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Sustainable forest management in a changing world


Don Gilmour*


1.      Factors driving recent policy changes


Focus on sustainable development

The term "sustainable development" is often interpreted in different ways depending on the perceptions of different interest groups. As used in this paper, it refers to the definition given in Caring for the Earth:


"... improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.".


There is a clear intention in this definition of explicitly bringing together both the human well being and biophysical components which are often implicit in discussions of sustainable development.


Forest management authorities have responded to the global focus on sustainable development by embracing a significant shift in forest policy from one which emphasised sustainable harvesting of dominant products, primarily wood fibre, to one which emphasises stewardship of a complex, valuable natural resource system yielding a broad mix of goods and services.



The globalisation of the world economy (in particular the opening up of national economies to international market forces) has created changed economic circumstances that have necessitated changes to the institutional arrangements for resource management. Structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been major influences driving these changes in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. However, the same imperative is affecting other countries through the related drive for economic rationalisation.


Most countries are going through policy reform processes and there are some common themes in the direction that these are taking. Governments are down-sizing (reducing the size of their bureaucracies) and decentralising forest management decision-making to lower levels and (in many cases) devolving responsibility (and sometimes authority) to various elements of civil society such as NGOs and local communities.


Rights of indigenous and local communities

There is a growing recognition world-wide of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in regard to their involvement in decision-making about managing natural resources over which they exercise some claim. This is particularly the case in situations where indigenous (and other) communities are living in and around forests and using forest resources for subsistence purposes or for generating cash income. Past government actions that nationalised forests frequently disenfranchised these people and put them "outside" the law. The rights of indigenous (and other) local communities are being increasingly recognised in national policy debates.


2.      Practical responses to policy changes to achieve sustainable forest management

One result of the changing policy focus outlined above is that management is becoming more sophisticated (and challenging) as managers try to balance multiple objectives and work with multiple stakeholders.



Collaborative management

Governments around the world have adopted various forms of participatory natural resource management during the past few decades in an attempt to engage with a wide range of stakeholders. In some countries the approaches have become wide spread and have been incorporated into national policy and translated into large-scale field programmes.


The phrase "collaborative management" is becoming increasingly popular as a generic description of a range of approaches involving some form of collaboration between government and other stakeholders, particularly those groups whose livelihoods are intimately linked with the resource. Fisher (1995) has suggested that collaborative approaches to resource management involve recognition of:


·         the need to integrate conservation and development;

·         the legitimacy of the rights of local people to secure their economic future; and

·         the value of seeking the active involvement of local people in environmental care and management.


Collaborative management of forests refers to[1]:


·         the arrangements for management which are negotiated by multiple stakeholders and based on a set of rights and privileges (tenurial arrangements[2]) that are recognised by the government and widely accepted by resource users; and,

·         the process for sharing power among stakeholders to make decisions and exercise control over resource use.


So, collaborative management is something that is done by multiple stakeholders. This feature alone represents a major difference to more conventional forms of management where one party retains sole responsibility for decision-making and other stakeholders remain at the periphery.


Commonly, the approach to management is tied to tenure, which defines the bundle and allocation of rights and privileges to use the resource (Fisher, 1995). In general terms, various tenure systems can be grouped into the four categories of state, private, communal, and open-access property. Of course, the recognition of tenure depends on who you are. The state may not recognise some private or communal rights that are accepted by local resource users, and conversely, local users may not respect some claims of ownership made by the state through its various government bodies. At various times, new claims emerge or old ones are questioned. When disputes about rights and privileges exist, management is problematic because there will be a lack of confidence in whether decisions made by either party will be agreed to or followed.


Collaborative management implies that government and resource users agree about tenure, thus providing a foundation of confidence and legitimacy for management. If disagreements arise, collaboration implies that there will be a willingness to resolve differences and an effort to negotiate an acceptable tenure arrangement. Whether it is active or passive, the hand of government is usually present in some way in collaborative management systems, even if it is restricted to approving the allocation of rights and privileges for using and managing the resource.





Fisher, R.J. (1995) Collaborative management of forests for conservation and development. Issues in Forest Conservation. IUCN and WWF, Gland, Switzerland.


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  Wellington Point, Queensland 4160



[1] This definition excludes situations where local users are managing natural resources which are claimed under state-ownership, without having prior government approval. Such systems, referred to as “indigenous or traditional” management systems, are often effective and involve a lot of collaboration among users. However, the definition used here seeks to include only those collaborative arrangements that are legitimised and strengthened by government recognition. It should be stressed that identifying indigenous management systems and building upon their strengths are critical steps towards establishing management systems that do have government approval.

[2] The tenurial arrangements are not necessarily formal ones—they can be ad hoc or tacit.