Forest governance in the Anthropocene: Challenges for theory and practice

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Humphreys, David and Jones, Nikoleta (2017). Forest governance in the Anthropocene: Challenges for theory and practice. Forest Policy and Economics, 79 pp. 1–7.



The concept of the Anthropocene signals the unprecedented impact of humankind on the Earth's biosphere that will leave a distinct signature in the Earth's geosphere. As a term, the “Anthropocene” originated in discussions at the 2000 Science Committee of the International Geosphere and Biosphere Programme. It was later made popular by Crutzen and Stoermer (2000) and Crutzen (2002). Although there are debates as to when the Anthropocene started, a general consensus is emerging among scientists that the impact of human activity on the planet's ecosystems is now especially detectable on a global scale since the commencement, around 1800, of the Industrial Revolution in western Europe (Steffen et al., 2007; Ellis et al., 2013). Since then humans have changed the planetary biosphere through increasing emissions of carbon dioxide through forest clearance and fossil fuel burning. The Industrial Revolution has also led to the creation by humans of plastics, chemical pollutants and nuclear material that will leave traces in the geological record. While the view that the Anthropocene should be imagined as an Industrial Revolution phenomenon is now widely recognised, there are some scholars who have proposed the ‘Early Anthropocene’ hypothesis suggesting that the Earth's biosphere has been severely altered since the beginning of settled, organised forms of agriculture approximately 10,000 years before present (Ruddiman, 2003; Ellis, 2015). Others have suggested that the advent and use of nuclear bombs and their impact on the Earth's biosphere should be seen as marking the beginning of the Anthropocene (Zalasiewicz et al., 2015). Today the concept of the Anthropocene both invites “creative tensions” while also providing opportunities for new conceptual syntheses and integrative approaches (Brondizio et al., 2016).

In this special issue, we provide such a conceptual synthesis for forest governance. In accordance with Giessen and Buttoud (2014: 1) we adopt a broad definition of forest governance as comprising of “a) all formal and informal, public and private regulatory structures, i.e. institutions consisting of rules, norms, principles, decision procedures, concerning forests, their utilisation and their conservation, b) the interactions between public and private actors therein and c) the effects of either on forests.” In conceptualising forest governance in the Anthropocene, we consider the Industrial Revolution as the key marker of the Anthropocene for forests, although some important caveats should be noted. Significant human influence on forests pre-dates the Industrial Revolution by several centuries. Michael Williams' comprehensive historical study Deforesting the Earth notes widespread deforestation in parts of Europe from 500 CE (Williams, 2003). From about 1500 there was more extensive deforestation in Europe to provide timber for fuelwood, iron making and shipbuilding, with this period also seeing the advent of ecological imperialism as European countries colonised other lands. The Industrial Revolution signals a sharp increase in demand for tree biomass, expanding the ecological footprint of forest loss across the globe (Vitousek et al., 1997; Malhi et al., 2002). Since the Industrial Revolution there has been more extensive deforestation in both temperate and tropical forests. The period since the end of World War 2 has seen the relocation of much deforestation to the global South, amounting to what Williams calls a “Great Onslaught” (Williams, 2003). The science of forestry and the need to actively ‘manage’ and ‘govern’ forests only arose after the European colonial powers experienced a pressing need to use more judiciously dwindling forest resources at home and in some colonies (Barton, 2001) and the need for good management of forests has been at the forefront of discussions on forest governance since.

Today, forests occupy just under 4 billion ha, with the world's forest area declining by 129 million ha in the period 1990 to 2015 (FAO, 2016:32). Forests support high levels of biodiversity harbouring approximately 80% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity (WWF, 2016). They also provide important‘ecosystem services’, the benefits that people derive from nature and which may be categorised as supporting, regulating, provisioning and cultural services. Supporting services include soil formation, nutrient cycling and erosion control. Regulating services include water cycling, carbon sequestration and climate regulation. Provisioning services include the timber and non-timber forest products that provide livelihoods. Cultural services include the psychological and health benefits that people derive from forests. Forests also have intangible cultural and spiritual values and many cultures revere forests; they also have a sacred place in many mythologies for their awe-inspiring and enigmatic properties (Bhagwat and Rutte, 2006). The tangible benefits obtained from forests as well as their intangible cultural roots have prompted contemporary cross-cultural concerns about their protection. On the backdrop of these multiple values of forests – which can often come into conflict with each other – this Special Issue examines three challenges that the Anthropocene poses to the contemporary governance of forests: 1. managing forest ecosystems to maintain their multiple values; 2. making forest-dependent communities resilient to the anthropogenic impacts on forests; and 3. responding to the anthropogenic changes through forest-related policy instruments. Collectively, the papers in this Special Issues put forward concepts and resources that are needed for anticipatory and adaptive forest governance in the Anthropocene.

This introduction first reviews some recent literature from the social sciences and humanities on how we should conceptualise and imagine the Anthropocene. It then introduces and examines the three key forest-related challenges of the Anthropocene. The final substantive section introduces the seven papers written for this special issue.

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