How forests are governed and managed across the globe has formed the backbone of Prof. Bas Arts research interests for the past twenty years. Here, he reflects on governance schemes that seed and bloom to change established practices in forest decline.  

Often, as a European, you forget how cold it can be in Africa. Yet, the chill set in as I travelled with colleagues to a small village in the northern mountainous part of Tanzania, in 2010. It was a journey over red sandy roads that slowly, but surely, climbed into the mountains to reach houses surrounded by both trees and clouds. 

Several members of the village forest committee arrived for a group interview, and we decided to decamp to the nearby forest, which is managed jointly by the committee and the district forest department in a Participatory Forest Management (PFM) initiative. Despite the freezing temperatures our spirits were high and the participants were very involved, as this interview was an ‘on-site’ event. The villagers told us about an increase in the forest cover since the start of PFM about 15 years ago, together with more reliable water springs, the growth of more grasses (fodder!), the reintroduction of some lost tree species (for example African teak), less soil erosion on forested slopes, and an increase of wildlife, particularly monkeys and leopards. 

Over time, some of these perceptions, particularly relating to the change in forest cover, would be further validated with GIS data. Where forest cover was declining in the 1990s, a time series of satellite images revealed an annual increase in forest cover of 0.3% since 2000, following the introduction of PFM.

View of the landscape in Ngorongoro National Park, Tanzania. Picture credits: Gina Maffey

All over the world, many PFM initiatives, like the one highlighted in Tanzania, positively impact both forests and people. In my most recent assessment, based on international datasets, I estimate that across the globe approximately 600 million ha of forested areas are managed with participatory initiatives, which is about 15% of the world’s forests. Although these schemes are not a silver bullet for forest conservation, there are definitive merits associated with them. In a systematic review of relevant and available scientific literature, my master’s student, Erica Di Girolami (2019) demonstrated that around three-quarters of PFM initiatives identified, demonstrate more or less positive impacts on forests, including avoiding deforestation, increasing the diversity of both flora and fauna, and enhancing forest ecosystem services.

Vervet monkey is a common inhabitant of Acacia woodlands in Tanzania. Picture credits: Gina Maffey

PFM is just one example of a scheme to improve the use, management, and conservation of forests. In Forest Governance: Hydra or Chloris, I also assess others, and collectively, these schemes reach about 35% of the world’s forests – roughly 1.4 billion hectares. Of those schemes that have been scientifically assessed, approximately half of these provided some beneficial impact for forests and/or local communities. But, should we consider this 50% a glass half full, or a glass-half-empty situation?

Here, it is a question of interpretation and I have to introduce our metaphorical forest governance characters, the Hydra and the Chloris. Hydra is the multi-headed, serpent-like beast that Hercules has to fight to complete his twelve labours in Greek mythology. Every time he chops off a head, it regrows double and continues attacking him. The Hydra metaphor refers to the difficulty of transforming old state forestry bureaucracies into new, more effective, and legitimate governance arrangements. Hence, forest policies and governance initiatives remain absent, weak, or symbolic at best, and activities such as deforestation and illegal logging just continue. 

In contrast, Chloris – the Goddess of flowers in Greek mythology – is used to sketch an opposite, more optimistic picture of forest governance. ‘Let a thousand flowers grow’, several of which will definitely bloom; encapsulating the idea that some of the multiple forest governance initiatives do indeed have a positive impact on the ground. 

An infographic showcasing a two-world universe of forest governance. Picture credits: Gina Maffey

Consequently, we can view forest governance as a ‘two-world universe’ in which both the Hydra and the Chloris persist. In a time when deforestation, illegal logging, forest fires, and climate change dominate headlines, for me, it was rewarding to be able to reflect on twenty years in the field and see that the glass can also be viewed as being half full. The challenge now is for the sector to acknowledge and amplify those schemes that have been successful, while also recognizing the importance of local context – as the village forest committee so clearly showed us in the cloud-covered forests of the Tanzanian mountains. 

Professor Bas Arts, from the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, investigates how international policy affects the local management, sustainable use, and conservation of forests around the globe. Forest Governance: Hydra or Chloris, explores this complex socio-ecological system, as part of the Cambridge Element, Earth System Governance series.