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We need to align the different interests related to forests to regulate conflicts and maximise synergies – interview with Georg Winkel

This interview is part of the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series with key experts in forest governance. It was developed in the context of the NewGo! project which aims to provide scientific knowledge on lessons learned from initiatives related to zero deforestation, forest restoration, and sustainable forest finance. The project sets the ground for the EFI Governance Programme.

Tell us a bit about who you are.

Georg Winkel during the Clearing House project co-design workshop in Gelsenkirchen. Credit: Rosa Casteñeda/EFI

I’m the head of the EFI Governance Programme in Bonn. I come from a family where nature and environment are very important, so I ended up studying forestry in University, which I really liked. When I graduated, my first real-life professional assignment was an exciting one: to produce a report together with my professor for the German government on close-to-nature forestry practices in Germany.

The report became the centre of a political controversy  around the question “how to balance nature conservation and forest use?” I understood that there were important interests and cultural questions behind the ways of thinking about what is good for forests, and that was when my interest for forest governance really started:to understand these debates and conflicts and also possible solutions.

What is forest governance?

For me, forest governance is about aligning the many different interests on forests in a way that allows for  unpacking and regulating conflicts, but also exploring the maximum synergies. So it is essentially about organising the society-forest interface in the best possible way.


Why is governance needed? 

Timber logs in Kottenforest, Bonn, Germany. Credit: Rosa Casteñeda/EFI

Governance is needed because not everyone agrees on what to do with our forests.  Take the Amazon forest as an example. There are many global researchers and people that really want to protect it for climate and for biodiversity. There are also local people living in the forest who want to make a living  by cutting the trees and having subsistence agriculture.Then there are big investors, and possibly also the Brazilian government, that want to develop the land. So, there are many people that have interests in the Amazon and we need to find ways of how to deal with these conflicting interests. That’s why we need forest governance..The Amazon is a prominent example, but it’s basically the same for all forests on our planet, except for those that are not populated by humans and that also are not the subject of interest for any person . But there not many of those forests left.


What makes governance “good”?

It’s all but an easy question. On the one hand, good governance succeeds to take all the perspectives and demands of people that depend on the forest into account. On the other hand,  it needs to come up with a solution, a regulation of  conflicts, a concrete idea how to govern and to manage the forest as efficiently as possible. If this tension between inclusivness and efficiency is nicely resolved, I think this is for me good governance.


How can it achieve the well-being of both the forests concerned and the communities depending upon them?  

People enjoy biking in the Kottenforst, Bonn, Germany. Credit: Rosa Casteñeda/EFI

This is really not an easy question because there are some fundamental tradeoffs.  There are more and more people on the planet. This means that there is a higher demand and need for forest related products but also, importantly, agricultural products. And again, the idea is to  be transparent about these different demands and  align them with each other to be also able to sustain environmental goods like forests and forest biodiversity.  At EFI we have a strong interest in integrated forest management. At first it may not seem like a governance concept, but it’s mainly centred exactly around this this idea to integrate very different demands of forests  in a forest landscape and  in forest management.


How should governance function?  

For me, there is a challenge to really take different perspectives into account.  For instance, in Europe, originally there was a strong expert-driven approach to forest policy because there was an assumption that experts that have been educated at forestry universities would know best. But I think we have moved beyond this approach and now acknowledge the need for pluralistic societies composed of experts, citizens, and communities  to really account for  different perspectives.But at the same time, there is a challenge in this approach to make effective decisions in regards to conflicting interests. I think a really helpful way of doing this is ensuring transparency  in the process of determining priorities and making decisions. So, if people are aware of why decisions are taken, they are more willing to endorse them.


Where is governance most needed? 

Governance is needed everywhere. I think it is important to realise this because currently, there is a lot of focus on global forest governance on tropical forests. Tropical forests are of course important because they are under high pressures in terms of deforestation and are the biodiversity hotspots on the planet, and they contain the most the remaining and primary old-growth forests. But at the same time, different interests and demands of forests are to found everywhere. So really, “good” forest governance is needed in the tropics as well as within Europe. And moreover, in a globalised world, we need governance between continents and regions.


What are the challenges with governance today in the light of what you said in the previous question? 

This is a good question. In governance theory, we distinguish between different modes of governance. And two or three of them are most important: markets, rules/law,  and participation. And I think the biggest challenge is to bring these together, so markets   are needed because they are effectively organizing our economic world or societies. At the same time, markets can be blind to many environmental questions and issues, so the challenge for forest governance is to ensure that we have functioning markets for forest products and forest ecosystem services,  but also to ensure  functioning policies compensating for the blindness of the markets.

Looking at the role of investment, it is crucially important to ensure that investments are sustainable and that policies are in place that guarantee that  in the end forests are not destroyed. Either because they are economically so valuable that sustainable use is the better option, or in the other way because they are not available for unsustainable exploitation via regulation. The uncontrolled market will like continue transforming them into agriculture. So to organize this interplay between markets, participation, and regulation is the abstract challenge in forest governance.


What are the positive changes that you have seen happening in the context of forest governance?  

There’s a lot that has happened on the on the ‘soft side’. There is much more awareness about the different societal needs and environmental importance of forests.  

In many countries, there is also more transparency, and more data on forests, their value and forestry. This can create complication but it also serves as a basis for encouraging the involvement of different people. There are many interesting developments between sectors. For example, in the NewGo! project, we’re working on zero deforestation initiatives that address the big economic players in order to create a link between agriculture and forestry to tackle deforestation. By doing this, it is possible to create progress that could not be achieved within a narrow forest policy silo. The mentioned sustainable finance is also important there. Here you try ensure that people that want to invest their money in a sustainable way have a guarantee that their money is not causing harm to forests. These are really interesting processes and developments and they represent exciting opportunities for further progress, although this is only a small part of the developments around forest governance.


Please provide an example of a success story/case study.

Forest in Odenthal. Credit: Rosa Casteñeda/EFI

There was a process that developed from the Global forest policy arena, called National Forest Programmes. The idea behind this was was that in different countries around the world, a new policy style would be tested in a way that governments would not plan “alone” forest policy anymore. Instead, they would involve all the relevant civil society stakeholders, industry, and environmental groups to work towards collaborative decision making, initially meant to focus particularly on the tropical “Global South”. The response from these countries was however that if this approach is meant to be implemented in the Global South, it should also be taken up in “Northern” countries. So when I started working on forest policy and governance, Germany started this process as well. This was an interesting process because in Germany we have a strong tradition to trust in our professional experts from our long-developed forest sector. But suddenly, the approach was to open-up and give a platform for other groups which took part over a longer period. This was really challenging because the different groups had to learn how to effectively communicate with each other, how to accept the different arguments. In the end, this resulted in some really interesting discussion and outputs that helped guide better understanding and diversity of viewpoints.

Although this was viewed largely as a success-story, it was also viewed quite critically by some because the implementation of this process remained open, in Germany as for other National Forest Programs in other countries. There were often good national negotiations, but how to translate these negotiations into practical forest management measures was sometimes missed. But nevertheless – National Forest Programmes established, in many countries, a new mode of elaborating on, and developing forest policy that left a substantial legacy in the way how forest policy is and can be made. For that reason I see them as a success story, even though not a full success in all regards.


Anything else to add?

I would like to say that the great thing about forest governance is that it is at the very heart of what is critical for the future of forests – the human-forest relationship. If you want to conserve forests for the future, and if you want to ensure sustainable management, it is absolutely critical that you start with society and ensure societal acceptance and understanding of forests conservation and management.

This topic is what we try to tackle at EFI: determining societal needs of forests, understanding policy dynamics, as well as cultures and interests to ultimately develop suggestions of how to regulate societal needs and processes. Working at an international organisation such as EFI, it is clear that depending on where you are on the planet, there are very different views on the management of forests, but at the same time, you see the same controversies. To find similar patterns in different context can be the starting point for international research, and can, finally, incentivise policy learning across countries to resolve shared challenges. This is what we work on now, and even more we hope in the future.


Ewa Hermanowicz would like to thank all the people who were involved in the publication of this series: Lyla o’Brien for editing, Gabriela Rueda for social media promotion, Rosa Casteñeda for multimedia production, Rina Tsubaki for media angles, Yitagesu Tekle for the overall concept and choice of interviewees.

Read the other interviews of the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series:

Community participation makes for better forest governance in Ethiopia – interview with Tefera Mengistu

Stakeholder participation in forest governance is key for sustainable forest management – interview with Eva Müller

Curbing forest loss with and for the local communities in Uganda – interview with Rose Kobusinge

Involving and remunerating local communities to save the Amazon – Interview with Johan Wittkamper

Projects in Sub-Saharan Africa provide evidence of a successful circular bioeconomy – interview with Darren Lapp

Visit the NewGo! project website


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