In Other Words

How to Do Good in the Forest

Development and Change, January 2000, The Hague In the mid-1980s, concern over tropical deforestation swept through the international conservation and development community. That concern ignited a movement to reform the World Bank, which was financing the resettlement of poor farmers from densely populated islands to the Indonesian rain forest, as well as road-building into the ...

Development and Change, January 2000, The Hague

In the mid-1980s, concern over tropical deforestation swept through the international conservation and development community. That concern ignited a movement to reform the World Bank, which was financing the resettlement of poor farmers from densely populated islands to the Indonesian rain forest, as well as road-building into the Brazilian Amazon. Fifteen years later, a new generation of critics is planning protests for the World Bank/International Monetary Fund annual meetings in Prague this September while the bank is wrapping up a two-year review of its policy and strategy related to forests.

A special issue of Development and Change, published out of The Hague by the Institute of Social Studies, brings together a timely and sobering collection of articles on the fate of forests at the end of the twentieth century.

It turns out to be difficult even to understand the nature of deforestation dynamics, much less intervene responsibly to influence them. University of Sussex anthropologist Melissa Leach and James Fairhead of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies challenge widely accepted statistics that purport to show that West Africa has lost more than two thirds of its "original" forest cover over the last 100 years, figures that have generated significant flows of foreign aid for reforestation efforts. The authors offer evidence to support what many villagers have claimed for years — that some local communities have actually increased forested area through local land management. These accounts run counter to the prevailing assumptions of international conservation agencies, and to the interests of government forestry agencies, which have derived revenue from their control of forestland since the colonial era.

Several articles describe the sometimes uneasy alliances linking forest-dependent communities and international environmental advocates. Katrina Brown and Sergio Rosendo, both of the University of East Anglia, discuss groups of Brazilian Amazon rubber tappers, isolated forest communities whose extraction of rubber and other forest products for subsistence is seen by many as "sustainable." Rubber tappers have used their image as defenders of the forest to gain support from conservation groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, while those same conservation groups have used their support for rubber tappers to legitimize their involvement in local struggles over land rights. The authors find that the alliance has empowered the rubber tappers politically: Environmental groups facilitated the participation of rubber tappers in the planning of a subsequent World Bank project. But difficulty establishing marketing networks for rain-forest products and lack of management experience keep rubber tappers from doing any better than just scraping by.

A broader alliance of multilateral institutions and conservation groups is being tested in Indonesia, where the World Bank has attempted to transform itself into an agent of forest-policy reform in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis. However, as articles by Murdoch University’s John F. McCarthy and Yale University’s Emily E. Harwell explain, in the eyes of reformers, the credibility of the World Bank and the broader donor community is compromised by its legacy of support for the Suharto regime’s socially and ecologically destructive forest-management policies.

Harwell also provides a fascinating analysis of the implications of using high-tech Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map the forest fires that ravaged Indonesia in 1997 and 1998. GIS is a computerized tool that enables analysts to map geographical data, often obtained by "remote sensing" methods such as satellite photos. According to Harwell, GIS became "the lingua franca in which competing discourses of disaster addressed each other." As a result, the perspectives of the communities most affected by the fires were overlooked by international media coverage as well as by Association of Southeast Asian Nations and donor agencies. At the same time, however, GIS technology enabled Indonesian nongovernmental organizations to prove that the vast majority of fires originated from commercial plantations rather than from subsistence farmers, whom the government blamed for the disaster.

The articles in this collection suggest that international actors can have significant influence on the domestic political economy of forests, and that the threshold of understanding necessary to intervene and "do no harm" is daunting. But many of the contributors cautiously acknowledge the potential for international actors such as the World Bank to "do good." The protesters in Prague, however, are unlikely to recognize that potential until the bank and institutions like it compile a better track record of promoting the interests of forests and the people who live in them.

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