Is the answer to reduced deforestation and forest degradation in improving coordination or enabling contestation?Political contestation determines land use outcomes far more than coordination, shows CIFOR research project on multilevel governance. Environmental social scientist Ashwin Ravikumar discusses his views based on this research.
Over the past few years, my research colleagues and I have frequently heard that the failure of sectors such as mining, forestry, environment, and agriculture to “coordinate” with each other is a major barrier to reducing deforestation and forest degradation in a just and equitable way. From international forums like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (UNFCCC COP), and the Global Landscapes Forum event that has taken place alongside it since 2013, to conversations at the local level, we’ve continually heard panelists, scholars, and activists emphasize concerns over “lack of coordination” among sectors and levels.
But is “lack of coordination” really the underlying barrier to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation? Or is it likely to be a symptom of more fundamentally divergent interests between diverse actors? My social science colleagues and I have suspected the latter for some time. It seemed to us that the widespread discourse framing “lack of coordination” between different sectors as an underlying challenge is problematic because it obscures genuine historical and ongoing political contestations, suggesting that different actors have compatible objectives, and if they would merely “coordinate,” their objectives could be achieved.
But actors have radically different and mutually incompatible objectives; An oil palm company in is unlikely to have similar objectives as a large international conservation NGO. And each of these actors is likely to find alliances in the government, perhaps in the agricultural and environmental ministries respectively, that can support their distinct agendas.
Our findings from ongoing research show, that political contestation between divergent interests determines land use outcomes far more than coordination. While coordination between multiple levels and sectors is often lacking, we found many examples of highly effective multi-level and multi-sector coordination. In Indonesia for example, the lack of coordination in land use planning between different government offices is often blamed for the difficulties in controlling oil palm expansion. But in fact, establishing and expanding oil palm plantations requires a highly coordinated effort between various national government agencies, provincial and district governments, the private sector and even community leaders. So diverse is the group of actors that must work together to facilitate oil palm proliferation in Indonesia, our research shows, that it is is hard to imagine a better example of multi-level and multi-sector coordination. But this type of coordination does not foster environmentally sustainable or socially just outcomes.
Similarly in Peru, oil palm companies have been quite agile in shopping for favorable forums within the government that might help them establish or expand plantations – generally speaking, agricultural offices, however the environmental offices do not play a role in regulating or approving oil palm plantations. In this case, it’s not the coordination that is missing but adequate environmental laws and regulations that would place a stronger role for the environmental offices. Over the past decades, laws have been negotiated that preclude local people, environmental groups, and indigenous organizations from participating in decision-making around land use in some of these cases at all. In other words, the oil palm cases that we studied in Peru and also Indonesia did feature tremendous coordination among multiple levels and sectors, but lacked meaningful avenues for political contestation by those who stood to lose from oil palm’s expansion.
Political contestation has proven to be critical in supporting local livelihoods, improving tenure rights or promoting environmental interests. In Indonesia, some local community leaders and NGOs have lobbied district governments to improve tenure rights for the communities. When realized, this policy change has enabled communities to exclude outsiders (including oil palm companies), conserve forests and maintain ecosystem services.
Historically, contestation, collective action and political organization have played a great role in shaping environmentally sustainable and socially just outcomes, such as formation of protected areas and the establishment of laws that allow for their sustainable management by environmental authorities, NGOs, or local communities on co-management. Especially in Latin America and parts of Asia, coalitions for local peoples’ land rights and environmental conservation have used tactics including public demonstration, organized policy lobbying, international appeals, and other forms of collective action to demand the institutional reforms that make conservation possible today.
Anthropologists, social scientists, and critical scholars of development have long argued that deforestation and environmental degradation more broadly is a political, not a technical, problem and that political problems require political solutions. Personally, when reading these arguments, I was never clear on what “political solutions” really were and what alternatives were in fact being suggested by these scholars. Our current research has helped to give some answers. Political solutions include organized coalitions of actors working together to lobby for legislation that privileges the environment and local people over extractive industries, such as protected areas and indigenous land tenure laws. They are electoral campaigns to center conservation, land tenure, or labor rights over agricultural intensification, as we saw in the Peruvian region of San Martin or the Indonesian district of Ketapang. And they are popular movements that demand that laws be uniformly applied and justly enforced, as we saw in indigenous movements around the world. All of these ‘political strategies’ involve political contestation, and they engender meaningful future contestations by those who would support conservation and local peoples’ land rights.
Moving forward, international development agencies, researchers, activists, and non-governmental organizations of political organization, lobbying and contest, and not assume that mere coordination is a solution to persistent socio-environmental problems.
Ashwin Ravikumar is an Environmental Social Scientist at the Field Museum, where he supports the Museum’s work in Latin America in the Amazon, empowering local people to improve their well-being through conservation. Previously he worked as Post-doc at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Lima, Peru. Ashwin's research interests include politics of land use change, local peoples’ land rights and tenure, and how these issues relate to deforestation and climate change. He also sees social science as playing an important role not only in policy-making, but in political organizing and action.
This blog is informed by CIFOR research on multilevel governance and data collected from interviews with local and national civil servants, NGO employees and leaders, indigenous communities, and activists associated with 54 distinct cases of land use change in 5 countries.
Further reading on multilevel governance