Local engagement, decentralized policies can help reduce deforestation

  • Dec. 12, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Empowering local governments with forestry decisions can help combat deforestation but is most effective when forest users are actively engaging with their representatives, according to a new study from Indiana University and three other institutions.

Using a combination of survey data, census information and satellite images dating back to 2000, the researchers meticulously compared deforestation results from Bolivia and Peru, two countries with differing approaches to forest governance.

The study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that a decentralized approach to forest governance can yield better results than national, top-down policy so long as local forest users are working closely with their officials.

It builds on work by the late Indiana University Distinguished Professor Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her research on economic governance, especially governance of common-pool resources such as forests.

"Unpacking a governance regime like 'decentralization' to measured variables on the ground is deceptively complex," said Tom Evans, professor of geography at IU Bloomington and a co-author of the study. "This work extends decades of research by Elinor Ostrom and others, which led to breakthroughs in understanding how governance affects natural resources."

Krister Andersson, director of the Center for the Governance of Natural Resources at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the lead author of the study. Other co-authors are Clark Gibson of the University of California San Diego and Glenn Wright of the University of Alaska Southeast.

Deforestation remains a major global environmental challenge, with the United Nations estimating that 18 million acres of trees are lost each year worldwide. Forests are complex systems that have historically proven difficult to govern and preserve.

Since the 1990s, several countries (with encouragement from international aid organizations) have shifted from a national, top-down forestry policy to a more decentralized approach in which more decision-making power is given to local municipalities. To date, however, there have been few comprehensive studies of the overall effectiveness of this approach.

"For every theoretical advantage of decentralization, you can come up with a disadvantage," Andersson said. "The results are often so conditional that 'it depends' had become the de facto conclusion on this subject."

The study, supported by the National Science Foundation, aimed to provide more conclusive data by comparing 100 municipalities each from Bolivia and Peru, two countries with similar forestry and culture whose policies diverged sharply after 1996. Bolivia embraced decentralization, while Peru did not.

The researchers asked how community members were interacting with municipal government authorities on forest-management topics. They intend to continue to monitor those interactions over time to develop new and better knowledge about the factors that drive local decision-making.

"Satellite-based imagery gives us a powerful mechanism to monitor global forest resources, but just seeing where forests are changing isn't enough -- we have to understand why it's changing," Evans said. "That requires getting on the ground and conducting interviews with people connected to those forests."

The researchers note that while deforestation is far from eliminated in either country, the results suggest that Bolivia's forest loss would have been far worse in recent years had it not been for the country's decentralized approach to forest governance.

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