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Less laws, more communication, collaboration and capacity needed: expert

Multinational Environmental Agreements mean little if they don't reach local communities.

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CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom—Weak government institutions often hamper international conventions and treaties related to protecting forest resources, a leading expert says.

A keynote speaker at the recent Biodiversity, Sustainable Development and the Law conference in Cambridge, Andrew Wardell of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) warned that while the ambitions of Multinational Environmental Agreements (MEAs) may be noble, the reality is that local government institutions often have a very low capacity to support their implementation.

Participants at the conference—lawyers, scientists, academics and others—discussed how best to implement international treaties for the protection of biodiversity, endangered species and forest resources while helping developing counties meet broader climate and sustainable development goals.

Wardell, CIFOR’s Senior Manager for Research Capacity and Partnership Development, said that meeting those goals does not require more laws, but better institutional performance. “By focusing our attention on institutional mandates, capacity, incentives and accountability mechanisms, we may be able to move further forward rather than just focusing on legal reforms.”

Wardell highlighted the case of Indonesia, which, despite having had 12,000 subsidiary local government legal instruments, lost more than 100,000 hectares of forest per year, as local government instruments were not aligned with federal laws.

It is vital to improving communication and integration between sectors that are often seen as driving biodiversity loss and deforestation, he says.  This can be done through multi-stakeholder platforms, as well as building the capacity of local scientists and organisations.

Human-induced environmental change is expected to increase due to population growth and increased resource demands, and has already led to profound dietary and social changes occurring in many emerging economies. Current sectorial approaches to address sustainable land and resource management issues, such as the complex challenges of poverty alleviation, food security, energy security, biodiversity conservation and climate change, are inadequate. This is in part due to the declining regulatory role of the state, the growing commoditisation of nature and the renewed faith in institutions such as MEAs.

The landscape approach is suggested as one of the ways to manage the complex and different trade-offs among these different interests; a way to balance the competing demands in terms of access to, and use of resources with the aim of achieving sustainable land and resource use, and to establish more viable landscape governance systems.

I outline four future challenges for governing landscapes:

Land governance

Interest in issues around land governance have been focused on how to secure access and use rights to land and other land-based resources for smallholders. More recently attention has shifted as large areas of land are acquired for investments in agricultural commodities, otherwise known as ’land grabbing’.  Since 2005, CIFOR research has highlighted that 22 million hectares of land were acquired for these purposes. Overwhelming evidence suggest that these large-scale investments have performed poorly when it comes to environmental and social benefits.  To be a bit provocative – as we have many lawyers in the room and given our existing knowledge of the tensions between statutory and customary laws in many countries – I think I would like to see less law and more efforts expended on trying to improve institutional performance.  By focusing our attention on institutional mandates, capacities, incentives and accountability mechanisms, we may be able to move further forward rather than focusing simply on either legal reforms or project-based performance criteria.


Drawing on , we see that the ability of local/sub-national governments to translate and transform MEAs into action on the ground is weak.  I want to focus on recent research by Sarah Gagne, from the University of North Carolina, which in her analysis of 20 types of bio/environmental guidelines, found that many of them were not relevant or useful to local governments. Many were biological in their approaches, species specific, costly in terms of data collection, not clear enough in terms of action, follow up or intervention, and often very complex. Very few of them incorporated socio-economic constraints associated with biodiversity conservation. Much of the interface between MEAs and national governments remains focused at the national level and does not trickle down to local governments.

Transforming global commodity chains

There has been a lot of interest in the recent surge of interest and commitments to develop zero deforestation global commodity chains. This emerged during the Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York in 2014, which saw 40 of the world’s largest food corporation’s sign up to the New York Declaration on Forests.

This aims to achieve zero forest loss by 2030.  But the caveat is – what does zero deforestation mean? How do you measure whether corporate actors have changed their current practices and behaviours towards reducing deforestation in their supply chains and how do you ensure there is an independent verification process? These are some of the questions providing new opportunities for research by institutions like CIFOR.


Recent research from West Africa has focused on the Shea Nuts Parklands of West Africa, a 4,000 square kilometre agro-forestry parkland system, which remains a large source of income for women. However, Not only has this changed the structure of the gendered local and regional value chain, which for 250 years has been managed and controlled by women, but large areas of the parklands are also being cleared to meet growing demands for food and charcoal. However, there is a glimmer of hope with new initiatives, such as the Global Shea Alliance. Such multi stakeholder platforms, which bring together different actors operating in the parkland landscape, provide opportunities to look outside of established multi-lateral agreements to improve communications and negotiations and to resolve competing interests in the use of land-based resources.

For more information, please contact Andrew Wardell at a.wardell@cgiar.org.

CIFOR’s research on landscapes is supported in part by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.


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