Insights in academia: Mapping the fragmentation of the international forest regime complex

International forest policy is framed by a myriad of different elements that go well beyond the environmental domain. A systematic analysis of the international forest regime has the potential to reveal new synergies and conflicts among this wide variety of elements.

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Photo: Joao Araujo Pinto

When I started studying forestry, there were several things I thought I’d never do. One of them was searching for books on international relations in the library. Another was paging through policy analysis manuals. Yet, once the field of forest policy drew my attention, it was only a matter of time until I found myself a frequent visitor in the international relations and policy sections of the library, immersed in fields of knowledge I never even knew existed just a few years before.

As a forest engineer, I had a lot to learn in those areas. I started finding out about some surprising facts, such as the non-existence of an “official” international definition of forests. I also discovered that international law is often referred to as “soft law”. Soft law means that even though it can be heavily influential in many aspects, there are no law enforcement mechanisms, at least, not in the same way as countries enforce the compliance of their domestic laws. I also learned that there is no global convention on forests, unlike with the highly visible topic of climate change. The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement are doubtless names we have all heard at some point; these are mechanisms that are meant to fulfil the goals of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted in 1992.

This lack of a global forest convention, however, does not mean that forests are not high on the political agenda. They are, and, in fact, the United Nations created the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) with the formal mandate to “develop a legal framework on all types of forests.” In other words, to create a global convention on forests. Even though this has not yet been achieved, there are many forest-related treaties, agreements, protocols, and more at the international level. They are very influential in domestic forest policies, and thus, in the state of the world’s forests. Together, these diverse elements are what we have come to call “International Forest Regime Complex.”

In light of this varied body of international agreements, protocols, conventions and programmes that influence forest governance, one central question arises: what exactly are the elements that are part of this International Forest Regime Complex? It was my supervisor at the University of Göttingen, Lukas Giessen, who first posed this question to me, and by accepting the challenge of answering the question, I started, without really being aware of it, my first journey in the world of academia.

We were not the first ones asking ourselves this question, and there had been many past studies on the subject (Downes, 1999; Humphreys, 2006; McDemott et al., 2010; Holmgreen; 2010 …). However, we were the first ones attempting to answer this question in a systematic way, developing a specific methodology to approach the topic. The reasoning behind this approach was intentional: we were driven by a motivation to explore domains beyond the environmental one.

As you might imagine, there are countless agreements, treaties, guidelines and conventions – all of which we decided to consider under the term “institutional element” – that are in some way related to forests. It was clear that we needed to draw the line somewhere. To be included in our list, an element needed to meet three main requirements:

  1. It had to be relevant enough at the international level.
  2. It had to be relevant enough for forests.
  3. It had to be open for all countries to adopt (e.g. Not regional or bilateral agreements were considered)

With these three red lines drawn, we faced the challenge of how to ensure the elements we found complied with all three criteria. Here is where our newly designed “UNFF-method” came into play. The UNFF, as explained before, is the most important UN institution on forests, and it has the mandate of developing a global framework convention for forests. For us, this meant two things: that any treaty, convention, declaration, guideline, consensus or programme that had ever been discussed in any of the UNFF sessions would be (a) relevant enough at the international level, as it had been discussed in the world’s most important forum on forests; and (b) relevant enough for forests, for the exact same reason. By following this logic, any element mentioned in the UNFF sessions fulfils our first two conditions.

To apply our UNFF-method, we then went through the complete minutes of every UNFF session and identified all elements discussed in the meetings. Having already complied with our first two requirements, if the element checked out for requisite number three, we added it to our list. Once we finished, this list was 41 elements long. We could not help it but to smile to ourselves. We had found almost twice as many elements as the previous studies. That was a notable increment. And its significance aligned with our initial hypothesis: that there is more to the forest than just the environment. There is obviously climate, and biodiversity, and forest management… but there is also trade and human rights; gender and land tenure.


Figure 1: Map of all the elements forming part of the IFRC. Source: Rodríguez Fernández-Blanco et al. 2019

This finding led us to question ourselves and ask how do all these elements interplay? Do they reinforce each other, or do they conflict with each other? We looked into their goals, and what we found was hardly surprising. The more concretely an element described its goals, the more conflictive it was with other elements. It is, in fact, not uncommon in international politics to find “empty formulas” – that is, vague formulations of policies, which are extraordinarily effective in achieving consensus (E.g. “sustainability” or “multifunctional forest utilisation”). The result of this is that we did not find many conflicts, especially considering the number of elements we were evaluating.

I have to admit, I was sceptical about these results. What was the use of these institutional elements, if they needed to be worded in an ambiguous way in order to be widely adopted by countries? On the other hand, through conversations with fellow colleagues, I realised that even though I could not see it yet, there had to be something to it if countries were spending that much energy, time and resources to have the final texts worded in a satisfactory way.

As the first systematic review of the multiple dimensions of the International Forest Regime Complex, this research has revealed key insights about elements that influence forest policy. However, there is still room for deeper study. Since we have only analysed the written documents, the question remains: how do all these elements interplay in the real world? If we really want to know how this International Forest Regime Complex unfolds, research should move from the desk to the field, and analyse not only what it says on paper, but study the effects that these policies are having in the forests of the world.

Read the full paper:
Rodríguez Fernández-Blanco, C., Burns, S.L. & Giessen, L. 2019. Mapping the fragmentation of the international forest regime complex: institutional elements, conflicts and synergies. Int Environ Agreements 19: 187. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-019-09434-x