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Scientists urge tact in crafting forest governance systems

Can sustainability standards support an integrated governance framework?
Policymakers are developing the framework to ensure that forest conservation efforts do not adversely affect local communities.

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Forest governance often means addressing the inconsistencies of land, tree and resource management, a process that can be complicated by interactions among governments, the private sector and civil society, according to scientists.

“Standards can be one approach to improve governance, but in many cases, they remain international voluntary standards without compliance requirements — we know from experience that they’re often circumvented,” said Andrew Wardell, research director of the forests and governance portfolio with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

CIFOR, in collaboration with the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), led a discussion forum at the Global Landscapes Forum in Warsaw, on the sidelines of international climate policy negotiations, focused on who governs forests, how they are governed and with what kind of impact.

Discussion focused on whether sustainability standards can support an integrated governance framework, for example, by regulating access of biofuels to European markets or addressing social and environmental safeguards created to accompany U.N.-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) projects in developing countries.

Policymakers are developing the framework to ensure that forest conservation efforts do not adversely affect local communities entitled to receive aid incentives from developed countries for proving they have reduced carbon emissions.


A standard for forest governance can be defined as “a certain threshold or best practice to attain,” said Caroline Haywood, a climate change lawyer and specialist in green economics with IDLO, which assists developing countries with legislation.

The group is currently conducting a research project in conjunction with CIFOR focused on creating a sustainable framework for low-carbon investment.

International standards should remain as broad as possible, while legislation is the tool to implement them in specific contexts, Haywood said.

International standards “are good benchmarks against which to see how a country is doing — a sort of gold standard,” said Renee Gift, a climate-change specialist with IDLO.

When a country is drawing up policy, one can assess how various issues are being addressed, as an initial stage of the law-making process, she said.

Certification is too complex and too expensive for small and medium enterprises

Andrew Wardell

Research should focus on lessons learned about why certain policy efforts are supported, said Ben Cashore, a professor of environmental governance and political science at Yale University. “There’s a difference between where institutions gain the authority they need to conduct policy, and the content of the standards they apply to such policy,” he said.

The history of sustainability standards in forest management can be traced back to the failed attempt to sign a binding Global Forest Convention in the early 1990s, Cashore said.

Promoters of good forest management turned afterward to such market-based mechanisms as timber certification to govern trade policy. However, such measurable standards do not cover all forest products.

“Certification is too complex and too expensive for small and medium enterprises,” Wardell said.


Wardell and Cashore have contributed to a recent body of literature that interprets forest governance as a complex arena that must be implemented on global, national and local institutional levels.

A current interest in verifying the legal provenance of timber and weeding out illegally harvested products is putting governments back at the center of forest governance, Cashore said.

The European Union’s new Voluntary Partnership Agreements, which allow timber shipments only from countries that verify that their exports conform to their own national laws is an example of a voluntary standard turned into a legal basis, Wardell said — adding that it is too early to say whether it is a success.

Yet the support for the national legal verification processes is striking, Cashore said. “That’s because it is a bottom-up, low-standard approach, involving multiple levels of government,” Cashore said. Science should now explain what motivations lie behind such widespread acceptance, which could be driven by self-interest: legal companies see it as an opportunity to fight competition from cheaper, illegal loggers; environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) hope to have better results to show for their action through this approach; and independent states can use it to boost claims to sovereignty, he said.

“Only when we have learned why a certain level of standards attracts broad support can we look into taking it further,” Cashore said.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Andrew Wardell at a.wardell@cgiar.org

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