in incentivising deforestation and mismanagement of forests around the world. Only if we can see these global networks and interactions and, ultimately, our role in these, can we start to do something about them, concludes Torsten Krause.