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Does Sustainable Forest Management Actually Protect Forests? | February 3, 2016

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This article has been republished with kind permission from Mongabay. It was written by John C. Cannon.

The Rio Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, brought the principles of sustainable forest management (SFM) to the forefront of the quest to safeguard tropical forests and the habitat and carbon reserves they contain, while also providing for the social and economic needs of the people who depend on them.

But a team of scientists is now questioning whether sustainable forest management might not be as effective as believed, based on their analysis of timber concessions in the Central African nation of the Republic of Congo. Specifically, they argue that SFM may not have led to less deforestation in Congo. They published their findings in a study published in December in the journal Land Use Policy.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) SFM aims to integrate the social, environmental, and economic values of forests. Under these policy principles, for example, forests could be managed to provide not only saleable timber, but also food and jobs for local communities, all while protecting biodiversity and carbon stocks.

To meet these ambitious goals, SFM often starts with a forest management plan—an FMP for short—to outline how a timber concession should be managed. In the more than two decades since the Rio Summit, nearly half of the more than 400 million hectares managed for timber around the world have been brought under FMPs.

In 2000, the Republic of Congo passed its own "SFM-based forestry law," report the authors in the paper, which requires an FMP for each timber concession authorized by the government. Over the next decade, however, only six of the 45 active timber concessions in the country had put an FMP in place.

To Arun Agrawal and his colleagues, that presented a unique opportunity to assess the impacts that SFM might be having in a country at the heart of the Congo Basin, home to the world's second-largest rainforest and 25 percent of the carbon in tropical forests worldwide.

"There was a fair amount of data on the Central African forests [that] were being put out by organizations like Global Forest Watch and by different concession owners and so forth, but we didn't really have a good sense of what was going on in these concessions," said Agrawal.

So the team set out to compare the available satellite data measuring forest cover loss over time in concessions in Congo that had an FMP with those that didn't.

"The big question is, when you reduce illegality, do you get lower deforestation?" Agrawal said, in an interview with

"I think a lot of the people who work in the region have been very focused on reducing illegal logging because they think that when you do that, you will get less deforestation and you get more conservation and all the good things go together," he added. "What we are essentially saying is that that is not necessarily the case."

The results of the team's analysis did seem to be telling them a different story. For instance, they report "significantly lower rates of deforestation" in many Congo concessions that lacked FMPs.

But several experts in the field who weren't involved with the research have questioned the study's interpretation of the data, as well as that of SFM itself.

"The fundamental flaw in this study is that . . . the authors equate the registry of a Forest Management Plan (FMP) with the government with SFM," Francis Putz, a professor of biology at the University of Florida who has worked extensively in tropical forest management for decades, said in an email to And they assume that as soon as a concession adopted an FMP, it also implemented the policies it contained, he added.

"Unfortunately, due to lack of governmental oversight and enforcement, and lack of worker capacity and supervision, most FMPs do little to change forest management practices," Putz said.

He conceded that "tropical forestry has a long way to go before it is environmentally sound and socially appropriate." But FMPs are only one part of the SFM puzzle.

For its part, the FAO cautions, "Where forest management plans exist, they are sometimes limited to ensuring the sustained production of wood, without paying attention to the many other products and services that forests offer."

Robert Nasi, the deputy director general for research with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), took issue with the interpretation "that forest management is about reducing deforestation."

The goals of SFM and related certification schemes such as those put forth by the Forestry Stewardship Council are in fact much broader, Nasi said.

"Certification is not about reducing deforestation," he added. "Certification is about better managing forests."

In fact, SFM often means intensifying timber harvests in one area to spare other areas—perhaps those with substantial carbon reserves or strongholds of biodiversity—from the effects of less-deliberate harvesting.

"If you don't want deforestation, you make a protected area, but not a logging concession," Nasi said. "Complaining about a logging concession cutting trees is a bit like complaining about the mining industry digging holes."

Still, Nasi pointed out that the concessions with FMPs in the Land Policy Use study were actually more efficient than those without.

"The thing that [the authors] forgot to look at is the deforestation relative to the timber produced," Nasi said. "If you look at that, in fact managed concessions are much more efficient at producing more and deforesting less per cubic meter produced."

To produce the same 1,000 cubic meters of timber, the concessions without FMPs that the researchers looked at deforested "roughly double" the amount of forest, Nasi said.

The author's findings also conflict with a 2008 study in neighboring Cameroon that examined the overall impacts of SFM. Nasi, who was a coauthor on the paper published in the journal Ecology and Society, said that their data "show that in fact that managed concessions have a lower intensity of harvesting and less damage to the forest than non-managed concessions and 35 concessions are better in this report," he said. "At the same time, these 35 concessions are much better in terms of the social welfare and the quality of life of the workers."

Agrawal, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, was hesitant to extend his team's findings—that deforestation increased on SFM-adherent concessions—beyond the borders of the Republic of Congo. "I'm not trying to say that this will always be the case," he said in an interview. "I'm just saying that for this particular country for this time period, this is what we find using the best available data and the best available analysis techniques."

And he said that these types of questions about whether policies are actually working aren't asked often enough.

"Until we actually start looking at and thinking about what do policies actually do—are they having long-term impacts?—we're trying to do things without really making a difference," Agrawal said.

Read More: Business, Corruption, Environment, Ethics, Globalization, Governance, Sustainability

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