Local communities can help preserve the world's forests.

Electrified fence surrounding Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary: keeping people out and wildlife in. Photo credit: Sajid Pareeth. From Ostrom and Nagendra 2006 ©National Academy of Sciences, USA

For more than a century, the world’s forests have been under siege—by the timber industry, by the wild mushroom and maple syrup industries, by agricultural development, and even by millions of indigenous people living at the forests’ borders. Disappearing forests mean disappearing habitats for thousands of species.

Ecologists say the loss is especially tragic in the face of our planet’s recent warming. Trees act as natural air conditioners: Warm tree leaves release water, the water evaporates, and the atmosphere cools. What’s more, today’s tropical forests store half a century of global carbon emissions in their trunks.

“Forests have a tremendous amount of biodiversity, both biologically and culturally,” said tropical forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad of The Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. “The health of the planet depends on these ecosystems. So the question of how you keep them standing is quite critical.”

The question was famously addressed in 1968, when ecologist Garrett Hardin published an essay in Science titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin’s basic premise was that when individuals equally share a natural resource—“the commons”—the benefit one person gains from exploiting the resource far outweighs his share of the cost of his exploitation. Therefore, nobody has an incentive to limit his or her use of the commons, and this freedom “brings ruin to all.”

And Hardin’s solution—to impose strict government or private ownership on natural resources—has greatly influenced world conservation policy ever since.

“[That essay] started this huge presumption that we’ve got to nationalize all of the natural resources in many parts of the world,” said Indiana University political economist Elinor Ostrom. “And unfortunately, many politicians and policy makers love the idea that they’re saviors.”

But new research using remote satellite images and computer behavioral simulations is challenging Hardin’s assumptions. Ostrom and others are now calling not for strict ownership with inflexible rules, but instead for “sustainable harvesting” of forests that allows local communities to be a meaningful part of the rule-making process.

“I like to hope that people will get rid of the idea that there’s a simple, single solution,” Ostrom said. “Some people say private ownership is the solution; others say it’s government ownership,” she said. “But every forest is unique. So you can’t have a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Today, about 10 percent of the world’s forests have been corralled into “protected” areas, which are mostly controlled by the government and are partially funded by large, international nonprofits. Some scientists are skeptical of these donor-driven groups, because they say the groups have similar “people-free park” strategies for all protected areas, regardless of local ecology or politics.

“When you’re dependent on donors and memberships, you have to always show how much better you are than other groups,” Nepstad said, referring to conservation nonprofits. “It fosters what is sometimes an unwholesome control over the conservation process itself.”

Some government-controlled, “protected” parks are great success stories. Tikal National Park in Guatemala, for instance, contains archaeological ruins from the Mayan Civilization that make it a popular tourist attraction, which means lots of tourist dollars.

“Given enough money and fences and guns and tanks and all the rest, you can protect a lot,” Ostrom said, “but it’s very expensive.”

This funding is rare, she said, especially in developing countries, and too often “protected” parks are actually “paper parks,” protected in name only.

Women harvest thatch grass from within the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, while the forest ranger accompanying Ostrom’s research team looks on helplessly. Photo credit: Harini Nagendra. From Ostrom and Nagendra 2006 ©National Academy of Sciences, USA

In the photo above, for example, two indigenous women carry thatch grass illegally out of central India’s Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve while two men look on.

“One of the men is a guard, but he’s just kind of helpless,” Ostrom explained. “There’s nothing he can do, because he doesn’t have backup, doesn’t have a vehicle. He just watches.”

The indigenous people who harvest illegally depend on the forest for food and shelter. “In some instances, they have been the forest’s stewards for centuries, and have taken good care of it,” Ostrom said. “Then these government regulations are suddenly imposed on them.”

To see how changing management policies affect forest conservation, Ostrom recently compared satellite images from as early as 1972 of several of the world’s forests. Her results were published online on Nov. 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ostrom found that designating a forest as “protected” doesn’t necessarily mean it will be preserved. A more influential factor in preventing a forest’s degradation, she said, is ensuring that local communities take whatever rules are implemented seriously.

Ostrom’s own field studies have demonstrated that letting communities design their own rules “gives them a sense of ownership and gives them incentive to follow the rules because they can keep some of the benefits.”

But this goes against traditional game theory, which says—as Hardin did four decades ago—that locally evolved management arrangements ultimately destroy a finite resource.

To find out what social pressures influence people to make decisions for the collective good of a group, Ostrom tested college students in computer-simulated communities and analyzed the way they distributed resources.

At the beginning of each simulation, participants were given a certain number of virtual tokens and asked to choose between investing them in an individual, small payoff strategy, or a group strategy where—if everybody followed the rules—an individual could potentially reap much larger rewards. 

These results, published in the same PNAS paper, matched what Ostrom observed in the field: When given face-to-face opportunities to create joint strategies, participants were much more likely to follow the rules than when they played the game without first meeting with other participants. The group that discussed strategy together received much bigger payoffs as a whole.

“It’s just the same in some real communities,” she said. “When they’re isolated, and don’t have an external authority like a police force, they talk it through, face-to-face.”

The key to sustainable forest management, Nepstad said, is getting community members to realize the costs of degradation. This is especially difficult, he said, because in most parts of the world, cleared land is worth more than forested land.

For instance, many farmers in South America think that soybeans are about to go up in price, Nepstad said, and want to clear forests to plant the crops, even though the land isn’t suitable for cultivation.

Nepstad suggests taking advantage of these natural market pressures “to force the whole supply chain to do good stewardship in the production areas.” He suggests that experts help farmers grow soybeans and sugarcane in suitable land to prevent them from clearing forests. 

“We actually know a great deal about how to govern natural resources,” said Michigan State University human ecologist Tom Dietz, who’s been studying forest conservation policy for decades. “The problem is that we don’t employ what we know when designing policies.”

One of the most important things to remember, Dietz said, is that policies should always be flexible.

Every successful environmental governing structure, Dietz said, “involves some degree of incentives, regulation, and community involvement. The exact mix varies with ecological circumstances, history, and how well the people involved trust each other.”

“Humans have a range of [behavioral] capabilities that are far greater than we presumed,” Ostrom said. “The question for policy makers now is how to build more effective institutions to build on those capabilities, rather than leaving the people out of the equation.”

Originally published December 4, 2006


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