Sustainable Forests: Government Control vs Social Self-Organization

By Greg Fisher

Recently I was involved in a small piece of work funded by an NGO called PEFC (via AKC Global), which is the world’s largest certifier of sustainable forests. One of the most interesting things I witnessed in this work was the contrast between two perspectives in this domain: one which held that government laws and regulations should lead the processes of anti-deforestation and afforestation; and another which promoted what I would call social-self-organisation, where non-government actors lead the way.


Courtesy of harmoniaphilosophica

I thought I would unearth some of what’s going on in this domain to show how social governance does not necessarily have to be led by governments.


Within the material I read, it was striking how a substantial amount of the framing, notably that coming from government, implied top-down ‘statist’ approaches would work well in efforts to combat deforestation. I don’t think this was civil servants simply talking their own book – it seemed to be more about how they framed the issue. This framing incorporated a deterministic ‘theory of change’ which, to my mind, sat awkwardly with the complexity of reality. In a nutshell, this point of view held that laws and regulations could be imposed on countries, and then enforced, and this would reduce the amount of deforestation. Indeed, substantial amounts of money have been invested in promoting this view: it seems to be at the heart of the European Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) initiative.

I can see at least three problems with this approach. First, illegal logging (which is the focus of VPAs) can be made legal at the stroke of a policymaker’s pen. When looked at from a global level, national laws can seem pretty arbitrary: the impact of making such logging legal, namely the amount of forest saved from logging, might be zero.

Second, good laws can be put in place – sometimes at great cost – but then circumvented e.g. through corruption. Officials endowed with the responsibility to enforce these laws can use their power to take backhanders. Having spent time in the DRC, I can testify to the significance of this (which is not to say this is only a developing world problem).

Third, and possibly most important, forests that are protected by law might not be sustainable. People wishing to know more about what forest sustainability certification requires can look at p10-11 of PEFC’s brochure Promoting Sustainable Forest Management. These pages contain PEFC’s 7 (heart-warming) criteria[1]. A number of these point to pre-requisites for sustainability e.g. maintenance of forest ecosystem health and vitality (no. 2), and the enhancement of biological diversity (no. 4). If some of these criteria are missing from a legally protected forest then it might simply die.

Appropriately, these 7 criteria fit neatly in to a complexity science perspective on ecosystems e.g. the need for diversity, and the protection of enabling functions like soil and water (no. 5).

Social Self-Organisation

In contrast to this top-down approach, there has been a lot of work going on at the grass-roots (literally and metaphorically!) in the past 20 years which has seen vast tracts of forestry land become independently certified as sustainable (I have included some data below).

These developments have largely been about consumers, producers, and intermediaries along the supply chain.PEFC logo

Consumers (and representative groups) have demanded (either directly or indirectly e.g. through consumer research) that products containing forestry produce come from sustainable sources. For example, when shopping for printer paper I will look for certain logos (PEFC, FSC, or an equivalent one).

Producers have responded to this demand by managing their forests sustainably and by seeking ways to demonstrate this. Indeed, this is how PEFC came about in the late 1990s: a group of forest-owners wanting to demonstrate, with third party verification, their sustainability credentials. Certification, along with appropriate verification and auditing processes, have been an important way of marrying consumers with producers.

However, consumers and producers are not the only members of the cast in this play. In our complex economies, with sometimes long and over-lapping supply chains, intermediary organisations exist. These can include commercial companies that create pulp from wood, others which turn pulp in to paper, and wholesale companies which sell to retailers, which then sell to consumers.

It should be clear that, along this supply chain, there is room for dodgy dealings. Produce from non-sustainable sources might enter this entire network if just one company fails in its due diligence.

The credibility of this entire infrastructure rests not only on the producers, therefore. As a response to this, certification has been introduced for organisations along the supply chain.

Now, most of the action across the supply chain is among non-government organisations. Indeed, a lot of what PEFC does is to rubber-stamp national certification schemes which are also non-government. However, it would be wrong to suggest no national government are involved: the Brazilian and Chinese governments are examples of countries where there is such involvement.

This nuance aside, I would call this whole ecosphere of consumer demand, sustainable production and supply-chain certification eco-capitalism because it is almost entirely a response to the consumer, and it is largely independent of governments. One might say here that the eco-consumer is Eco-King.

Of course, many of the environmentalists on the left of the political spectrum would probably balk at associating environmental sustainability with capitalism but it is essentially what is happening here.

Similarly, there are probably free-market fundamentalists who would argue this isn’t really capitalism, as it all seems guided by these strange certification things. Surely selfish utility maximization combined with information asymmetries and prisoner-dilemma dynamics (all supported by a bunch of clever maths) would mean it would all implode in a heap of corruption. My answer to this (admittedly straw-man!) critique is that real world capitalism exists in a field of institutions like sustainability certification. For example, the kitemark has been an important way of signalling minimum standards of certain goods in the UK for the past hundred years. Without the kitemark, certain markets would probably not exist.

Furthermore, institutions[2] like certification have been enabled by organisations like PEFC and FSC, which operate in ways similar to how the British Standards Institute maintains the kitemark.FSC

Pudding Proof

We could argue at length about which of these two approaches – top-down-ism and social self-organisation – is most effective but the proof, as my mother would say, is in the pudding. To this end I would ask: how do these two approaches compare in terms of pure hectarage?

Under the VPA arrangements, over the past 8 or so years 0m hectares of forest have been legally protected under VPA agreements. That’s right, this is not a typo: nothing. By contrast, the increase in forestry land falling under PEFC’s certification umbrella over the same period was c46m hectares, adding to PEFC’s existing stockpile to come to about 263m hectares today. To put this in to perspective, 263m hectares is equivalent to the whole of Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK combined.

Of course, it would be easy to argue that PEFC started in 1999 so it had a head start; however, it is even easier to argue that the budgets available to the EU governments dwarf the funding available to PEFC (its current operating budget is about £2.5m per annum).

The Crux

The overarching point I want to make in this article is that what I would call social governance architecture does not need to be run by or through governments. The governance of the whole sustainable forest infrastructure is widely distributed and does not run through a single, global hierarchical organisation. Indeed, PEFC would see itself as a part of the enabling environment in this domain, not as a top-down controller.

However, before any libertarians start applauding too loudly, this is not an argument for there being no role for governments, either in this specific domain of forestry sustainability nor in social governance generally.

In other domains, collective action can only be enabled by governments because individual actors are typically not well placed to achieve this. Individuals are often located in an environment or context with little power to change the whole context. Consider, for example, the coordination required in large infrastructure projects like Crossrail. In these circumstance only governments have the power to bring about this type of re-patterning of the world.

Indeed, I would argue that governments might have some role to play in sustainability forestry governance. I can think of two: in countries where corruption is a low risk, the governments might help augment the credibility of certification schemes e.g. through the use of law and justice systems. Second, to catalyse the spread of non-government governance, especially in poorer countries where forests are being felled at an alarming rate.


The Boreal Forest (courtesy of Greenpeace)


[1] In the spirit of balance and fairness, I should point out that there are many other sustainable forest certifiers: PEFC’s main ‘competitor’ is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and there are a number of others. PEFC and FSC are by far the largest.

[2] I use the term here more in the academic sense: institutions can be processes, like certification, or things like legal entities with buildings and people.


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