The wisdom of the crowd: Your top 20 questions for forestry and landscapes

More than 2,800 forestry questions were submitted - and here's the top 20.
How can we best select species that simultaneously provide ecological and economic benefits? Icaro Cooke Vieira / CIFOR.

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Carol Colfer and Doris Capistrano dedicate their book “The Politics of Decentralization”: Forests, Power and People” to “those whose voices have not yet been heard,” and this sentiment was at the heart of the T20Q (Top 20 Questions) project—a global project that allows you to have your say about issues of importance.

The T20Q project involved a two-stage process—‘crowd-sourcing’ questions considered to have high priority for research and policy by anyone with an interest in forestry and landscapes, followed by a return to the crowd to rank those questions. The crowd defined itself; there were no barriers to participation except access to the Internet and an ability to read French, English, Indonesian or Spanish. These barriers are not insignificant for many people, and I will return to the language issue later. Suffice to say that all the partners in the Evidence-Based Forestry (EBF) initiative regularly communicate with and invite participation in their activities online; therefore T20Q made the decision to survey participants wholly via the Internet, and used a variety of social media to reach this global online community.

How did it work?

More than 500 people living or working in more than 100 countries submitted 2,800 questions in the first phase of T20Q. Topics that occurred most frequently were grouped, using index terms from a controlled vocabulary applied by an independent forestry-information specialist, into broad themes.

Representative questions from these themes were randomly selected for the second phase, where participants could score the perceived significance of the questions on a scale of 1 to 10. A total of 818 people participated in this phase, which required assessing the 109 representative questions presented to them in a series of categories. The questions and categories were all randomized so that each participant was presented with the questions in a different order.

What did people say and who said it?

One of the greatest surprises of the project was the level of participation of younger people, women and those from the Global South. These are often the very people whose “voices have not yet been heard.” A quarter of all participants were under 35 years old, and 34 percent of voters were women. While this falls short of the target 50 percent, it far exceeds the proportion seen in many international decision-making meetings.

Just under 65 percent of participants who submitted questions were from Asia, Central and South America, and Africa, and while the figure was closer to 50 percent for the voting phase, the country contributing the highest number of voters was Brazil. That is more surprising still in light of the fact that the project was limited in the first phase to French, English, Indonesian and Spanish, and in the second phase to English only. There was very little engagement in T20Q from Russia or China, two hugely important forestry countries. This was almost certainly due to limitations of language access.

There was considerable interest shown by participants (more than 500 people indicated interest when asked this question in the surveys) in repeating this type of exercise regionally and for specific thematic areas, notably ecology, biodiversity and restoration, but also climate change and REDD+. Engaging people for regionally focused exercises modeled on T20Q would need to take the language of target participants into account.

Participants were mostly highly educated, with more than 95 percent having at least a bachelor’s degree. Although there was a broad spread of work activities reported, the majority were engaged in research or education; a relatively small percentage (11 percent) worked directly in policy.

The 20 questions that scored highest overall can be categorized or clustered in many ways. For our purposes, they are shown clustered according to six broad topics that emerge from simple indexing and discussion with project colleagues (see the list of questions below).

The highest-ranking question may perhaps surprise many people. It is not about climate change or deforestation, nor does it mention REDD+: It concerns restoration of degraded areas to provide multiple benefits. However, it is a question that concerns all these things, including the much-ignored second “D” of REDD+, namely forest degradation.

The solutions to the question, whether policy or research, will require the sort of integrated thinking that was being strongly promoted in international discussions during 2014. Most of the top 20 questions will require a multidisciplinary approach to answer, and many of them would make fascinating systematic reviews of the sort being undertaken in the EBF initiative.

What happens next?

T20Q is a step in a series of evidence-based activities, rather than the silver bullet that informs us what is most important for research and policy in forestry and landscapes. The questions will be discussed by the EBF partners to identify those that could be systematically reviewed; others may stimulate thinking for new research programmes. All of them can be considered in the context of forthcoming international discussions as representative of the views of a subset of the forestry and landscapes community on what constitutes a priority agenda for further deliberation and action.

The Top 20 Questions for forestry and landscapes research (grouped by theme)


  • How can degraded ecosystems be restored to meet the objectives of biodiversity conservation, ecosystem function, ecosystem resilience, and sustainability of rural livelihoods?
  • How can we develop models of forest restoration that are economically feasible?
  • What are the implications for biodiversity and the environment of using afforestation as a mean of carbon mitigation?
  • How can we best select species that simultaneously provide ecological and economic benefits?
  • What are the best means to ensure that forest/landscape restoration projects add value to the landscape in terms of connectivity between populations and habitats, facilitating gene flow, species migration, as well as complementarity of land-uses and livelihoods of local people?

Types of knowledge

  • Can we develop practical tools that allow land-planning and forest management to be better tailored to the needs, culture and perceptions of different communities and locations?
  • How can local knowledge, wisdom and experiences (e.g. on tree species, NTFPs [non-timber forest products]) be effectively combined with national and subnational forest assessment, monitoring and management efforts?
  • How can inclusive forest and landscape management be enhanced for the resource-poor?

Landscape-scale/integrated thinking

  • In the context of high human density and scarcity of farming land, how can we address the question of sustainable management of tropical forests?
  • How can we improve agriculture to reduce the pressure in forested areas?
  • Adaptation to climate change means answering to trends in future climate and also to increasing risks. These two aspects are often studied separately when they should be combined. How to combine them?
  • How can we maintain, restore and shape water-friendly landscapes, including forests and trees, while addressing partly conflicting land use and water needs of all stakeholders of a landscape?

Rights and benefits

  • How do we make sure that the needs of indigenous people who rely on intact forest systems are being met while also providing wood products for economic growth?
  • What are the institutional arrangements that might enable smallholders within a landscape to jointly market the ecosystems services provided by reforestation of some of their land?
  • How can we ensure that forests are for the benefit of local economies and forests are not grabbed for the benefit of some foreign company?

Environmental services

  • How is it possible to develop a sustainable mechanism for payments for ecosystem services?
  • Can we really use ecosystem service values as a method to value a whole landscape?
  • How can farmers get money from biodiversity conservation?

Green business

  • How can we integrate sustainability into trade regulation and law?
  • How can we guarantee effective protection and conservation of environmental services in a world increasingly in need of raw materials at low cost?

Gillian Petrokofsky is a senior CIFOR Associate and James Martin Research Fellow, University of Oxford.

T20Q was funded primarily by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) through their KNOW-FOR grant to CIFOR and co-ordinated by the Sylva Foundation, a charitable Foundation based in the UK in collaboration with CIFOR.

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