Hoe een ‘tragedy of forests’ voorkomen?

Hoe een ‘tragedy of forests’ voorkomen?

Over de thesis van Louis-Philippe Cattrysse

De nood aan een transnationaal beheersysteem voor wouden. Een academische fundering voor een beleidsvoorstel. (2020)

Promotor(en) Prof. dr. Dries Lesage, Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen

Redactie Lore Ramon

“Er is nood aan een transnationaal beheersysteem dat wouden beheert als globale publieke goederen, in functie van de strijd tegen de klimaatopwarming en het bevorderen van de biodiversiteit”

, zo stelt Louis-Philippe Cattrysse in zijn masterthesis. Om aan die nood tegemoet te komen schreef hij onderstaand beleidsvoorstel, gefundeerd op diepgravend en breed georiënteerd onderzoek.

Louis-Philippes voorstel onderscheidt zich om verschillende redenen van de hedendaagse initiatieven inzake transnationaal woudbeheer. Zo is het in tegenstelling tot de meeste initiatieven niet marktgeoriënteerd. Wel houdt het rekening met klimaatopwarming, biodiversiteit en de lokale bevolking woonachtig in wouden.

How to avoid the ‘tragedy of the forests’: the needed paradigm shift

Forests are essential for the livability of this planet. They function as carbon sinks, which slows down climate change; a process that if not ceased, can be responsible for millions of deaths and can cost billions of dollars by 2050 (World Bank, 2016 & WHO, 2018). The link between forests and climate change is wellknown, but it’s only one of the many functions these biomes have to offer us.

Forests also function as buffers against the desertification of landscapes, the erosion of soils and the floods of riverbanks and coasts. They clean alongside the air, the ground in wich they root and the water that flows through (WWF z.d.). They are also the supermarket of the world. Products they produce range from the paper used to print this text to the bed wou will be sleeping in tonight.
Humans are for their wellbeing as well dependent on forests, since most medicines and cosmetics originate from forests, and because forests form a buffer against the numerous viruses, scattered through wildlife (WWF, z.d.).

Furthermore, forests function as a home for both humans and animals. Globally, 1.6 million people resident in forests and 80% of terrestrial animals are dependent on forests for their survival (UNFAO, 2018). Hence, forests hold immense ecological and cultural diversity. And last but not least, forests are places of beauty. Places in which people can enjoy the fauna and flora that nature brought us. According to the biophilia hypothesis, this is a basic need for a worthy human life (Wilson, 1986).

Because of all the functions forests have, they can be considered as global public goods (GPG): goods that are meaningful to all of humanity, which can be used by all, at the same time (Humphreys, 2006). Let me give you an example. If the Amazon Rainforest is essential for the carbon dioxide (CO2) balance in the atmosphere, then the forest is necessary for the livability of this planet. Since the livability of this planet concerns everyone, this forest is a GPG. This reasoning does not only apply to to the Amazon Rainforest and carbon sequestration but also to, for example, the boreal forests and the protection of biodiversity.

However, forests, especially tropical forests, are rapidly disappearing (The Global Forest Watch z.d., UNFAO 2018 & Song et al. 2018). The main drivers of deforestation are agriculture, cattle farming, the wood industry and expansion of infrastructure (Scullion et al., 2019). These factors determine our modern lifestyle and the economic development of nations. Given that humans are creatures of habit and every country pursues economic growth, the future holds little optimism for the survival of forests. This perspective on the future renders a pressing question; how to save the forests and acoordingly secure their functions?

GPGs are usually provided by global governance systems (GGSs); these are transnational partnerships which target global problems in the form of GPGs. There are GGSs for a variety of global issues. International trade is, for example, facilitated by the GGS, the World Trade Organisations (WTO), in the form of the GPG of stable global trade conditions.

Especially the GGSs, concerning the GPGs of financial and economic openness and security and stability are well developed. Market corrective GPGs, as labour rights and the preservation of the environment, are less represented by GGSs (Lesage, 2007). This is because of the simple fact that leaders prefer power and wealth above human rights and healthy ecosystems (Beniers & Dur 2007).

There is, for example, no World Forest Organisation or let alone a World Environment Organisation that serves as an institutional counterbalance of the WTO. The contemporary instruments concerning the management of forests are instead part of an ineffective and fragmented regimecomplex, in which overlap and conflict are frequent (Ruis 2001, Biermann et al. 2009).

Given the functions of forests and the alarming pace of deforestation, this is a problematic situation. Therefore, this policy brief advocates for a paradigm shift concerning forest management, in which forests are managed as GPGs by a strong GGS. If this is possible for a complex issue as international trade, it’s worth a try for the management of forests. After all, the livability of this planet is dependent on the preservation of forests.

The solution

I argue that there is a need for a transnational management system for forests, in the form of a GGS. This management system implies a global pattern of norms and values and a political framework. Both of these things will need to grow organically if the management system wants to be effective. However, in the following paragraphs, I will proposeguidelines for this pattern of norms an values and I will draw lessons from existing, similar political frameworks. These guidelines induce a paradigm shift in the field of global forest management and could form the impetus for a new era of global forest management.

The pattern of norms and values

“We use nature because she is valuable; we lose nature because she’s free” (Pavan Sukhdev, 2012).

As mentioned above, forests can be considered as a GPGs and consequently need to be managed as GPGs. If everyone enjoys the functions of forests, everyone has to pay for them. This is, at first sight, a contra intuitive idea because nature is a heritage of this planet and not a commodity. However, in this neoliberal world, it is a necessity. If there is no financial incentive, why would a government invest in the GPG of forests?

Besides, the idea that everyone has to pay for the functions of forests is a matter of justice. It is morally reprehensible to forbid the Global South to fell their forests and thereby miss the opportunity of economic development, because the West already did this. If the West, and more generally the world, wants to prevent a “tragedy of the forests” it will have to pay for it. In this way, the Global South doesn’t have to choose between the destruction of its forests or the creation of economic value. Ideally, the Global South would use the money they receive for preserving their forests to pursue a transition to a sustainable economy. This idea is reflected in the Yasuni ITT-project, wich I am going to elaborate on later.

The second set of values and norms I propose reacts to the colonial roots of nature conservation. The discourse and practice of nature conservation were found in colonised Africa and consisted of a dichotomy between nature and culture (Murphy, 2009). Forests were, according to this view, managed as fortresses of nature where people didn’t belong (Neumann, 1998). Today, this dichotomy still stands its ground, both in academia and in practice (Zaitchik, 2018 & Igoe en Brockington, 2007). This dichotomy is problematic because it legitimates the violation of the rights of the local and indigenous communities. Not only is this idea socially unsustainable, it is also ecologically unsustanable.

There is an academic consensus that the assignment of property rights and the providing of means to local and indigenous people has a positive impact on the persevation of forests (Ostrom, 2000 & Agrawel Chhatre 2008, Reytar & Veit, 2016). Peter Veilt, the director of The World Resource Institute, said that local and indigenous people are the world’s secret weapon in the fight against climate change and deforestation (Reytar & Veilt, 2016).

Just the thought that the West, responsible for millions of hectares of deforestation on a yearly basis, has a better idea of managing forests than the indigenous people, who in some cases have lived in harmony with their enivronment for millenia is neocolonial and not sustainable. In other words, it’s about time to grant the local and indigenous people ownership over their homes, for the sake of ecological and social sustainability.

Another (neo)colonial dimensions of nature preservation and more specific forest management concerns the relationship between the West and the Global South. Western countries mobilise capital to guarantee the conservation of the forests in the Global South, often without interest for the rights of the local and indigenous communities (Brockington & Igoe 2006). The exact mechanisms behind the relation vary from case to case: from the green militarisation approach in the Virunga National Park in DRC to the expulsion of tens of thousands of farmers under the REDD+ scheme in Uganda (Marijnen 2017).

You could say that the West uses her structural power te reduce the Global South to a carbon sponge and a nature park. The western countries, in turn, don’t have to worry about their CO2-emissions and can still visit pristine wildernesses.

Neocolonial mechanisms, as the REDD+ scheme, are not socially, and therefore not ecologically sustainable. The marginalisation of indigenous and local communities in the management of ‘their forests’ and the violation of their rights will lead to frustrations. These frustrations can lead to the engagement in unsustainable activities by the local communities, which can result in the loss and degradation of forests. Therefore all relevant stakeholders, especially the indigenous and local communities, need to be integrated into the management of their forests.

“While the environment may be at risk, it is the social form which demands inspection” (Gover, 1995).

This is why the third set of values and norms I propose reacts to the contemporary hegemonic ideology: neoliberalism. According to Bernstein’s theory on neoliberal environmentalism, environmental policies are selected on the basis of their compatibility with the neoliberal concepts, as deregulation and privatisation (2001). These concepts are represented and imbedded in what Gill calls the new constitutionalism of disciplinary neoliberalism: the collection of global, legally-binding agreements which aim at the proliferation and the intensifying of the neoliberal ideology (2007). This framework of neoliberalism is promoted by the countries who benefit from this framework, in other words, the West.

The existence of this framework is the reason why market-orientated instruments and mechanisms became the dominant approach to forest management and why the neoliberal state’s task, concerning forest management, evolved from command and control to a vehicle for capitalism. Capitalism is namely, the fruit of neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005).

This neoliberal logic and the introduction of capitalism in forest management was, on its turn, the reason for the ecological and social drama that unravelled itself throughout the last two centuries (Sullivan et al., 2012). Reman indicates in this context that the Western countries, especially the G7- countries, are no innocent bystanders of the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, but the main reason (Street, 2019). This because they support the framework of new constitutionalism of disciplinary neoliberalism.

From the standpoint of capitalism, it is rational to fell forests and use the grounds for lucrative purposes like agriculture. This is what the IMF, for example, conditioned Indonesia to do when it asked for financial aid in 1997 (Hymphreys, 2006). In addition, capitalism is inherently expansive. The organised capital is in constant in search of investment sources to utilise the sleeping capital productively (Humphreys, 2006). This trough the deregulation of forest management and the commodification of nature. Deregulations take, for example, the form of bribes and concessions and commodifications lead to monocultures, the genetic modification of plants and the patenting of plants and their functions.

The commodification of nature also proceeds through mechanisms established under the guise of nature conservation. The mechanisms that could be categorised under the Green Economy, as the REDD+ scheme and the European Emmison trading System, are examples of this. These initiatives only take financial incentives into account. From this point of view forests are merely managed as carbon sponges, whereby biodiversity and human rights are neglected. These initiatives are dependent on volatile markets, which often renders them ineffective to achieve their sole target of carbon sequestration (Bayrak & Marafa, 2016 ).

The environmental NGOs are also absorbed by the neoliberal market logic. This becomes clear through the appearance of a few big NGOs who control billions of dollars, employ millions of people and apply corporate strategies, structures and cultures (Brockington and Igoe, 2007). These NGOs are moreover dependant on corporations for their funding, leaving them ineffective to counterbalance these corporations when needed.

In short: if you want forests to be sustainably managed, avoid the neoliberal ideology. This is possible by decoupling the management of forests from volatile markets, by cutting the ties between the environmental NGO sector and corporations, by halting the commodification of nature and by establishing strict regulations concerning concessions. After all, neoliberalism is a driver of deforestation, how can the problem and the solution be the same?

The last norm I want to propose concerns the policy fields of the current forest management initiatives. These initiatives often only cover one aspect of forest management. The Green Economy initiatives, for example, only aim at carbon sequestration, without attention for the biodiversity or human rights. These initiatives may counteract other initiatives in the same region who pursue, for example, biodiversity. As long as the goals of the different initiatives are not integrated, or at least coordinated, it is possible that they counteract each other, whereby their combined impact is consequently zero. This is what the academic literature is called: the micro-macro paradox (Berg, 2011). Therefore a holistic approach toward forest management is needed.

The building blocks

Now, it is clear wich norms and values should be essential to forest managment. The question remains; how to do so? In the paragraphs below, I will demonstrate which structures and insights could be useful to achieve this aim.

The norms and values that were quoted in the previous paragraphs imply a form of transnational forest governance, whereby the international community pays for the preservation of forests. This could be done through financial transactions between the world community and a GGS. This GGS would, on its turn, be responsible for the preservation of these forests. The lion’s share of the money, however, would be given to the national governments of these forests as compensation for not felling them. The exact configuration of this hypothetical mechanism needs further research, on which I elaborated in my thesis.

This mechanism would be beneficial for the countries who invest more in the system then they receive from it (the countries with little to no forests) and for the countries whose forests need to be preserved. The first group of countries gain control over forests. Given the essential global functions of forests, that’s something these countries must pursue. The second group of countries receive financial incentives for doing nothing and can still enjoy the local functions forests offer.

However, the proposed mechanism is according to an interview I conducted with Bernard Crabbé and Marie Pachta too radical to be politically feasible. I will demonstrate why this is the case later on. In the medium term, however, this proposal may stand a chance. All the more because the precedents, and at the same time the building blocks, of this mechanisms already exist, namely the Yasuni ITT-project in Ecuador and the management of the Virunga National Park (VNP) in DRC.

The Yasuni ITT-project is a failed initiative that facilitated voluntary financial transactions as compensation for leaving the oil under the Yasuni National Park (YNP), and the management of the VNP isfunded and governed by a transnational network since the late ’80s. When you converge these projects and apply the mechanism on a global scale, you have the hypothetical mechanism mentioned above.

I will not elaborate on the specifics of these cases, but I will use the lessons we have learned from them to demonstrate what should be the essential features and the probable pitfalls to the hypothetical mechanism. First, I will take a look at the Yasuni ITT-project and second at the management of the VNP.

A first important lesson that we have learned from the Yasuni ITT-project is that the lack of mutual trust between the involved parties was determinative to the failure of the project (Pellegrini et al., 2014). Because of this trust problem, the involved actors were not motivated to invest in the mechanism, which rendered the project insufficiently funded. Therefore the mechanism mentioned above needs to be centred around a transparent organisation, and not around a person, as was the case in the Yasuni ITT project. This will reduce the information asymmetries and the possibilities of power changes, two factors for distrust.

By giving one organisation a central position, it would be unnecessary for the actors to control each other, which is a very costly activity. Next to being conducive for mutual trust and being const-effective, a central organisation would also be an adequate actor to cope with national and international power structures (Sovacool & Scarpaci, 2016). A rule-based organisation is namely less sensitive to bribes, threats and blackmailing than people are.

The Yasuni ITT-project further demonstrated that financial incentives, based on volatile markets, are no adequate form of compensation for the preservation of forests. In the case of the Yasuni ITTproject, there was a chance that the price of oil would surpass the worth of Yasuni guarantee certificates (Pellegrini et al., 2014). If that would have happened, there would have been no incentive left to leave the oil under the ground, a contrary. Therefore financial incentives need to be high enough and need to be fixed.

The main reason that caused the failure of the project, however, was the low level of international financial solidarity, a pitfall that’s hard to overcome. That’s also the reason why this policy brief may read rather as fiction than a policy proposal. The only way to resolve this low level of international financial solidarity is to spread awareness about the importance of forests and the acuteness of their disappearance. Global campaigns are necessary to obtain this aim.

Besides, international financial transactions are not unimaginable, not when they facilitated through national governments. Nowadays every country does already pay a fee to the United Nations. If these fees could rise, and be transferred to the GGS mentioned above, the hurdle to finance the hypothetical mechanism would be resolved.

Second, the management of VNP in DRC, is an example of a forest that is managed by a transnational network. This transnational network is directed by the Congolese government, Emmanuel de Merode and the European Commission (EC) (Marijnen, 2017). In my thesis, I elaborated on this cooperation and the policies that derive from it. In this policy brief, I will focus on the lessons we can learn from this cooperation and these policies.

The management of the VNP is not socially, and therefore not ecologically, sustainable. In the last 20 years, more than 150 rangers and probably a multitude of local people died in conflicts concerning the preservation of the parc (Marijnen, 2018).

The management of the parc applies a topdown governance strategy, in which the local communities are, for the most part, neglected (Marijnen, 2018). This type of governance leads to the violation of human rights and the curtailing of economic possibilities for the local people. As an alternative income source, these people engage in non-sustainable, illegal activities like poaching and illegal logging. These activities have a negative impact on the preservation of the park. The Guardian linked the killing of seven endangered mountain gorillas in 2007, for example, to the illegal production of charcoal, whereby local communities were involved (Stirton, 2007) .

If you want a forest to be governed sustainably, then the middle ground between social and ecological sustainability needs to be found. This is anything but a simple task. I think, as mentioned before, that the indigenous (and local) communities are the suitable actors to pursue this aim. Therefore, these communities may not be neglected or even suppressed. Instead, they need to be included, and if necessary, supported in the management of their forest.

The case of the VNP also demonstrates that it is not sustainable to rely on personal relations for the management of a forest. This type of management enables a policy that lacks transparency and public accountability which, in the case of the VNP, resulted in the green militarisation approach.

There is also the possibility that the composition of this network of personal relations changes, which can affect the preservation of the parc. What if de Merode, the key figure of this network, for example, expires? He was shot in 2014 but he survived the attack, what if he didn’t? In any case, it would be better for the preservation of the parc to leave this question obsolete; the conservation of the VNP must not be dependent on one person.

This can be resolved when the network of personal relations would be exchanged for a rule-based organisation. In this way, the decision-making process would not only proceed more transparently and more accountably, but it would also be more robust. A staff member of the EC has a similar reasoning:

“I have so much respect for what Emmanuel does that I cannot be critical of him: he does the best possible in this difficult context. It is not sustainable that Virunga relies on him, but that is the reality” (Marijnen, 2017).

The fact that the management of the VNP is not transparent and violates human rights is also enabled through the technocratic discourse, used throughout the decisionmaking process (Marijnen, 2017). That doesn’t mean that a technocratic discourse is not adequate to manage forests. It means that this discourse also needs to proceed factually, always needs to take in account human rights and sometimes needs to be politicised. Especially because the VNP is situated in a war-torn region. Therefore, it is not recommended to translate the arming of rangers in, for example, ‘capacity building’. A practice that sadly happens nowadays (Marijnen, 2017).

The two case studies of the management of the VNP and the YNP concluded that it is necessary to install a rule-based organisation for the transnational governance of forests. Another reason why this would be a good idea is that a rulebased organisation is less prone to electoral cycles, which makes long-term planning and a technocratic approach possible. This technocratic stance would make a scientific foundation for forest management possible and it could distance itself from the existing colonial legacies and power relations.


This policy brief demonstrated why a paradigm-shift concerning forest management is necessary and in which manner this paradigm-shift should proceed. I also have indicated what would be the essential features and the likely pitfalls of this evolution. However, the realisation of this paradigm-shift may be politically unfeasible in today’s society. Some significant hurdles are the low level of international financial solidarity, state sovereignty and the power of the agriculture and the oil- and timber lobby. Therefore this paradigm shift should rather be interpreted as a theoretical exercise than an operational policy proposal.

Photo: 2007, Brent Stirton, Congo wildlife rangers carry a dead silverback.


Agrawal, A., Chhatre, A. & Hardin, R. (2008). Changing Governance of the World’s Forests. Science, 320(5882), 1460-1462.

Bayrak, M. & Marafa, M. (2016). Ten Years of REDD+: A Critical Review of the Impact. Sustainability, 8(7), 1-22.

Beniers, K. & Dur, R. (2007). Politicians’ motivation, political culture, and electoral competition. International Tax and Public Finance, 14(29), 29-54.

Berg, R. (2011). Evaluation in the context of global public goods. Evaluation, 17(4), 405–415.

Bernstein, S. (2001). The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brockington, D. (2008). Powerful Environmentalisms: Conservation, celebrity and capitalism. Media, Culture & Society, 30(4), 551-568.

Büscher, B. Sullivan, S., Neves, K, Igoe, J. & Brockington, D. (2012). Towards a Synthesized Critique of Neoliberal Biodiversity Conservation. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23(2), 4-30.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2018). The state of the world’s forests. Geraadplegd op 7 maart 2020, van http://www.fao.org/3/I9535EN/i9535en.pdf

Global Forest Watch. (z.d.). Global annual tree cover loss. Geraadpleegd op 7 maart 2020, van https://www.globalforestwatch.org/.

Gill, S. (1998). New constitutionalism, democratisation and global political economy. Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change, 10(1), 23-38.

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Humphreys, D. (2006). Deforestation and the Crisis of Global Governance. Londen: Routledge.

Lesage, D. (2006). Het beheer van de wereld. Gent: Academia Press.

Marijnen, E. (2017). The ‘green militarisation’ of development aid: the European Commission and the Virunga National Park, DR Congo. Third World Quarterly, 38(7), 1566-1582.

Marijnen, E. (2018). Public Authority and Conservation in Areas of Armed Conflict: Virunga National Park as a ‘State within a State’ in Eastern Congo. Development and Change, 49(3), 790-814.

Murphy, J. (2009, oktober). Environment and Imperialism: Why Colonialism Still Matters. Geraadpleegd op 19 maart, 2020 van https://www.see.leeds.ac.uk/fileadmin/Documents/research/sri/workingpapers/SRIPs20_01.pdf

Neumann. R. (1998). Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ostrom, E., McKean, M. & Gibson, C. (2000). People and Forests: Communities, Institutions, and Governance. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Pellegrini, L., Arsel, M., Falconi, F. & Muradian, R. (2014). The demise of a new conservation and development policy? Exploring the tensions of the Yasuní ITT initiative. The Extractive industries and society, 1(2), 284-291.

Scarpaci, J. & Sovacool, B. (2016). Energy justice and the contested petroleum politics of stranded assets: Policy insights from the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador. Energy Policy, 95(1), 158-171.

Song, X., Hansen, M., Stehman, S., Potapov, P., Tuykavina, A., Vermote, E. & Townshend, J. (2018). Global land change from 1982 to 2016. Nature, 560(7720), 639–643.

Stirton, B. (2015, 22 oktober). Brent Stirton’s best photograph – Congo wildlife rangers carry a dead silverback. The Guardian. Geraadpleegd op 2 mei 2020, van https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/22/brent-stirton-best-photograph-deadsilverback-gorilla-congo-virunga

Street, N. (2019, augustus). The Amazon fire: a neoliberal crime scene. Geraadpleegd op 7 maart 2020, van https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/20510-the-amazon-fire-aneoliberal-crime- scene

Sukhdev, P. (2012). Study presentation by Pavan Sukhdev. Geraadpleegd op 28 april 2020, van https://globelegislators.org/study-presentation-by-pavan-sukhdev

Veilt, P. & Reytar, K. (2016, 10 november). Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Are the World’s Secret Weapon in Curbing Climate Change. Geraadpleegd op 7 maart 2020, van https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/11/indigenous

Wilson, E. (1986). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard university press.

World Bank Group. (2016). World Bank Group Climate Change Action Plan 2016-2020. Geraadpleegd op 17 april 2020, van https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/24451

World Health Organization. (2018, 1 februari). Climate change and health. Geraadpleegd op 2 mei 2020, van https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health

WWF. (2020, 8 maart.) The importance of forest can not be underestimated. Geraadpleegd op 8 maart 2020, van https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/forests/importance_forests/

Zaitchik, A. (2018, 16 juli). How conservation became colonialism. Foreign Policy. Geraadpleegd op 19 maart, van https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/16/how-conservationbecame-colonialism- environment-indigenous-people-ecuador-mining/