Forest governance and big natural resource companies. Q&A with Charles Barber at WRI

Five (ish!) questions for Charles Barber, director, forest legality alliance and government relations, forests program, World Resources Institute1) First of all, what is forest governance all about?

Chip Barber

Governance in the forest context is usually taken to mean strengthening the rule of law (e.g., to eradicate illegal logging), decentralizing forest governance, clarifying land tenure, land use planning and allocation, improving the regulatory environment for investment in sustainable forest management, and improving the rules and conditions for people’s participation in forest decision-making and in community-based forest management.

It is much broader than “forest governance”, since many drivers of deforestation lie outside the forest or the forestry sector.

2) I keep hearing about landscape management taking over from conversations about HCV or HCS. How does that fit with forest governance? 

As noted above, the thing is that the fate of forests is largely controlled by forces outside of forest areas or the forest management sector itself.

And, forest fragmentation is a key problem for biodiversity and forest-based ecosystem services.

So a landscape approach takes into account both drivers external to the forest  (e.g., agriculture, infrastructure, mining, urban sprawl), and the need to ensure connectivity amongst forest areas through various kinds of biological “corridors”.

Connectivity becomes doubly important as climate changes, forcing species to adjust their ranges (e.g. moving north or south, or uphill).

3) Which companies do you see as those taking the most progressive, pro-active interest in forest or landscape governance? 

Not naming names but usually larger companies with the clout to influence their suppliers, and who have environmentally sensitive markets and shareholders, as in North America, Europe and Australia.
The importance of strident environmental advocacy, name-and-shame campaigns, and the tangible economic harm that these can bring is usually underestimated.

There is no such thing as “compassionate capitalism”, any more than there are “compassionate” grizzly bears or laptops, but  there are certainly compassionate capitalists operating on enlightened self-interest and/or their own moral and ethical compass.

We should applaud them – while holding them accountable for keeping true to their  commitments.

We need many more of them. They are not always large firms, though, there are plenty of small businesses driven by the ethical vision and environmental concern of their founders.

We need more of those too.

4) At our last deforestation conference in London in October, the big problem everyone agreed on is that of forest governance. How important in all this is the role of institutions such as functioning courts, effective policy and prosecutions and fair judges etc? What are the other key elements? 

Free press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to petition the government with grievances, equal protection before the law, transparency concerning information, restrictions on big money dominating political decision-making, personal liability of officials for wrong-doing in office, certainty of punishment for wrong-doing, fair and sufficient use of taxation power to finance government, decent public education, security against violence by the state or elites – it is a pretty well-established list.

Many companies have shown great leadership, but there are many things only states can do.

5) What’s the role of companies in helping improve governance via better institutions and government engagement, where is this headed? Doesn’t it blur boundaries between business and the role of the state? 

Companies can lead with standards higher than what the law requires, “raising the bar”, and can help implement higher standards in places where government institutions are weak.

Companies cannot ensure the things I listed under #4, States must do this.

The current focus on big companies’ commitments on deforestation is a bit over the top, not that those commitments are not welcome.

Companies need to  pressure governments to make such commitments legal obligations for ALL companies, including themselves.

If company X can sleep better at night (and get NGOs off its back) by greening its supply chain by not cutting down forests in Sumatra or the Amazon, that is good, but it in no way solves my problem, which is to ensure that no one cuts those forests down.

The role of business and the role of the state is so blurred that I think one just has to work with it. Legislatures and executives are studies in elite capture throughout the world, in both developed and developing countries.

FYI readers: I wrote a study on MNCs and insitutional capacity building about ten years ago. It’s at: http://www.slideshare.net/Tobiaswebb/corporations-institutions-and-better-governance

Charles Barber will be playing a key role in the debates and discussions at Innovation Forum’s upcoming conference below, where 180 key players in forestry and palm oil will meet with leading NGOs.

How Business Can Tackle Deforestation – 14th-15th April 2015 (Washington D.C.)

All the major brand players meet with the leading NGOs to debate progress. With: Wal-Mart, Staples, PepsiCo, Disney, Asia Pulp & Paper, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Domtar, Sime Darby, Canopy, TFT, International Paper, Hershey, 3M and many many others. Click here for more details.