Fragmentation of the International Forest Regime Complex
Land conversion of natural forest and other ecosystems into agricultural lands, built environment and urban settlements and the thereby caused terrestrial biodiversity loss are two of nine critical earth system processes that have a ‘tipping point’, which after being crossed could lead to abrupt, irreversible and catastrophic environmental change (Rockström et al., 2009). This tension has created an eternal battle between development and conservation efforts for land- use and scarce natural resources. The world has set itself ambitious global biodiversity conservation, climate change, global forest and zero-deforestation targets and formed a variety of international forest governance arrangements to ensure the protection of forests, building so a loosely tied international forest regime complex. Given that deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates, the obvious question arises:
Why has the current international forest regime complex been ineffective in tackling commodity-driven deforestation?
But first, let’s have a closer look at what this environmental problem actually is:
What is the problem? Commodity-driven deforestation: definition, impacts and drivers
Many actors in the international and transnational arena agree that deforestation is one of the key global environmental problems of our times, but its definition, measurement and framing wary considerably across actors, sectors and disciplines.
For example Hosonuma et al., (2012) define it as: ,,the (complete) removal of trees and the conversion from forest into other land uses such as agriculture, mining etc, with the assumption that forest vegetation is not expected to naturally regrow in that area.’’
WRI stresses the importance that deforestation is characterised by three main elements: human-caused, permanent removal/conversion of natural forest cover. By highlighting these elements the literature tries to distinguish deforestation from forest degradation, which denotes the thinning of the forest canopy, naturally-induced forest loss, like wildfire, and temporary degradation factors, where the forest is likely to regrow (Curtis et al., 2018).
Deforestation is often measured in forest area change in ha/year and it is estimated that between 2015–2020 10 million ha/year were deforested (FAO, 2020, p. 13). However measuring actual deforestation is tricky and many studies use tree cover loss as a proxy as it is more easily and consistently measured at global scale through GIS and satellite imagery.
WRI states: “Tree cover” can refer to trees in plantations as well as natural forests, and “tree cover loss” is the complete removal of tree canopy for any reason, including human-caused loss and natural events, it may be permanent or temporary; and we estimate that between 2015–2020 25.5 million ha/year tree cover was lost, of which a third is actual deforestation.
All these nuances cause the ambiguity in definition, measurement and framing making it more difficult to compare and coordinate across studies, actors and governance mechanisms.
There is not only ambiguity on how to define and measure deforestation, but also on what drives it. To identify the main direct drivers of deforestation and tree cover loss is quite context specific and varies largely across regions and climatic domains, but they main drivers of permanent forest loss are large scale commercial agriculture, mining, infrastructure development, urbanisation and subsistence agriculture and of temporary loss and degradation forestry and wildfire (Hosonuma et al., 2012). Curtis et al. ( 2018) find that 25–27% of global tree forest loss is caused by deforestation through permanent land-use change for commodity production and Hosonuma et al. (2012) find that 40% of global tropical deforestation is caused by large-scale commercial agriculture, both findings contribute to the predominant belief that permanent deforestation is primarily commodity-driven (see middle of the following infographic). But what is commodity-driven deforestation?
Curtis et al. ( 2018) define it as the long-term permanent conversion of forests to a non-forest land-use for commodity production, such as agriculture, mining, oil and gas production, some even include energy production in general and the for this purpose created infrastructure.
Therefore many actors that drive forest change to other land-use lie actually outside of the forest sector. As most commodity-driven deforestation happens in the tropics, the predominant international efforts and literature in concentrated in this climatic domain (FAO, 2020, p. 12,18,83). The main commodities associated with deforestation are: cattle/beef, soy, palm oil, minerals, rubber, timber and pulp. This deforestation is driven by several indirect drivers, the most important in my opinion in this context is the global demand, trade and supply of those commodities and the corresponding actors involved in it (Pendrill et al., 2019). It is hence indirectly driven by commodity supply-chains powered by multinational companies (see left side of infographic).
Deforestation causes many negative local, regional and global environmental and social effects(IPBES, 2019, pp. 11–14, 24–30; Seymour & Gibbs, 2019). An overview of them can be seen in the right side of the following infographic. If you want to know more, please watch the video on the right!
Commodity-driven deforestation can be classified as a local-cumulative problem. According to O’Neill (2009, p. 40), such environmental problems happen within and are mostly felt within national boarders but can have international drivers aggravated by globalisation and can lead to cumulative global effects. She argues that for such types of problems it is particularly difficult to form formal international treaties, firstly because nation states are reluctant to give up their sovereignty over natural resources and secondly because it affects and is directly driven by local actors who have no say at the international arena. Finally, I would add that forest issues are part of a complex socio-ecological system and are driven by cross-sectoral actors at multiple scales (local-global). Therefore its governance needs to reflect this too (Rayner et al., 2010, p. 34).
Who is part of the problem and its governance? — An actor analysis
But who is involved in causing the problem and who is trying to tackle it? The actors that are involve in causing the problem are those active along the commodity-supply chain, going from the local farmer worker to us, the final consumer, but the most powerful actors driving the problem can be seen in the infographic above: multinational commodity companies, traders and nation states promoting international commodity trade.
These actors with the help of others are trying to tackle deforestation by forming a variety of international and transnational forest governance arrangements (IFGA’s) and intervention mechanisms (Rayner et al., 2010, p.19–52, Sotirov et al., 2020). To better understand all the actors involved in causing and trying to tackle commodity-deforestation on a global level and how they relate to each other, I created an actor network:
The above network maps the diverse set of actors involved globally in the extraction, trade and consumption of forestry and agricultural commodities; actors involved in the conservation and restoration of forests and the institutional actors trying to regulate, govern and influence these supply chains and land-uses. The network includes actors that are traditionally tasked with global environmental governance like nation states and international intergovernmental environmental organisations, but also non-state actors that are gaining more and more importance in the global governance of forests and commodity trade, developing own transnational governance arrangements and intervention mechanisms (O’Neill (2009, p. 48–70, Bäckstrand et al., 2017 ). These actors have their particular interests, goals, mandates and missions, some of which can be complementary and some of which can be conflicting. Some are primarily fostering economic growth and international trade, others economic and social development, others human rights, food security and/or environmental conservation and climate action (Rodríguez et al., 2019).
The network shows the complexity of the environmental problem, the vast diversity of actors involved in it and the diverse interconnections between them, exemplifying so the complexity of governing the international forest regime. It highlights the importance of widening the scope of international environmental governance beyond nation states and a purely environmental lens and the need to include all the other types of actors and interests portrayed in the network. Besides demonstrating the vast diversity of actors, the graph also shows the vast diversity of proposed governance solutions to the environmental problem. It maps from purely national-driven solutions like the ITTO (multilateral agreement) to purely market-driven solutions like the FSC (commodity supply chain certification). The various attempts to connect and create collaboration between all types of actors in order to tackle deforestation can be seen by the enormous number and types of ties formed between them. This is even more apparent through the rise of the creation of a diverse set of multi-stakeholder partnerships depicted towards the centre of the network.
To have a closer interactive look at the actor analysis and its detailed description please follow the following link:
Actor Analysis Commodity-driven Deforestation
International and Transnational Governance of Forests & Commodity-driven Deforestation
Concluding, this actor analysis shows that the international forest regime is made up of a wide network of actors and institutions engaging not only with forest-focused issue areas, but also with forest-related and forest-relevant areas (Giessen, 2013, p. 62).
What are the governance arrangements and intervention mechanisms of the current international forest regime complex?
It is clear from this network that they are many proposed governance solutions, but that there is not one main international institution, for example like the UNFCC for the climate regime, tasked to internationally govern specifically forest issues. There is not a single state-centred legally binding international treaty focused exclusively on forests. In the 1990’s nation states tried and failed to negotiate a binding international forest convention and instead compromised by creating the UN Forum on Forests, an intergovernmental forum for non-binding discussions and target setting (Rayner, 2010, p. 10,40). This leads some literature to argue that there is no forest regime at all. The majority of the academic discourse however believes that the various loosely tied forest-related governance arrangements build an international forest regime complex. But what does that mean?
Keohane and Victor (2011) define a regime complex as a set of specialised sectoral and issue based regimes and other governance arrangements that are more or less loosely linked together, sometimes reinforcing each other but at other times overlapping and conflicting.
The international forest regime complex is made up of multiple indirectly forest-related international agreements and arrangements made up of a mix of soft (non-legally binding) and hard (legally-binding) hard law (Rayner, 2010). Therefore there are various international regimes from multiple policy areas addressing forests indirectly in multiple ways. They originate from multiple regimes and policy sectors in international relations like environment (climate change, biodiversity and wildlife conservation, ecosystem restoration/conservation), sustainable development, human rights (indigenous and peasants rights), food (food security), trade, industry (sustainable supply chains), agriculture and forestry (Rodríguez et al., 2019, p. 189). For example, the most important state-centred legally-binding cross-regime arrangements created are the ITTO (forest-trade) and REDD+ (forest-climate).
The failure of states to successfully negotiate a state-level international forest convention and the limited success of the ITTO (see next section), led environmental NGO’s (mainly WWF) to partner up with the private sector to foster the formation of non-state transnational bottom-up governance mechanisms like commodity certifications. With the rising public pressure on the corporate sector to become more sustainable, they developed own self-regulating sustainable supply chain initiatives, zero-deforestation goals and public-private partnerships. This leads to the development of various transnational governance arrangements that co-exist with the above mentioned international mechanisms. An overview of these can be found in the middle of the following infographic (Sotirov et al., 2020).
On the right-side of the same infographic you can see that these various governance arrangements also use a variety of policy mechanisms and intervention logics with which they try to influence domestic policy and corporate behaviour to engage in more forest-friendly ways. They use a variety of combinations of international hard-law rules, cross-sectoral policy integration, non-legally binding norms and discourses, global market mechanisms, and direct access through capacity building (Sotirov et al., 2020).
Besides looking at the global level where most international policies are negotiated, it is important to remember that they aim to be implemented and drive change at a local level. These levels are often disconnected in discourse and policy cooperation. The interplay however of various governance arrangements and mechanisms at multiple levels from various sectors finally enables or constrains local forest-friendly actions (see left-side of the infographic). Therefore, to the already described international regime complex, multi-level complexity is added through governance mechanisms at regional, national and local level. Changing policies at one level may have no positive effects if the other levels are not changed, highlighting the interdependence between them. The top-down influence of policies is often quite strong, but as previously stated inversely bottom-up feed-back and influence is often quite limited (Giller et al., 2008, p. 5). This multi-level institutional and policy interplay could be nested and synergic, but it could also be parallel, overlapping and in conflict with each other (Young, 2011 p. 19856; Alter & Meunier, 2009, p.15).
Concluding, this section highlights that the global forest regime complex is characterised by a set of cross-sectoral, cross-institutional, multi-scalar governance mechanisms that make this ‘complex’ complex, having a proliferation and diversity of arrangements, that overlap, interact, but are also interdependent (Alter & Meunier, 2009, Hollway, 2020).
Is the current international forestry regime complex ineffective? and why?
An institution’s or even a whole regime complex’s effectiveness is rely difficult to measure and decide upon as the discussion already starts on what effectiveness even means:
Young (2011, p. 19854) defines effectiveness as the extent to which regimes contribute to solving or mitigating the problems that motivate those people who create the regimes. Less ambitiously it is the outputs or regulations and infrastructure created to move a regime from paper to practice and outcomes or changes in the behaviour of actors relevant to the problem at hand.
The degree of effectiveness of an actor/regime is hence really difficult to assess, as it is difficult to know if a specific beneficial or negative impact is due to the work of a specific actor, and what would have happened alternatively in its absence. Counterfactuals in general are quite difficult to imagine. Additionally, as previously shown each actor and the whole regime complex itself is embedded and operates in a complex socio-ecological system in which a variety of other forces have an influence on any outcome. That is why judging a regime’s degree of effectiveness is a quite normative endeavour. However in my opinion, if we follow the simple quite ambitious definition of effectiveness and judge the forest regime complex as a whole based on the amount of commodity-driven deforestation taking place in the world and the ability of achieving its own targets, then it is arguable that it has been ineffective. The more interesting question is not if the regime complex is ineffective, but why. The following table provides some clues:
The main cause of the forest regime complex’s ineffectiveness is unknown and most probably it is a mixture of all of the above listed effects, which mutually reinforce each other given their interconnectedness. In the next two sections I would like to take a closer look on two of the previously mentioned potential causes of this ineffectiveness.
Does institutional design hinder? A case study of the ITTO
As previously stated, one potential reason for a regime’s ineffectiveness can be due to its institutional design in combination with nation states’ characteristics involved in commodity-driven deforestation. It can cause little real participation of its member’s in it and/or reduce the depth of the institution. To explore this argument, I had a closer look at the ITTO. I chose it because it is the most important legally-binding international treaty who’s mandate addresses commodity-driven deforestation the closest. I conducted an actor-side analysis based on Sprinz and Vaahtoranta’s (1994) framework and an institution-side analysis based on a combination of Koremenos et al. (2001) institutional design framework and Bernauer et al. (2013) framework on the depth vs. participation dilemma. Please have a look at the following video and learn more about the ITTO and its lack in participation and depth!
Is regime fragmentation the key driver of the the International Forest Regime Complex ineffectiveness?
The fact that a regime is to some degree complex doesn’t have to have per se negative consequences and lead to its ineffectiveness. Complexity could theoretically have positive feedback effects, increase cooperation and integration and finally the regime’s effectiveness (Alter & Meunier, 2009). Complexes can have the advantage of being more flexible across topics and sectors, adaptable over time and easier to from than an integrated legally-binding regime (Young, 2011, p. 19856). Complexes themselves can however have different degrees of integration, from being fully integrated to fragmented. But what is fragmentation?
Biernemann et al. (2009) define it as “a patchwork of international institutions that are different in their character (organisations, regimes, and implicit norms), their constituencies (public and private), their spatial scope (from bilateral to global), and their subject matter (from specific policy fields to universal concerns)”. The degree of fragmentation varies depending on the integration/fragmentation between institutions, norms and actors.
Giessen (2013) implies that the forest regime complex is naturally fragmented by design, as the concept aims to encompass all forest-related issues and policies. For Biernemann implicitly and more explicitly later for Giessen and Rodriguez et al. (2019), the question hence is not if and to what degree the regime is fragmented/integrated, but weather that fragmentation is synergic or conflictive. A high degree of fragmentation per se does not contribute to a regime’s ineffectiveness, but the degrees to which it is conflictive and/or synergic does.
In 2010 Rayner et al. had a quite positive outlook and thought that the rise of prominence of non-state actors in the forest regime would lead to more fragmentation, but would improve cooperation and synergetic interactions between state & non-state governance arrangements and erode national sovereignty. Unfortunately though Rodriguez et al. (2019) found that not to be the case. In their study they found that synergic relations are only found in vague and very high-level institutional elements of the regime complex with deliberate non-decisions, built around the empty vague concept of sustainable development. She finds that conflicting relationships are found as soon as the institutional elements become more concrete. They are not only found between the divergent interests of Global North vs. Global south Nation States, but also along transnational sectoral lines between (1) trade/agriculture/forestry vs. conservation (2) support of civil society vs. state actors and (3) credit systems for forest carbon sequestration vs. forest certification for sustainable management.
An overview of the main explanations found in the literature for the conflictive fragmentation of the international forest regime complex (Giessen, 2013) can be found in the following table. It is not clear though if these explanations are the cause or the consequences of conflictive fragmentation.
Is there a way forward? Is there a way to reduce conflictive fragmentation?
Based on Hall’s (2015) framework, in theory the creation of a legally-binging international treaty with the sole narrow supervisory mandate to address forests could reduce the conflictive fragmentation. However, Rayner et al. (2010, p. 93–110,137–147) strictly oppose this solution and argue that nation-states have already wasted enough time trying to negotiate a treaty-based top-down regime and that this would add just another ineffective layer of complexity. They suggest instead that complexity should be embraced and policies developed that coordinate and integrate coherently across multi-level and cross-sectoral governance to ensure more synergic relationships. Additionally, they see the key need to coordinate incremental policy improvements in to the same progressive direction instead of proposing grand new concepts like sustainable development or the new emerging concept of regeneration. As at the beginning stated, deforestation is a local-cumulative problem and any solution to it needs to be designed considering the local context, therefore no unique global solution is possible but many local solutions need to be integrated and orchestrated. Additionally, Sotirov et al. (2019) state that we need to accept that in forest-related issues win-win solutions are rarely possible, but that there is a need to coordinate trade-offs between forest conservation, economic development and social equity. In other words, they are both implicitly proposing the need to transform an existing actor or create a new one that takes the mandate of becoming the international forest regime complex orchestrator.
The problem remains however, going back to Giessen and Rodriguez work, that the actors within the forest regime complex benefit from the current fragmentation as they can utilise specific elements of it for their own interests. For that reason they are more pessimistic that any type of synergic integration — be it top-down centralised or bottom-up decentralised and orchestrated — will occur.