Tropical Forest Gain and Interactions amongst Agents of Forest Change

Sean Sloan
2016 Forests  
The tropical deforestation literature advocates multi-agent enquiry in recognition that key dynamics arise from inter-agent interactions. Studies of tropical forest-cover gain have lagged in this respect. This article explores the roles and key aspects of interactions shaping natural forest regeneration and active reforestation in Eastern Panama since 1990. It employs household surveys of agricultural landholders, interviews with community forest-restoration organisations, archival analysis of
more » ... chival analysis of plantation reforestation interests, satellite image analysis of forest-cover change, and the consideration of State reforestation policies. Forest-cover gain reflected a convergence of interests and land-use trends amongst agents. Low social and economic costs of sustained interaction and organisation enabled extensive forest-cover gain, but low transaction costs did not. Corporate plantation reforestation rose to the fore of regional forest-cover gain via opportunistic land sales by ranchers and economic subsidies indicative of a State preference for autonomous, self-organising forest-cover gain. This reforestation follows a recent history of neoliberal frontier development in which State-backed loggers and ranchers similarly displaced agriculturalists. Community institutions, long neglected by the State, struggled to coordinate landholders and so effected far less forest-cover gain. National and international commitments to tropical forest restoration risk being similarly characterised as ineffective by a predominance of industrial plantation reforestation without greater State support for community forest management. Forests 2016, 7, 55 2 of 23 Forest-transition theory presents a leading theoretical framework of tropical forest gain [20] that has largely neglected the role of interactions within landscapes undergoing forest-cover gain. Accounts of tropical forest-cover gain are typically reduced to aggregate tallies of forest change coincident with large-scale economic change [3, 6] . Interactions underlying forest-cover gain in turn are generally presented as abstract core-periphery interactions treating the peripheral zone of forest-cover gain as a single entity, e.g., migrations of smallholders from rural peripheries to economic centres [21,22]; regional transitions from rural agricultural to urban wage employment [3]; or industrial reforestation in rural peripheries following demand from economic centres [23, 24] . Accordingly, this framework emphasises the removal of landholders from the landscape while overlooking the fact that different agents therein control and (re)use lands differently [25] so that, depending on their interactions, they effectively negotiate, and even retard or reverse, the apparent forest-cover gain spurred by wider changes [26] . In neglecting this agency of forest-cover gain, aggregate accounts remain uncomfortably superficial, selective, and poorly differentiated from each other [20, 27] . An alternative theoretical framework of forest-cover gain emphasises shifts in the distribution land-use/cover "rent" and similarly neglects interactions within landscapes [28, 29] . Effectively, this framework orders a gradation of land use/covers ranging from intensive agriculture to semi-forested ranching to extensively managed forests concentrically in terms of market proximity, with each land-use/cover having the greatest rent in a given concentric zone. Forest-cover gain is envisaged as occurring when the concentric zones shift inwards towards the market, with outer zones partially overtaking inner-zones, typically as the result of either increased demand for ecological services (increasing the rent of outer forested zones) or agricultural intensification in inner zones (reducing the rent of middle agricultural zones) [28, 30, 31] . Crucially, rent as well as opportunity costs are treated as inherently private to the landholder and interactions effecting land-use/cover choice as intangible teleconnections communicated via the market. The fidelity of this framework declines upon allowing for non-market interactions and related institutions (e.g., land tenure, land-use norms), which have significant mediating effects, including on how or whether rent may be captured. In relatively settled contexts, for example, well established local institutions may spatially invert the concentric zones of forest and agricultural cover [32, 33] while, in relatively peripheral regions, the unchecked pursuit of rents generates the very economic externalities that stimulate countervailing institutions [34] . In Panama, forest-cover gain has concentrated in the so-called relative periphery where agricultural land-use rents are higher than elsewhere [3], while in absolutely peripheral contexts, such as the agricultural margins, the role of rent in land-cover change is discounted by weak markets and institutions, uncertain potential rents, and risk aversion [35] [36] [37] [38] . The literature on multiple-use forest management and conservation (MUFMC) offers richer insights on how tropical forest-cover gain may reflect multi-agent, multi-scalar interactions. Following conservationists' championing of state entities [39], communities [40,41], and smallholders [42] individually over recent decades, MUFMC has found its greatest efficacy in hierarchical networks of agents with diverse, complementary motives that need not explicitly pursue conservation per se [43, 44] , e.g., community institutions, agricultural collectives, NGOs. Effectively "comparative advantages" amongst agents plug the institutional and economic "gaps" through which typically more powerful forces for deforestation and forest degradation might gain traction. Parallels with tropical forest-cover gain are evident: the persistence and expansion of new forest cover may similarly entail interactions deflecting agricultural forces from re-clearing reforested lands [18, 26] . To date, such interactions have been studied largely in contexts of mature tropical forest management so it is uncertain whether interactions promoting forest-cover gain would be comparably explicit and purposeful or rather inadvertent and serendipitous, given the lesser economic and ecological value of secondary forests. The onset of a forest transition has however been asserted as a fundamental criterion for successful interactions insofar as it precipitates a re-evaluation of forests' multiple goods and services, as well as a reconfiguration of specialised and general-use forests in the landscape [45] (pp. 1473-1474). Other key criteria for successful interactions are low transaction costs, the active involvement of the public sector, Forests 2016, 7, 55 3 of 23 secure land tenure and land devolution for collective institutions, and equitably-shared benefits [45, 46] , though again their applicability to forest-cover gain remains untested. This article describes forest-cover gain in Eastern Panama as outcomes of interactions between landholders, community institutions, commercial plantation entities, and the State. A conceptual framework is presented highlighting key factors unifying sets of interactions according to their effect on the facility and geography of forest-cover gain. The framework underscores the organisational costs of retaining new forest cover, the degree of State support, and the distribution of the benefits forest-cover gain as key factors shaping interactions and in turn the extent and nature of forest-cover gain. The case study suggests that interactions leading to large-scale plantation reforestation have certain advantages in these respects and that, in the absence of greater State support for community forest management, plantation reforestation may predominate within numerous multi-lateral forest restoration initiatives, such as The Bonn Challenge [47] , The 20x20 Initiative [48, 49] , The New York Declaration [50] , and the Sustainable Development Goals [51] . The following section discusses the study context and methods. Section 3 discusses interactions amongst agents of forest change. Section 4 concludes by synthesising observations and drawing implications for multi-lateral tropical forest-cover restoration initiatives. Throughout this article, regeneration refers to natural forest succession and reforestation to tree planting, excluding home gardens, which are rare in the study context. Forest-cover gain refers to the localised expansion of forest cover due to either of these processes.
doi:10.3390/f7030055 fatcat:jef33fmfgjf3tnsdwwsfld7gwy