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The Eliasch Review: will the proposals be implemented?

Written by Neil Bird

The aim of the recently-published Eliasch Review is to ‘examine international financing to reduce forest loss and its associated impacts on climate change’.  Whist the review estimates the possible sums required, this is only part of the story. The provision of additional international finance will not, by itself, reduce the rate of deforestation.

A central claim of the review is that ‘the forest sector has significant potential for low-cost abatement’. However, the economic case that is made does not given sufficient attention to a crucial socio-political reality: many tropical forest areas are areas of conflict and poor governance. This indicates that the review focuses too much on the finances and not enough on the politics that affects forest conservation, at national and international level.

Much is made of an initial two-pronged strategy to reduce deforestation through building capacity and filling the funding gap. Achieving the former is seen, to a large degree, to depend on the latter. However, recent attempts by the international community to support sustainable forest management – and hence reduce deforestation – do not give much cause for optimism. Twenty years of experience shows that international funding does not necessarily secure improved, sustainable outcomes. The emphasis on institutions in the review, at both the national and international level, is the right one, but the analysis lacks depth. There is a need to understand the incentive structures of institutions and what drives changed behaviour – the review has very little to say on this.

The review addresses the significant challenge of creating an international institution that would manage and facilitate the monetary transfers associated with forest abatement activities. The case is made in economic terms, but this is also a political issue, as the early controversy surrounding the development of the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds has shown. 

The underlying drivers of deforestation identified in the third chapter of the review are comprehensive, but give insufficient attention to one vital aspect – the  available capacity to manage forests, which is a bigger issue than just ‘law enforcement’. The role of the forester is completely missing in much of the international debate, but the management of natural forests for multiple benefits is not an easy task and the professionalisation of those responsible is poorly developed in many countries. The ‘Forest Regent’ approach of some Central American countries is an important model that could be developed elsewhere, but even this model is not without its difficulties. There has been considerable under-investment in training in many countries for a long time. This means there is now an insufficient skill base to secure improved forest management. Such a situation cannot be rectified quickly merely by the infusion of new finance.

Chapter 10 on measuring and monitoring emissions from forests presents an overly optimistic viewpoint. Forest inventory techniques for tropical forests have not developed very much in recent years and considerable uncertainties remain – even on understanding basic forest growth and mortality processes. Considerable skill sets are required to answer these questions (with associated costs), which are lacking in many countries. Evidence from previous international support for tropical forest management would suggest that such capacity building has to be developed over time periods measured in decades.  One must, therefore, doubt the review’s claim that the ‘capacity building costs of setting up robust national forest emissions inventories are likely to be relatively low’. Nor is one convinced by the claim that ‘costs could be reduced further through international cooperation and technological advances’.

The underlying problem of the whole review is the neglect of governance issues to the benefit of the economic. National-level governance issues are dispatched in just four pages out of a 250 page report. As a result, although key issues are raised, such as: land tenure and user rights; land-use planning and zoning; institutional capacity; and participatory approaches, there is very little commentary on how these major constraints might be tackled. It is these issues that now need to be the subject of a follow-up report.