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Political intermediation for just sustainabilities

Present understanding of the relationship between environmental conservation and social justice – the two of the greatest challenges of our times – is fraught with multiple confusions, especially in the context of developing countries. UN agency reports blame deforestation on poor people’s “inappropriate use of wood and other resources for cooking, heating, housing and crafts” while ignoring the massively wasteful lifestyles of the rich, including those living within the poor countries in the global South. On the other hand, recent scholarly research indigenous land rights to successful environmental outcomes. Yet, these studies offer little guidance as to why the effectiveness of indigenous land rights statutes vary significantly across different countries.

How do societies negotiate the apparently competing agendas of environmental protection and social justice? Why do some countries perform much better than others on this front? The answer lies in the political intermediation mechanisms, that is, well-established processes and relationships that help citizen groups, civil society organizations, and social movement participants engage in political and policy processes that affect them directly. Noticeably, in the context of questions of environmental conservation and social justice, the strength of political intermediation mechanisms matters more than the formal institutions of democracy, which are vulnerable to majoritarian politics.

Consider the case of India, which has been celebrated for the integrity of its democratic institutions. Despite their many accomplishments, the country’s post-independence leadership failed to bring about transformative change in the status of its minorities, specifically, its over 100 million indigenous people. The persistence of colonial-era political and economic institutions, including the total control of forestland in the hands of government forestry agencies, is a major barrier against the social, economic, and political development of the indigenous groups. The first few years of the new millennium witnessed nation-wide mobilization to demand forest and land rights, the election of a left-of-center federal government, and the establishment of a National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC – a semi-autonomous agency that integrated civil society actors into policy making processes – was instrumental in the enactment of a number of progressive laws to protect the social, political, and economic rights of poor citizens.

The goals of environmental conservation and social justice are not at odds. Instead, to a large extent, the political economy of forest control and uses determines whether national forestry regimes are socially just and environmentally sustainable.

One of these laws was the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, which gave legal protection of household land rights and community-level forest rights of indigenous and other forest-dependent groups. National and international conservation groups lauded the FRA as one of the best efforts globally to reconcile the goals of environmental conservation and social justice. Yet, the deeply entrenched nature of the status-quo that vests too much discretion in the hands of government forestry officials undermined the realization of statutory intention in practice. As a result, forest-dependent groups who have successfully protected and utilized forests sustainably, cannot hold the government forestry agencies to account. Yet, the poor continued to be blamed for forest degradation, while the ineffective and corrupt forestry agencies continue to receive a lion’s share of national and international funding devoted to nature conservation. A very similar story unfolds in Tanzania even though there are some important differences in the institutional structure of Tanzania’s national forestry administration, which offers better opportunities for improving the accountability of forestry and wildlife agencies.

Contrast the Indian experience to the state of affairs in Mexico, which is home to the world’s most successful community forestry policies and programs. Mexico’s success is often attributed to the post-revolutionary land redistribution between 1935 and late 1960s, yet, this book shows that these redistributions were a result of persistent social and political mobilization of the peasants and indigenous groups, and inter-elite competition for power within the ruling PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party). For instance, the redistribution of nearly 70 percent of Mexico’s forestland to agrarian and indigenous communities was a result of the effort of the government to compensate for the failure to distribute good quality irrigated land owned by politically influential groups. To be sure, for Mexico’s environmental elites, the distribution of forestland to peasants raised the specter of a complete decimation of the country’s forests. The federal forestry service sought to bring forests under “scientific management” that would combine conservation and sustainable harvesting by commercial loggers. However, unlike their counterparts in India and Tanzania, Mexico’s peasants were both mobilized and sufficiently well-connected to the ruling party to thwart the plans for the development of an exclusionary forestry regime.

Political scientists often find Mexico’s form of peasant corporatism wanting in comparison to the ideal-type liberal democratic institutions of policy-making. Yet, instead of being the oppressive anti-democratic arrangements they are often made out to be, party-sponsored peasant organizations became part of a broader mechanism of political intermediation that afforded the peasant and indigenous groups significant leverage in the political and policy processes. As a result, in comparison to other countries, forestland rights of Mexico’s forest-dependent people are very secure – both in law and practice. Moreover, the well-established links between peasant groups, party machine, and the state agencies have made Mexico’s policy-making far more responsive and the forestry and wildlife agencies more accountable compared to their counterparts in India and Tanzania.

The available evidence that Mexico’s inclusionary forestland regime is far more effective than are India and Tanzania’s exclusionary forest policies at achieving nature conservation. The goals of environmental conservation and social justice are not at odds. Instead, to a large extent, the political economy of forest control and uses determines whether national forestry regimes are socially just and environmentally sustainable. International agencies and middle-class donors of environmental charities have an opportunity to ensure that conservation investments are redirected, from countries that fail to hold their government agencies to account, to the countries that have put in place effective institutional arrangements that promote accountability and share the benefits of forest conservation with forest-dependent groups.

Featured image credit: Landscapes San Miguel De Allende Mexico by marcoreyesgt. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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