The forestry sector as an inequality machine? Agents, agreements and global politics of trade and investment in the Congo Basin

Beskrivning

Forests and forestlands in the tropics are supposed to serve a multitude of global and domestic interests, including development, climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. All these interests have explicit assumptions in common over their positive contribution to the economic wellbeing and social equality of society. However, who – and whose society – benefits from ongoing deforestation and forest concessions in the tropics?
Our proposal aims to answer this question by analyzing global and historic data to gain an understanding of the inequalities embedded in trade and investment patterns in relation to forests and forestland in the Global South, and the mechanisms that produce and reproduce these inequalities. We will focus on the Congo Basin, specifically Cameroon and DRC, and the former colonial empires in Europe and China, as a new ‘external partner’. We will analyse comparatively the institutions and incentives structures, power relations, and discursive practices in and beyond the forest sector, and investigate if international initiatives and agreements (incl. VPA-FLEGT, REDD+) risk reproducing social inequalities.
Engagement with actors across levels and sectors and knowledge sharing beyond academic publications with the wider society will constitute our main impact pathway to inform the design of policy instruments aiming to halt deforestation and to contribute to discursive shifts in the understanding of ‘who should benefit from forests’.

Allmän beskrivning

Since the early 1990s, forests have been high on international and national agendas across the globe. The roles of forests in mitigating climate change, maintaining biodiversity and contributing to development and the well-being of people and societies (Humphreys, 2012) are acknowledged in agreements within and beyond the forestry sector. Targets to halt tropical deforestation as a low cost mitigation option (Stern 2006) can be found in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 and in agreements such as the New York Declaration on Forests and the Paris Agreement. The proposed instruments and programs include eco-labeling such as forest certification, voluntary trade agreement (VPA) processes, commodity roundtables and REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). Despite the spotlight on forests, deforestation and forest degradation continues at an alarming rate, with the conversion and degradation of forests for the production of global commodities such as oil palm, soy, beef, pulp and paper, and timber (Curtis et al., 2018). Meanwhile, in many tropical forest-rich countries, among them Cameroon and the DRC, the exploitation of forests and forestland is justified by the promise of development and increased societal welfare.

This development discourse is contradicted by the long stagnating National Income (Alvaredo et al., 2018) in Cameroon and the DRC, and documented violation of rights and exclusion of indigenous people from access to forest sector benefits (Logo, 2010; Assembe-Mvondo et al., 2013). Paradoxically, since the colonial period, the marginalization of indigenous people and forest communities’ rights at domestic level co-exists with an increasing proliferation of policies related to international forest-related agreements and safeguards that promote an improvement of their participation, land tenure security, and benefit-sharing (Adams & Hulme 2001; Sikor et al. 2010, Maggio 1997; Schroeder 2010; Larson et al. 2010).

Over the longer term, the forest sector appears to have contributed more to the National Incomes of European countries that have historically organised forest exploitation and forestland conversion in the Congo Basin as colonial powers, namely Belgium, France and Germany (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1977). More recently, China emerges as a new power in the region, engaging with a dual agenda in linking promises of development for societal welfare in exchange for the exploitation of forests and forestlands and large-scale land acquisitions (German et al., 2013; Sautman et al., 2008). Not least, state bureaucracies and national elites are also entangled in rent seeking behavior throughout historic and current politics of land acquisitions, forest concessions, and trade and investment patterns (see Hardin et al., 2011; Ribot et al., 2003; Ekoko, 2000; Karsenty et al., 2012).
With emerging datasets on forest change, global trade and investments and related inequalities among countries, we can begin to examine the as yet unanswered question of ‘who - and whose societies - benefits from deforestation?’ (McDermott, 2017).

This leads us to the following set of research questions:
1. What are current and historical inequalities in the dynamics of forest exploitation (especially commercial exploitation of valuable wood species such as Sapelli, Iroko and Azobe/Bongossi) and forestland conversion? How are these inequalities reflected in the national incomes of Cameroon and DRC, and in other related indicators beyond economic outcomes? Who are the major agents, and what are their formal and informal interests?
2. How are inequalities enabled and produced through the machinery of institutional legacies, incentive structures, discursive practices, and power relations within and beyond the forestry sector in Cameroon and DRC, and in interactions between the countries and dominant trade partners including Europe and China? Specifically, we ask which institutions govern access, use and control of forestlands and forests? Who gains access to state bureaucracies, what are the resulting dominant coalitions and power relations, and whose knowledge informs discourses on forest and forestland exploitation?
3. Finally, how are inequalities reproduced through global public and private arrangements and policy instruments (such as REDD+, VPA, commodity roundtables and eco-labelling standards) in the faltering efforts to halt tropical deforestation? How is a reproduction of inequalities affecting, and affected by, the governance of the Congo basin forests?

The explicit focus on the analysis of inequalities as an outcome of forests and forestland exploitation in the Congo Basin, and the investigation of the specific mechanisms producing and reproducing these will provide our boundary partners and us with rigorous evidence that aims:
a) to ensure that international agreements under climate change, biodiversity and forestry are informed of the risk of reproducing rather than addressing inequalities from forest exploitation, conservation and conversion,
b) to contribute to a discursive shift in current narratives of who – and whose society – benefits from profits gained and shared from forests and forestland in the Global South towards a more nuanced debate of who should benefit?
AkronymFOREQUAL
StatusPågående
Gällande start-/slutdatum01/01/202031/12/2023