Who determines conventional wisdom regarding policies towards forests and how?


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We have now completed our survey on publications that influenced debates on policies affecting forests and wish to share the results.

One hundred and sixty two individuals responded to the questionnaire, to whom we are very grateful. About 1/3 were Europeans, 1/3 North Americans, 15% Latin Americans, and the remainder Asians, Africans or of un-determined nationality. Thirty-seven percent of respondents were from research centers and universities in developed countries, 10% from North American or European environmental NGOs, 10% from CIFOR, 8% from bilateral funding agencies, 7% each from FAO and multilateral banks (World Bank, IDB etc.), and 10% from universities, governments, and projects, in developing countries. This implies that the results of our survey reflect more the views of people working in developed country organizations and international agencies, than those of developing country policy makers or researchers. Thus, we hope to do a follow-up study concentrating on those groups.

The responses provide little evidence that the documents respondents considered influential affected policies directly. In most instances, they seem to have influenced the general ’conventional wisdom’ in international policy, academic, and funding circles on different topics and this eventually filtered down to policy makers in specific countries. The principle exceptions to this seem to be at the national level, where World Bank sector reports, Tropical Forestry Action Plans, government commission reports, and official forest policy documents that were cited by many respondents as having directly influenced policies.

Of the 54 documents most cited as influencing the conventional wisdom on forestry policy, 37% were published as commercial books, 20% came out in general academic journals, 9% each were publications from United Nations conferences, the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute, and 7% were FAO documents. The remaining 7% publications from the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITT), International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and World Watch Institute. The journal articles among these 54 documents came out in Science (4), World Development (2), Nature, Scientific American, Ambio, and Forest Ecosystems and Management.

In total, respondents mentioned some 370 publications as being influential at either the international or national levels. Only 54 were cited by three respondents or more, and of these 19 were cited by at least six respondents.

The three publications that were mentioned most frequently were:

* Repetto and Gillis, ’Public Policy and the Misuse of Forests’, Cambridge University Press, 1988 (34 responses),

* D. Poore, J. Burgess, J. Palmer, S. Rietbergen, T. Synott, ’No Timber Without Trees, Sustainability in the Tropical Forests’, Earthscan Publications, 1989 (22 responses),

* Peters, Gentry, and Mendelsohn, ’Valuation of an Amazonian Rainforest’, Nature, 1989 (22 responses)

Three documents from the 1992 UNCED Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, – Agenda 21, the Forest Principles, and the Biodiversity Convention, were also among the 10 most – cited documents, as was the Brundtland Commission Report ’Our Common Future’ that proceeded UNCED.

Two other institutional documents among the top 20 were the joint WRI / FAO / UNDP / World Bank 1985 ’Call to Action’ that led to the creation of the tropical forestry action plan and the World Bank’s 1991 Forest Sector Policy Paper.

The other publications which received six or more mentions, and hence made it to the top 19 documents cited were:

Westoby’s 1987 ’The Purpose of Forests, Follies of Development’ (11 responses), Johnson and Cabarle’s 1993 ’Surviving the Cut: Natural Forest Management in the Humid Tropics’ (9 responses), Mahar’s 1989 ’Government Policies and Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Region’ (8 responses), Binswanger’s 1989 ’ Brazilian Policies that Encourage Deforestation in the Amazon’ (8 responses), Anderson’s 1990 ’Alternatives to Deforestation’ (8 responses), Repetto’s 1988 ’Forest for the Trees, Government Policies and the Misuse of Forest Resources’ (7 responses), The 1981 FAO Forest Resource Assessment, coordinated by Lanly (6 responses), Myers’ 1984 ’The Primary Source, Tropical Forests and our Future’ (6 responses), Eckholm’s 1975 ’The Other Energy Crisis: Firewood’ (6 responses), and Hardin’s 1968 ’The Tragedy of the Commons’ (6 responses). (In principle, neither Eckholm nor Hardin’s pieces qualified to be on this list, as the questionnaire specified we were looking for documents published in the last 20 years. Nevertheless, their documents apparently made such a large impression on the people surveyed that they decided to include them any way.)

The responses make it clear that three institutions have dominated the debates regarding policies affecting forests over the last 30 years: FAO, the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Approximately, one third of all respondents mentioned at least one document associated in some way with the FAO and the World Bank. An even higher number (64 respondents) mentioned at least one publication associated with the WRI. In the case of WRI, the results were greatly biased by the large number of mentions of the Repetto and Gillis book. Still, a full 34 respondents (21%) mentioned at least one WRI -related publication besides the Repetto and Gillis book.

The responses give the definite impression that conventional wisdom tends to associate each major forest – related issue with a handful of publications that have crystallized public interest in a topic, given it greater legitimacy, or synthesized previous research on it.

Respondents tended to associate community forestry with Jack Westoby (particularly his 1978 World Forest Congress speech in Jakarta), a 1978 FAO document on forests for community development and later work in Asia by Peluso and Poffenberger.

Eckholm put the ’fire wood crisis’ on policy makers’ agenda in the late 1970s, while Leach and Mearns and Dewees’ subsequent questioning of whether such a crisis really existed helped take it off.

Biodiversity is mentioned in connection to Myer’s Sinking Ark and Wilson’s edited anthology on biodiversity published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Respondents thought of Repetto and Gillis, Vincent, and Sizer and Rice when it comes to forest concession policies and trade restrictions that promote unsustainable logging, and of Binswanger, Mahar, and Hecht in relation to public subsidies that encourage deforestation.

Peter, Gentry, and Mendelsohn’s Nature article on the value of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in Peru clearly put NTFPs on the map, although seven of the 22 respondents who mentioned it made some critical reference about its content. De Beer and McDermott’s 1989 study of NTFPs in Southeast Asia is also frequently cited.

The work of Poore et al., Johnson and Cabarle, Rice and Reid, and Uhl et al. get most mention in relation to whether tropical forests can be sustainably managed for timber and how.

Finally, the survey highlights one major point of concern with regards to how conventional wisdom regarding forest policies is made and that is the complete domination of the debate by authors from the United States and Europe. Not a single one of the 39 authors and co-authors who were cited by five respondents or more was from Africa, Asia, or Latin America, despite the fact that the majority of literature mentioned focused on tropical forests. This may partially reflect the relatively small representation from those continents among the individuals sampled, but even once one takes into account that bias it would appear there is a major problem here that should be addressed.

We are currently completing a first draft of a paper with the complete survey results.

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Further reading

If you would like to receive a copy of that report when it is finished or comment on this message, please write to: Michael Spilsbury at mailto:m.spilsbury@cgiar.org