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Ecotopia emerging: sustainable forests and healthy livelihoods go hand in hand

Political scientist Arun Agrawal’s research sheds light on the connection between forest health and people’s livelihoods

“To all brothers and sisters who hold the dream in their hearts of a future world in which humans and all other beings live in harmony and mutual support – a world of sustainability, stability, and confidence,” began Ernest Callenbach in an essay found on his computer shortly after he died in 2012. “In the next decades, we shall see whether we indeed possess the intelligence, the strength, and the mutual courage to break through to another positive era.”

Callenbach’s 1975 utopian novel Ecotopia became wildly popular among environmental-leaning folks, hippies, and progressive thinkers of the day. Set in 1999, the novel took place twenty years after Oregon, Washington and northern California seceded from the union to form an imperfect, in-process sustainable nation. Journalist William Weston becomes the first American journalist allowed in Ecotopia, where he documents what he learns in newspaper columns and records personal insights in private journals.

A woman collects leaf litter in sacks from the forest. At each IFRI site, researchers collect data, such as this leaf litter, from up to 30 plots in each forest being studied. Photo credit: University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE)’s International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Network.

The rebels founded Ecotopia on the ideals that human health and livelihoods can coexist with nature – in other words, sustainable development –which the real-world 1987 Brundtland Report defined as the ability to “[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Ecotopia embraced the “radical decentralization” of government, allowing each state, city and region to craft its own policies, though as a whole, the nation favored renewable energy, recycling, communal ownership of farms and forests, and a laissez-faire economic policy that relied on people’s intrinsic motivations towards sustainability rather than regulation or coercion. Differences were worked out through debate, political discourse, and if needed, courts.

After a lifetime watching the world change, in his 82 years Callenbach had learned some lessons – themes he both used in the novel he wrote decades earlier and had seen manifest in the world since then. “The people who do best at basic survival tasks (we know this experimentally, as well as intuitively) are cooperative, good at teamwork, often altruistic, mindful of the common good,” he wrote in his last essay. “In every way we can, we need to help each other, and our children, learn to be cooperative rather than competitive; to be helpful rather than hurtful; to look out for the communities of which we are a part, and on which we ultimately depend.”

For a book that has fallen mostly off the radar, outside of a smattering of college classes and small-scale environmental movements, certain aspects of Ecotopian society fall remarkably in line with research by Economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (described in the previous piece, Tipping the Scale), and more recently the work of Arun Agrawal, a scholar who studied under Ostrom. A professor of political science at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment, Agrawal has spent his career teasing out factors that allow people’s livelihoods to coexist with sustainable forests.

Arun Agrawal and Elisabeth Gerber on a field trip in Himachal Pradesh, which tested how various interventions affect people’s motivations towards conserving forests. Photo credit: Ashwini Chhatre.

Although Agrawal does not count Ecotopia among his influences, Callenbach’s writing seems almost prophetic, considering how closely some details of his fictional society align with principles confirmed by the academic research of Ostrom, as well as Agrawal and his colleagues.

Scientists demarcating forest plots in the field as part of an International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) project. Economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom founded IFRI in the mid-1990s. Photo credit: University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE)’s International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Network.

Ostrom had found that trust was the key to getting people to cooperate in order to sustainably manage forests, irrigation systems, fisheries and other “common pool resources.” While Callenbach created a fictional steady-state world where people adopted communal use of forests, Ostrom and Agrawal have scientifically researched how, when and where such systems not only exist, but have endured in the real world.

Most of the cases Agrawal and Ostrom found where sustainable forests and communities successfully coexist involve local, and indigenous people who communally manage a forest’s resources, rather than heavily engineered or technological projects, or those involving centralized management by a national government. Callenbach’s Ecotopians deliberately returned to simpler lifestyles using nature-derived technologies, often from wood products, comparable to the sustainable social-ecological systems Agrawal has found in developing nations, with local people deriving part of their livelihoods from forests.

In Ecotopia, American journalist Weston mocks such a system in the new nation: “Certainly the Ecotopian lumber industry has one practice that must seem barbarian to its customers: the unlucky person or group wishing to build a timber structure must first arrange to go out to a forest camp and do ‘forest service’ – a period of labor during which, according to the theory, they are supposed to contribute enough to the growth of new trees to replace the wood they are about to consume.”

Yet this is precisely the kind of system that Ostrom found to work in the real world. For example, in Nepal people cooperatively managed very simple, low-cost irrigation systems, and had developed their own system of sanctioning people who “stole” water.

Not everyone agrees that such traditional “peasant” systems are always ideal, including University of Illinois geography professor Ashwini Chhatre, a regular collaborator of Agrawal’s. “Almost 20 years ago, a film-maker approached me for help with filming community-based systems for protecting drinking water sources in Himalayan villages. Her main argument was that these systems were representative of harmony between humans and nature,” he says. “I told her I will support these traditional systems when men begin to carry water pots uphill on their heads. Until that burden is shared equally between men and women (or equitably; the men could wash dishes instead), I will happily let these systems die and spend my efforts advocating for piped water supply into each household.”

Ashwini Chhatre chats with an NGO worker in Himachal Pradesh, while working on the motivation project. Preliminary findings suggest that if a person receives only private goods (a chicken, a goat, for example) or information, they often shift from environmental to economic motivations. Therefore, once a project withdraws, the original intrinsic motivation to save forest that many people have naturally has been removed. Photo credit: Pushpendra Rana.

Ecotopian society did embrace equality between men and women, as well as ethnic equality, but such ideals have not come to pass in developing nations struggling with poverty and lower education levels (or, for that matter, in most developed nations).

“I must also tell you that I am not an environmentalist,” Chhatre adds. “I like tigers and feel they should exist. But I will happily let the tiger go extinct if in a pseudo-Faustian bargain, no human will ever be hungry (metaphorically, of course). It is when neither the tigers nor the people are cared for that is unacceptable. I don’t think Lin [Ostrom] disagreed with my position.”

Ecotopians incorporated social costs into the technology and work systems they created, unlike the modern economy, where pollution, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and other harms are “externalities” passed to society, rather than to the companies or governments causing the problems. In a dialogue with Weston, the Assistant Minister of Food explains, “Our system is considerably cheaper than yours if we add in all the costs. Many of your costs are ignored, or passed on through subterfuge to posterity or the general public.”

Tradeoffs versus Synergy

In a world facing a global climate change crisis, the loss of tropical forests, and marginalization of forest-dependent people, it seems almost self-evident that lifting people out of poverty and saving ecosystems is, in economic lingo, a “zero sum game,” a tradeoff: one wins, one loses. “Accusations regarding a lack of synergy between conservation and other social goals such as poverty alleviation, disease eradication, economic growth, and social equity have been advanced by many different scholars,” Agrawal writes in a 2009 paper.

For example, as development organizations reduce poverty and improve public health, people’s consumption of resources grows, requiring more land for agriculture, more wood, more meat, more “stuff.” On the other hand, saving ecosystems often harms the people who formerly relied on them for survival. Creating national parks to save ecosystems often goes hand in hand with removing indigenous people from their historic lands and stripping local peoples’ rights to harvest forest products such as medicinal plants, honey, bush meat, vines, or firewood. National protected areas usually cost much more than communally managed forest, requiring a “guns and fences” approach to keep out interlopers, and more often than not harm local people’s livelihoods. For the sake of conservation, tens of millions have been displaced, and conservation-minded folk justify the policies by saying that without preserving ecosystems and the services they provide us – healthy air, water, soil and climate – humanity cannot thrive.

Agrawal has spent his career teasing out which factors allow people’s livelihoods to coexist with sustainable forests. Here, community members sit down for discussion. Photo credit: University of Michigan IFRI Network.

“A lot of people think that poor people degrade resources, but if you don’t think that, if you don’t have a conventional economic view that people consume everything that they can, then it’s not so counterintuitive,” says Agrawal in an interview. This view that people will always over-use and destroy resources in the natural world was embodied in Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” but Ostrom’s research showed that when people cooperate, communicate, and build trust, “the commons” can be sustainably managed.

“Decentralized” Conservation and Forest Management

Since the 1970s, the trend to decentralize forest and farm management that happened in Ecotopia through Callenbach’s vision has become reality in many of the world’s developing nations as governments have passed more authority to regional and local governments, a phenomenon influenced by Ostrom’s research. Instead of having a national forest managed by the federal government, ownership or management would get passed down to regional or local authorities, or sometimes, local citizens. Allowing locals to make and modify the rules of forest use is key to having sustainable forests and better livelihoods; local rule-making is one of Ostrom’s 8 design principles.

“Decentralized resource management in the developing world has been called ‘the most significant … most distinctive and [most] visible shift in national environmental policies since the late 1980s’,” Agrawal and colleagues wrote in a 2010 Science policy forum article. While governments still own and manage the majority of the world’s forests, more than 200 million hectares of forests have come under communal management since the 1980s; today, around 25% of tropical forests are communally managed in some form or fashion. Many nations have embraced decentralized conservation policies, including Bolivia, Peru, Uganda, Rwanda, among others.

IFRI projects not only include data collection from forest plots but also information gathered from local community members about their use of the local forest. Here, a group of locals gather at the Jyalachitti IFRI Site in Nepal, circa 2008. Photo credit: University of Michigan IFRI Network.

Why the shift? Decentralization provides a more democratic governance structure, allowing local people to participate in decisions that affect their daily lives, including minority groups. “People have the chance to make their own decisions, and are most likely to have resources be managed sustainably – that’s one of the justifications for decentralization,” explains Catherine Tucker, IU Professor of Anthropology. “The other is to save money for big government and make people pay for it. Why do you think so many governments decentralized so quickly? They didn’t have to carry those costs.”

Sometimes, though, decentralization has meant that local governments or “elites” with money capture power rather than allowing locals to democratically participate. Also, most national governments retain ownership of high-value forests and ecosystems – ones with high value for ecosystem services like watersheds, or ones with charismatic megafauna that rake in big tourism dollars.

Additionally, some political leaders may ‘talk the talk but not walk the walk.’ “Central governments may resist [decentralization], particularly where existing political relationships are undemocratic and public authority is maintained through various forms of social coercion,” Agrawal and colleagues write in the journal Oryx. “As a result, central governments tend to resist actual devolution of control over forests, even while often rhetorically espousing local participation.”

Will REDD+ Reverse Global Trends Towards Democratic Governance?

The REDD+ (reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) mechanism to combat climate change finally received approval by member governments of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in November 2013. Under REDD+, developed nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or donors compensate for greenhouse gas emissions by paying developing nations to protect and sustainably manage forests – ones that might otherwise go under the chopping block for agriculture, timber, or other development. REDD+ is considered a key emissions reduction strategy by the UN, with 12-17% of annual emissions coming from deforestation, primarily in the tropics. More than $4.5 billion has already been pledged toward REDD+ projects.

Even with the shift towards decentralization, national governments retain ownership of high-value forests and ecosystems – ones with high value for ecosystem services like watersheds, or ones with charismatic megafauna that rake in big tourism dollars. Here, a local woman pours water from a pitcher. Agrawal has expressed concern that locals may suffer if REDD+ policies reverse the trend towards decentralized conservation policies, because it will take more power away from locals, possibly leading to increases in illegal wood and forest product harvest. Photo credit: University of Michigan IFRI Network.

At first glance, raising the value of standing forests seems like a true win-win scenario – paying developing nations to keep their forests and reducing deforestation and the associated carbon emissions in the process.

But Agrawal and others (including Ostrom before her death) rang alarm bells over REDD policies, which may end up counterproductive unless locals are consulted, given authority to make and modify rules about how they use forests in the scope of REDD+ projects, and given secure land tenure rights in places where they depend on forests for their livelihoods.

Agrawal is concerned that REDD+ could reverse the decades-long trend towards decentralization, which creates more local democracy even in non-democratic nations. Increasing the economic value of standing forest raises the chance that national governments will want to take control over them. Moreover, most policymakers also believe REDD+ will work best with a centralized approach. Payments from the emitting nations require proof of emissions reductions and sustainably managed forests, with monitoring, reporting, and verification better managed in a centralized fashion.

This is a big deal. “Such shifts have historically had big effects on human actions and environmental outcomes,” says Agrawal. We know from economic theory that increasing the value of one thing alters supply and demand, which will have repercussions throughout participating nations’ political systems, social structures, and ecosystems.

“REDD payments are likely to increase corruption and elite capture around forest governance institutions and forest product harvest,” particularly where the rule of law is weak, he explains in a 2010 Oryx article . REDD+ creates incentives for governments to find international funding to save forests, but such arrangements – centralized management without adequate enforcement or local involvement – typically fail to protect forest integrity in weak states. This could undermine REDD’s whole objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through reduced deforestation. “REDD payments, without intensive efforts to create robust governance institutions and empower local forest users and resident communities, will probably have negative implications for forest condition and carbon emissions as well as for local livelihoods.”

With warnings coming from such prestigious academic research, including Nobel Laureate Ostrom herself before her death, did the UN incorporate changes that would formally empower locals or indigenous groups in REDD+ policies? Nope.

“The policy … says that there should be safeguards in the way REDD+ works so that the interests of local communities are not harmed,” says Agrawal, “but exactly how that is defined, and what happens is left to the governments and to the implementation of specific REDD policies.” That leaves it up to each country that will receive funding under REDD+, and most participating nations have yet to make policies for channeling money and benefits to local communities or local groups, he adds.

In Uganda and Tanzania, the Jane Goodall Institute has begun implementing REDD+ projects in which they have helped locals secure formal land tenure. This not only helps these individuals’ current livelihoods, since they will receive payment to protect the forests they depend on, it also provides intergenerational security. One of Agrawal’s studies even found that the absence of land tenure conflicts was the best predictor of avoided deforestation in Brazil.

In Uganda and Tanzania, the Jane Goodall Institute has begun implementing REDD+ projects in which they have helped locals secure formal land tenure, which not only helps these individuals’ current livelihoods, but also provides intergenerational security. JGI’s is using REDD+ to reforest and protect forests for endangered chimpanzees, and working with locals at the same time. Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Wendee Nicole.

These pilot projects show how REDD+ could work to help locals, but “scaling up will really depend on whether there’s an agreement among contracting parties and the national governments about who owns the carbon, or if there are substantial new funds committed to REDD+.” Most funds committed to REDD+ were made by developed nations in 2009 and 2010, and “since then very little new money has been committed,” says Agrawal.

Local Participation is the Key to Win-Win

Agrawal’s concerns are more than rhetoric; they come from a robust body of research. In 2006, Agrawal became Director of the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) research network that Ostrom founded in the mid-1990s. It remains the “only interdisciplinary, long-term research program focusing on both forests and social-ecological conditions” and the only one to address forest governance – “who gets to decide what about forests, and how.” IFRI has several collaborating research centers in countries around the world, including in Mexico, Uganda, Nepal, and India.

Don Adolfo preparing baskets in Bioitza. Millions of people around the world rely on forests for their livelihoods. The view that people will always over-use natural resources was embodied in Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” but Ostrom’s research showed that when people cooperate, communicate, and build trust, a “commons” can be sustainably managed. Photo credit: University of Michigan IFRI Network.

At each IFRI study site, the scientists establish plots where they collect data on forest conditions. “To determine where we will do our forest plots, we take a map of the community forest and overlay a grid on it,” explains Emily Etue, Assistant Program Officer for RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests in Bangkok, a nonprofit organization using IFRI data collection to set up long-term monitoring and evaluation sites in several southeast Asian countries. “Using a random numbers table we choose 30 plots that fall within the community forest area.”

Sometimes that does not always work so well in practice. “We have found plots on 80-90 degree slopes, in swampy ground, on cliff overhangs, and in places where the ground cover was so dense as to make the data collection impossible,” says Agrawal. When that happens, they have to start over. Sometimes, he says, his team has had to abandon a suitable plot due to torrential rains, or once in Nepal, loud noises from strange animals – probably hyenas.

“We divide into three teams: the forest plot team, household survey team, and focus group discussion team,” explains Etue. “During our data collection we collect around 30 household surveys, 30 forest plots, and conduct around 10-15 focus group discussions.” The standardized protocol means that data has been collected from hundreds of forests around the world that other scientists can use to study broad-scale trends.

Agrawal, Ostrom and others have used the database to identify what traits pop up time and again in sustainable forests. The ability of locals to have a say in making and modifying rules proves consistently important.

In one study, Agrawal and colleagues looked at 84 forests in East Africa and Asia and found that win-win scenarios (more tree species and better subsistence livelihoods of forest-dependent locals) occurred in just 27% of the cases, but these cases occurred when local people were allowed to help make rules. Likewise, lose-lose scenarios (bad for forest, bad for people) occur when people do not have a say in the rules.

Work at the camp in BioItza Indigenous Community Reserve, Guatemala. Most of the cases Agrawal, and before him, Ostrom, found where sustainable forests and communities successfully coexist involve local and indigenous people who communally manage a forest’s resources. Photo credit: University of Michigan IFRI Network.

In another study, Agrawal and Chhatre analyzed IFRI data from 80 forests in 10 countries and found that when forests were larger and locals had a formalized ability to participate in making rules about how they could use the forest, those people experienced greater livelihood benefits, and those forests also stored more carbon – an important finding for REDD+.

Interestingly, in the same study, Agrawal found that community-owned forests had high carbon storage but low livelihood benefits, which at first seems counterintuitive. “What may be going on is where you have the forest being owned by the community, they will feel more secure in their ownership and in their control over forest, so they are probably moving their consumption and extraction activities to other forests nearby.” The livelihood index only measured what a person took from the IFRI forest studied, not whether an individual’s overall health, income, or other factors fared better; such questions will have to wait for future study.

Shifting Motivations

In Ecotopia, decentralization was so radical that the national government did not regulate much at all, instead relying on scientific knowledge and people’s desire for a healthy environment. For example, processed and packaged foods were put on a Bad Practices list, and when Weston asked how they were enforced, the Assistant Minister of Food replied, “[T]hey aren’t enforced at all. They’re a mechanism of moral persuasion, you might say. … They’re issued by study groups from consumer co-ops. Usually when a product goes on such a list, demand for it drops sharply.”

Although the idea of intrinsic motivation and moral persuasion may sound idealistic, many of the long-enduring social-ecological systems studied by Ostrom and her colleagues work well because in such systems, people do not “cheat” (steal water, illegally harvest wood against the rules); having developed long-standing trust of one another, they are motivated intrinsically to cooperate.

“There are intrinsic motivations, where people care for nature and forests for their own good,” says Chhatre. “That is what Lin Ostrom [found]: There’s intrinsic motivation to trust each other based on past experience. And then there are extrinsic motivations that depend on external factors.”

Chhatre and Agrawal recently completed a study in the Himachal Pradesh state in northern India, researching how people’s attitudes and motivations toward the environment were affected by three types of interventions: giving information, supplementing their livelihood economically with somethjng such as a chicken or goat, and providing a public good that benefitted the community, such as a water tank or road improvements. “We wanted to know what happens when people participate in these regimes and how do their motivations change and what effect it would have on the commons,” says Chhatre.

“It came out smelling not so good for the Heifer and Goodalls and all of those and many, many others including the World Bank and Ford Foundation,” says Chhatre. “If someone received only private goods or received information, then they were likely to change their motivation from a pure environmental to a pure economic one.” The problem with this is that once the project withdraws, the intrinsic motivation to save the forest will be gone. Although the findings are preliminary, they indicate certain projects could, in the long run, undermine people’s intrinsic motivation to preserve the environment.

“The bright spot, and this is where Lin Ostrom would have been happy,” says Chhatre, “when people participated in building communal assets that would benefit everyone, their motivation remained intact or they even changed from extrinsic to intrinsic.”

The Way Forward

Don Adolfo preparing baskets in Bioitza. Millions of people around the world rely on forests for their livelihoods. The view that people will always over-use natural resources was embodied in Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” but Ostrom’s research showed that when people cooperate, communicate, and build trust, a “commons” can be sustainably managed. Photo credit: University of Michigan IFRI Network.

People living in Ecotopia embraced ideals they believed worked, and made them happen. In Ostrom’s research and that of Agrawal and Chhatre, these traits endure in simple, often ancient systems. Turning back the clock in the developed world to such simpler systems is not likely to happen anytime soon on a broad scale, but that does not mean lessons can’t be learned from them – such as Ostrom’s design principles – for creating cooperatively managed, sustainable forests. As Ostrom said in her Nobel speech, and as evidenced by the final UN REDD+ policy, policymakers have not fully absorbed the lessons of her research.

“When old institutions and habits break down or consume themselves, new experimental shoots begin to appear, and people explore and test and share new and better ways to survive together,” says Callenbach in his last essay. “[A]lready we see, under the crumbling surface of the conventional world, promising developments: new ways of organizing economic activity (cooperatives, worker-owned companies, nonprofits, trusts), new ways of using low-impact technology to capture solar energy, to sequester carbon dioxide, new ways of building compact, congenial cities that are low (or even self-sufficient) in energy use, low in waste production, high in recycling of almost everything. A vision of sustainability that sometimes shockingly resembles Ecotopia is tremulously coming into existence at the hands of people who never heard of the book.”

With fits and starts, perhaps, “experiments under way now, all over the world, are exploring how sustainability can in fact be achieved locally,” Callenbach writes. “Technically, socially, economically — since it is quite true, as ecologists know, that everything is connected to everything else, and you can never just do one thing by itself.”



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