BOGOR, Indonesia (4 February, 2013)_The long-running debate about how best to conserve forests and improve livelihoods in forest-rich tropical countries has resurfaced in a very recent (and yet to be officially released) report by the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), reported in the Guardian and relayed by a blog in REDD-Monitor. In its report, the IEG concludes that there is little evidence that i) support of state-protected areas improved livelihoods of local people, ii) support for industrial timber concession reform has led to sustainable and inclusive economic development, iii) natural forest concessions are being managed sustainably.
In the 2002 revision of its 1991 Forests Strategy, was the World Bank wrong to lift the ban on intervention in places where logging was carried out in tropical moist forests, and consider investments in all types of forests? The Guardian and REDD-Monitor reading of the IEG report says “yes, definitely,” and that the World Bank would do well to shift its funding “away from finance for logging companies and government-run protected areas, towards support for community-controlled forests, which are proven to bring benefits for the environment, local livelihoods and the global climate.”
A reading of the IEG report itself suggests a somewhat more nuanced response, noting achievements – e.g. “World Bank support for industrial timber concession reforms in tropical moist forest countries has helped to advance the rule of law, increase transparency and accountability … and put environmental standards in place.” – as well as shortfalls, in particular related to improved livelihoods, poverty reduction and monitoring of World Bank forest sector operations.
Unfortunately, there is no single, easy answer to how best to conserve forests and improve livelihoods in forest-rich tropical countries. This is illustrated in a recent POLEX focused on evidence from Central Africa, and discussed in a review and associated papers. As these articles and those they draw from explain, the outcomes for forests and people are much more contingent on the design and implementation of the intervention, and on meaningful partnership with local communities, than on whether the intervention is a protected area or a logging concession. It is also clear that external forces, such as wider economic conditions and policies in sectors that affect forests, impact significantly on intended outcomes.
From a scientific perspective, the current debate also illustrates that more rigorous and systematic reference to existing knowledge is required. Contentious policy questions such as “Should public funds be used for investing in sustainable forest management? And if so, how?” should be addressed with evidence-based answers. CIFOR works with partners to establish the concept of evidence-based forestry, following the lead of medical sciences and as suggested by the Research to Action initiative. This is not to say that research can or should provide all the answers, but rather it should ensure that policy debate is appropriately informed by existing knowledge. It would appear that neither the evaluation nor the current high-pitched debate has fully benefitted from such inputs.
Finally, the debate also illustrates that the sustainable forest management concept is neither clear nor does it have an agreed operational framework. Despite over twenty years of talks since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro resulted in the Forest Principles, sustainable forest management is approached in different ways by different constituencies. In its most narrow interpretation, it is about timber management, and this appears to be the focus of the current debate. Such limited scope of sustainable forestry has also been introduced in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations on REDD+.
In other interpretations, such as that of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, sustainable forest management represents a broader sustainable development approach, applied to forests and forestry. Without better agreement on what we mean by sustainable forest management, the current debate is difficult to resolve. We should envision sustainable forest management as a co-evolutionary process between the changing societal demands, the changing forest, the changing market and an industry moving towards higher efficiency standards.
Our aim should be to maintain functional forest ecosystems that provide a continuous flow of goods and services for the benefit of everyone. It is possible that the renewed focus on the landscape as a whole, with an intersectoral perspective, can provide an agreed framework for policy actions. If this is the case, should we dispose of the sustainable forest management concept in the pursuit of sustainable development and wise management of natural resources?