Archive 2002


The riddle of when rules and rights conserve forests

(January 5, 2002)

Some places have dense populations and strong economic incentives to destroy forests yet somehow protect them. Meanwhile, forests are vanishing fast in other areas with much less population pressure and weaker market forces driving forest loss. The strength of the public and private institutions that manage the forests largely explains these apparently contradictory outcomes.

Simply saying that, however, does not help much unless we can figure out how to promote strong institutions. Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues at the Center for Institutions, Population and Environmental Change at Indiana University have contributed more to understanding why effective institutions emerge at the local level than just about anyone else. 'An Institutional Approach to the Study of Forest Resources' prepared by Amy Poteete and Elinor Ostrom for the Center for International Forestry Research adds new insights based partly on recent studies in Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Uganda, and the United States.

Poteete and Ostrom focus on situations where government agencies lack the capacity to regulate the use of threatened forests and ask under what circumstances we can expect local community groups to do so. They find that this is more likely where:

  • Government agencies do not undermine local efforts to monitor forest use, sanction abuses, and resolve conflicts.
  • Local groups perceive forests as important and that the benefits from protecting them outweigh the costs. (In some cases it may be possible to change these perceptions by providing additional insights or information. In other cases it may actually not be in local people's interest to try to regulate forest use.)
  • The groups have previous organizational experience and share a common understanding of what is happening in the forest.
  • The forests are small enough to easily monitor.
  • The political system empowers groups within communities that favor sustainable forest management, rather than those that have strong vested interests in unsustainable activities.

Sometimes it helps to have smaller and more homogeneous groups. At other times large groups involving various types of people work better. Giving communities greater control over their forest resources does not guarantee they will use them wisely. Nonetheless in many instances local groups do manage forests sustainably. We need to find ways to encourage that. People like Poteete and Ostrom have a lot to teach us.

The Forest Policy Experts (POLEX) electronic listserver was established as a free service of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in July 1997. Previous POLEX messages can be found at the CIFOR website: