Geography Essays - Tropical Forest Management

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The sustainability of tropical forest management shouldimprove with democratization.

Discuss the pros and cons of this statement, say whether youagree with it, and support your argument with both theoretical reasons andempirical evidence from South East Asia.

Streams clogged with silt,hillsides reduced to a landscape of blackened stumps, visible life absent savea few new shoots starting the reclamation of the land - this is deforestation.From Brunei to the UK, regardless of government type and economic status, theharvesting of the natural environment for economic gain is a major activity formany nations. Deforestation has been happening for thousands of years andonly now are human societies beginning to recognize the impacts of theiractions and take steps to mediate the effects.

Sustainability is a conceptcentral to the changing perception of how humans view their impact on theworld. With the popularization of environmental issues that began in the 1960swith Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, people began to examine thetrue effects of humans on the planet. In 1992 at the Nations Conference onEnvironment and Development the world's nations adopted Agenda 21 which is aprogramme designed to deal with environmental issues while maintaining economicand social development. Sustainability is recognized as a goal for human developmentthough creating a sustainable world has proved difficult.

The majority of deforestationoccurs in tropical areas where the potential damage to biodiversity and theglobal biosphere is the greatest. The tropical forests of the world are hometo many unique species of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to theirarea. The removal of their habitat is cataclysmic and in many cases leads tooutright extinction. Humans value these species for their intrinsic worth butalso as valuable sources of medicines, new chemical compounds and othercommercial uses. The loss of a species means loss of any potential gain humansmay have been able to derive from its existence.

The cause of the deforestation isnot singular but complex and is driven by many proximate and underlying causes(Geist & Lambin, 2001). A major force for deforestation is land conversionto agriculture where forests are removed to make way for crop land and grazingfields for cattle. Commercial logging also plays a major role in deforestation.Links are also often drawn between poverty and deforestation as impoverishedpeople of course place their own needs above the preservation of theenvironment. Other underlying causes include population pressures, educationlevel and the range of economic alternatives to deforestation available.

In South East Asia the annualrate of deforestation is the highest in the world with more than 1.9 millionhectares, constituting 1.6% of the forested area, being removed each year(Pearce & Barbier, 2000). The area typically identified as SE Asia (Brunei,Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines,Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) contains a variety of government systemsincluding communist, constitutional sultanate, constitutional monarchies,military junta and democracies (Central Intelligence Agency, 2005). Toattribute the high rate of deforestation to a certain style of government iswrong and subordinates the underlying complexities of the true forces drivingdeforestation.

To answer the question of whetherthe sustainability of tropical forest management would improve withdemocratization one must examine whether democracy actually does lead tosustainability of forest management and whether governmental systems do not.An examination of tropical deforestation in South and Latin America revealsthat tropical forests in this area of the world are being removed at a scale dwarfsthe hectareage being removed in of SE Asia (Pearce & Barbier, 2000). Thesenations are all democratic and the deforestation occurring in these countriesis massive. It seems that democracy does not bring sustainability of forestmanagement though no other political system seems to either.

An examination of a nations whichhave tropical forests and yet low rates of deforestation results in the notionthat the economic factors are more important that the political systems when itcomes to tropical forest management. Cuba and Costa Rica both have worldrenowned conservation policies and have been successful in finding a compromisebetween socio-economic development and natural resource conservation. WhileCosta Rica is Latin America's oldest democracy and is famously peaceful, Cubais a communist dictatorship established in the 1950s and has been involved inconflict for its entire existence. Neither nation is a world leader in GDP norstandards of living yet both nations have tropical forests preserved and havesustainability as a major pillar of their government policies.

The key to conservation in thesetwo nations seems to be economics. Tourism is the major industry in bothnations and ecotourism is a major facet of this. Economic incentives, notgovernance structures, seem to be a significant factor in tropical forestconservation and sustainable management styles. Thailand, the Philippines andVietnam all count tourism as a major industry and governments in these nationsare all taking steps to preserve the environment and cultivate ecotourism.

Though democracy may not lead toforest sustainability it may be the best political vehicle for achieving thisobjective. Democracy is flexible and can respond to the will of the peoplewhile authoritarian regimes are inflexible and will act regardless of publicwill. Cuba is an exceptional nation as it is communist yet verysustainable-oriented as most other communist nations show little regard toenvironmental issues. While Western Europe and North America were recognizingenvironmental damage as an important issue in the 1970s and 1980s, the USSRcontinued to exploit the environment to the point of ruin. Democracy is notwithout flaws however and if the people of the society do not recognizeenvironmental issues as important then the government is not likely to respondto the threats identified by experts.

The evaluation of democracy as avehicle for achieving sustainable forestry practices raises some questionsabout the role of government in protecting the citizens versus being directedby the will of the citizens. Would a democracy be justified in over-riding thewills of the people to respond to a threat not immediately apparent to themajority of voters? Environmental issues are long term affairs and thebenefits often not readily apparent so people are often unwilling to sacrificeshort term socio-economic gains for longer term seemingly intangible benefitsfor their descendants. Can a democratic government institute economic reformswithout a popular mandate? If such a thing was to happen then the governmentwould quickly be ushered out of office and a government that responded to thewills of the citizens would be elected. It seems that without popular supportfrom citizens the proverbial hands of the government to act on environmentalissues such as sustainability are highly restricted.

A monarch, military junta orcommunist nation's government faces no such dilemma and can act without fear ofreproachment from the populous. However unless the authoritarian leaders aresustainability-oriented or recognize the seriousness of the environmentalcrisis then there is little hope for policy change. In this facet Cuba as agreen communist country serves as an example of the possibilities but fewauthoritarian states act on environmental issues unless forced by economicreality. The centralized power structure is superior to the decentralized onein terms of pushing through socio-economic reforms necessary to achievesustainability. However the fatal fault lies in the fact that in such systemsit is entirely up to the minority who rule to choose to follow such a path.

If we are to assume thatdemocracy is the best political system for implementing policies whichcontribute to the environmental sustainability of the state, the question then becomeswhether democracy can actually provide the necessary framework needed to movetoward sustainability. Democratic societies have shown no inherent qualitythat results in environmental issues being addressed but democratic nations doimplement polices to address environmental issues. The key seems to lie in thewill of the people. By a raising environmental awareness of the people, thegovernment should then respond to public pressure in favour of policy reformand legislate in favour of environmentally sustainable policies.

However, as discussed previously, benefits from respondingto environmental crises are usually not monetary in nature. Democracies arebuilt on the notion of individualism and self-interest with the peoplesupporting the government which supports their long-term interest. If themajority of the population do not see a gain to be made from the economicsacrifices they will have to make to fund environmental policies then they areunlikely to support a government that gives them little return. Since thegovernment itself is amoral, it is up to the morality of the people to chooseto sacrifice in favour of gains for decendants. In today's society one seemsdemocratic societies such as the UK and USA that do have environmentallyeducated individuals and do make moves to become more sustainable yet stillhave much work to do before the environmental crisis is mitigated. The globaleconomy is fuelled by consumption, for which goods are provided from naturalresources, and it is a moral choice to reduce consumption and therefore reduceenvironmental damage.

In Pearce and Barbier's (2000) book Blueprint for a SustainableEconomy the notion of market-based instruments in environmental policy isdiscussed favourably. These type of incentives would include taxes paid forsocial costs to environmental damage and subsidies to assist change toenvironmental standards as well as tradeable permits and compensatoryincentives to facilitate technology transfer. A reflection of this theory isseen the Kyoto Protocol's carbon trading scheme and the Global EnvironmentalFund. While these and other schemes and agreements help facilitate change, thedestruction of the biosphere continues.

Deforestation in the Phillipinesreached such a level that a total ban on logging was declared in 2004 after aflooding disaster which killed 100 people. The Phillipines was a majorexporter of wood throughout the 1960s and 1970s but now due to the ban andrestrictions on forest activity the Phillipines are now a net importer of wood(Guiang, 2001). Deforestation continues today as illegal loggers still operateas the government lacks the resources to enforce the ban. The recognization ofthe need for regulating the timber industry came about after a return todemocratization from military rule. The previous regime allowed widespreadlogging and gave permits based on patronage, ignoring sustainability issues(Guiang, 2001). Thailand and Vietnam have also imposed bans on loggingnatural forests. Neither nation is a democracy.

Though the majority of nations inSE Asia lack comprehensive and reputable forest inventories, almost alldeveloped strategic forest management plans in the 1990s. Key aspects of allthe plans are sustainability and management practices based on conservation andresponsible exploitation (Brown & Durst, 2003). However the 2003 FAOreport on the conditions of forestry in Asia note:

The glaringdeficiency is that the existing laws do not address all the main issues. Thusthe legislation does not adequately support the policy. As legislation is themost important tool in translating policy statements into action, if properlaws are not implemented or enacted, it is unlikely that the policy objectivescan ever be achieved.

Brown &Durst, 2003

This statement serves to qualifythat while the governments of Asia, democratic or otherwise, may be attemptingto assuage the effects of deforestation they still have a long way to go. Thisdualism is not restricted to SE Asia, it is common worldwide in every continentand in all types of government. Enforcement costs money and environmental lawsdo not typically result in an immediate economic advantage. A democraticgovernment is able to put in place inventive schemes to assist the populous andother nations move toward sustainability but cannot do so without support ofthe voters.

Democractization does not lead tosustainable practices in forestry or any other arena. The current alternativesto democracy may allow a move to sustainable developments but it is completelydependent on the person or persons in power. Improvement in environmentalpractice seems to be only possible through the will and moral sensibilities people.Education is vital to make this objective possible and even then the trade ofsocio-economic benefits for environmental ones must become more even forindividual citizens to rationalize such a change. Whether this will everhappen or whether democracy based on self-interest can ever achieve the reformsnecessary to become sustainable is unclear. It seems that democracy may not bean ideal method for sustainability but it the best available.


Pearce, D & Barbier, E. 2000, Blueprint for aSustainable Economy. Earthscan, 2000.

Geist, H. J & Lambin, E. F. 2001. What drivestropical deforestation? University of Louvain, Belgium, 2001.

Central Intelligence Agency, 2005. CIA World Factbook.Avaiable from <>.Last accessed April 10th, 2005.

Guiang, Ernesto S. 2001. Impacts andeffectiveness of logging bans in natural forests: Phillipines - InForests Out of Bounds: Impacts and Effectiveness of Logging BansinNaturalForests in Asia-Pacific. Eds Durst, P.B., Waggener, T. R. Enters, T andCheng, T.L. FAO, Thailand

Brown, C & Durst, P.B, 2003. State of forestry inAsia and the Pacific 2003: Status, changes and trends. Asia PacificForestry Commission. FAO, Thailand.