Deforestation prevented, in part, by democracy: study

September 24, 2010 By Roelof Kleis, Wageningen University

Democratic countries suffer less from deforestation. That seems logical enough. But forests also do well under a strong dictatorship. This remarkable conclusion was reached by Wageningen environmental scientists.

'This result came as a surprise to us too', responds Wageningen University Professor of Environmental Policy Tuur Mol. 'In the environmental sciences there are widely divergent views on whether democracy does or does not have an impact on the environment. Now we have found a way to approach it systematically. That is the nice thing about it.'

Mol and his Indonesian MSc student Meilanie Buitenzorgy have published their findings in the online journal Environmental and Resource Economics. The setup of their study was simple: they correlated the rate of in 177 countries with the degree of democracy present. What emerged was an inverted U-shaped graph in which deforestation peaks at the top, in countries that are in the throes of transition from an authoritarian regime to a fully functioning democracy.

Typical transitional countries where a great deal of forest felling is going on are the eastern European countries, China, Korea and a number of Latin American countries. Countries with little deforestation and a fully-fledged democracy include those in western Europe and the United States, Australia and New Zeeland. But the curve also indicates that countries ruled by a strong authoritarian regime succeed in keeping deforestation under control too. So dictators are good for the environment as well.

This newly identified correlation is striking, says Mol, but quite easily explained. 'In autocracies the state protects forests vigilantly. In fully-fledged democracies it is the civil society organizations that play that role. But exactly in that transition phase neither the old nor the new institutions are fully functioning', Mol explains. The upshot of which is deforestation.

A job for economists

According to Mol, this throws a spanner in the works for environmental economists and social scientists. 'Economists have done many studies on the relation between economic growth and environmental degradation. The upside-down U appears to be present there too. We show that there is a similar relation between deforestation and democracy. Not only that, but the link is actually stronger.'

So for Mol, the message is: 'Economists, you focus far too much on the economy. There is more to explaining the state of the environment than the economy'. And that, he says, is a useful contribution to the academic tribal war. 'I expect this article to be widely cited. This opens up a whole new line of research. We have only looked at deforestation, but you can research many other indicators too.' Because besides , Mol believes that other factors play a role, such as education, the size of a country and the size of its rural population. This is of more than academic interest, according to Mol. It has practical value too. 'The IMF, for example, gives a lot of funding to anti-deforestation programmes. In such cases you should look not just at improving incomes but also at democratization and participation. We provide the argument for this.'

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not rated yet Sep 24, 2010
Did they consider that strong dictatorships tend to have rotten economies? There's not enough industry for deforestation.
not rated yet Sep 24, 2010
In the US, govt owned forests are not as well managed as private forests. Public forests are over protected and poorly managed in the US.
But they are well protected by those illegally growing marijuana.
The commonality is ownership. The kings, dictators, landowners who have the ownership power have the ability to keep a forest for useful purposes.
Common ownership results in the 'tragedy of the commons'.
Just like protecting elephants in Africa, protected property rights are the path to preservation.
not rated yet Sep 25, 2010
I wonder about these statistics. After all, deforestation occurs in order to utilize land for agriculture. The products grown are shipped worldwide. So, in effect, strong dictatorships and democracies promote deforestation through consumption of the exported goods. Who is really to blame? The poor who seek to better their lot? Or
not rated yet Sep 25, 2010
In SE Asia, governments are the main causes of deforestation. They released the polices that change the agricultural land use such as rubber to palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia. The primary forest has been clearing for agriculture rapidly.
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010

That's actually a biased sample, since most of the democracies have sanctions against most of the dictatorships in the world, often for arbitrary reasons.

So the dictatorships become isolated because democracies hypocritically want to force their laws and government on other nations.

A benevolent dictator or monarch would be a far superior form of government to our modern American democracy, which is almost always a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils in the form of corrupt politicians and laws that never quite do what anyone wants them to do anyway.
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010
True, a benevolent dictator can be a good leader, but the problem is that in practice dictators are rarely benevolent. There are plenty of examples of happy low-corruption democracies though, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, etc. We in the US let our consumer culture get away from us and now our media, political parties (yes both of them) and our culture itself are falling more and more in line with the interests of a few powerful interest groups. Until we can fix these problems (if we can ever stop bickering over smaller issues and actually do it) we won't be able to get away from our current situation.
not rated yet Sep 27, 2010

To say that government owned forests are not as well managed as private timber is specious. Here in the Northwest private timber companies have been mismanaging forests for several hundred years. They do tend to maximize their profit (using massive government subsidies), but this is not the same as managing the resources they have well.
not rated yet Sep 27, 2010
A benevolent dictator or monarch would be a far superior form of government to our modern American democracy, which is almost always a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils in the form of corrupt politicians and laws that never quite do what anyone wants them to do anyway.

While I agree, those who would make a competent benevolent dictator wouldn't want the job.
not rated yet Sep 27, 2010
I mistrust statistical analysis of this sort. As they correctly state, the true causes of deforestation or the lack there of are many. Even a strong correllation can be coincidental rather than causal.

The only point they are really making here is that they don't agree with the consensus that economic prosperity is linked with better conservation and forestry. I don't care if they are right or not. If I had to guess then I'd probably say they are partially right. lol.

I wonder why they specifically mention the policy of the International Monetary Fund in supporting economic developement? I also wonder why they hope this article is "widely cited", and by whom? I don't know what the context of the "tribal war" he's talking about is, and I don't know who the players are, but this just looks like verbal rock-throwing to me.

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