“Use tropical forests or lose them”—that is the mantra of a growing set of researchers and practitioners who argue, somewhat counterintuitively, that permits for timber extraction can help conserve tropical forests. They claim that permits strengthen land managers’ incentives to use forests so as to generate a long-term stream of profits.
That, in turn, requires discouraging illegal logging and land-use change, which are top drivers of forest loss in developing countries. In a nutshell, the use-forests-or-lose-them argument is that, even though timber extraction permits inevitably lead to some legal forest loss, they prevent more illegal forest loss, so that the net effect on forest loss is negative. This is an intriguing claim that, if true, would have major implications for forest conservation policy. But rigorous evidence to either support or refute it is quite thin.
Communal forest management units play a role in preventing forest loss
Mexico offers an opportune setting to help fill that gap. Forest loss due to illegal logging and land use change is a significant problem. Moreover, as a result of land reforms initiated after the country’s revolution a century ago, roughly two-thirds of forestland is managed by thousands of communal forest management units (FMUs) called “ejidos” and “comunidades.” Hundreds of these communal FMUs have been awarded forestry permits and the remainder have not.
Our recently published study (a Spanish-language version of the working paper is available through the Inter-American Development Bank) essentially compares annual changes in forest loss between 2001 and 2012 for a national sample of 673 communal FMUs with permits and for a sample of observationally similar communal FMUs without permits. We use satellite data to measure annual forest loss, official records of forestry permits, and a rich set of spatial data, along with statistical models, to control for potential confounding variables.
Our findings provide mixed support for the use-forests-or-lose-them argument. On one hand, we do not find that permits reduce forest loss in our national sample. However, we also do not find that they speed forest loss in that sample.
Just as important as this result is our finding that permits tend to spur net forest loss in two subgroups; namely, communal FMUs with relatively low levels of income, literacy, and connectivity, and FMUs where the returns to pasture and agriculture are relatively high.
A possible explanation for the first subgroup effect is that low levels of income, literacy, and connectivity impair these FMUs’ capacity for robust forest governance. The likely reason for the second subgroup effect is simply that, for FMUs where the return to deforestation is relatively high, the award of a forestry permit is likely to be less effective in deterring such clearing. These subgroup findings can help policymakers tailor and target timber extraction permitting policies so as to minimize ecological damages.
We believe further study of the use-forests-or-lose-them argument is needed. Today, illegal logging and land-use change represent grave, if not existential, threats to tropical forests in many parts of the global south, including Latin America and the Caribbean.
Historically, protected areas have been the cornerstone of the policy response. But political and institutional constraints severely limit the amount of forestland that can be strictly protected. Hence, to conserve tropical forests, we can consider a portfolio of strategies, including awarding timber extraction permits. Studies like ours shed light on the potential costs and benefits of this type of strategy, and how the strategy might be tailored and targeted to minimized costs and maximize benefits.
This article has been reprinted with minor changes and permission from the Inter-American Development Bank website.