Is democracy good or bad for forests?

Markku Larjavaara of the Finnish Forest Research Institute comments on his recent article, “Democratic less-developed countries cause global deforestation.”[1]

I had the chance to work in an international organization in Malaysia from 2005 – 2007. I noticed there that donors from rich countries wanted to fund mainly forest projects that were promoting democratic approaches such as community forestry and participatory planning. During my travels around Asia, I spoke with villagers, local scientists and civil servants and got the impression that most favored a much less democratic top-down approach to forest management. I heard about illegal forest encroachers in the Philippines trusting that the candidates in the next elections would be willing to exchange land for votes, and about the dramatic deforestation that occurred in Indonesia after the more autocratic Suharto era. I also learned of rapid increases in forest area in Japan already in the first half of the 18th century, in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, and in China and Vietnam more recently, all places which had very non-democratic regimes during those times.

These observations piqued my interest and led me to analyze forest area change relative to level of democracy. Forest area change from 2000 to 2005, according to the FAO, plotted against three independent democracy indices weighted with the forest area, showed a very clear decreasing trend for the up to 137 developing countries for which data was available. Developing and democratic countries with a large forest area such as Brazil and Indonesia were losing their forests rapidly while non-democratic China and Vietnam were experiencing an even faster change, but in the opposite direction. Much later, when I was preparing a manuscript to report my findings to the International Forestry Review, I found that the FAO had published a new dataset and that the patterns remained clear for the 2000-2010 period, although they were less apparent than for the shorter 2000-2005 period.

Is democracy bad for forests, or could my findings be explained in another way? The patterns are so clear that it is practically impossible that they would have been caused only by chance. Could it be that the non-democratic governments would more likely forge their forest area statistics than the democratic ones? This is certainly possible, but as the interest is in forest area change and not in forest area per se, this alternative explanation is very unlikely. It’s much more likely that democratic developing countries were actually losing their forests and that non-democratic countries were gaining more forest over last decade. Was this really caused by democracy itself or is the correlation without causality?

Scholars have pointed out many ways that democracy benefits the environment. Non-democratic leaders benefit from unsustainable exploitation more than their people do, whereas democracies allow environmental activism, which can influence policy directly, or indirectly via public awareness, which is also enhanced by the free press. In addition, it has been claimed that democratic leaders interact more with scientists and the leaders of other countries to facilitate international solutions to environmental problems. There seem to be so many ways in which democracy should lead to an increasing forest area. However, my findings were the opposite: more democratic countries had a more negative forest area trend. Therefore, something else is needed to explain these results.

It often takes decades before the benefits of reforestation projects outweigh the costs. Could it be that non-democratic leaders have more information and can understand the consequences of forest area change over large spatial and temporal scales better than the poorly educated voters in democratic countries can? Non-democratic governments are potentially more stable than democratic ones, since democratic leaders need to make sure that voters are satisfied before the next elections. My guess is that there is a causal link and democracy really does cause deforestation relative to non-democracy, but whether the new or conserved forests in a non-democracy make people happy is another question.


[1] Larjavaara, M. 2012. Democratic less-developed countries cause global deforestation. International Forestry Review Vol.14: 299-313.

Leave a comment


  1. Markku Larjavaara

     /  October 19, 2012

    Thanks Javier. Perhaps my wording at the end of the abstract was too strong. With “questioning” I wanted the discussion to go on. Even if western countries do want to support democracy in all development aid for ethical reasons, we, scientists, should know more on benefits and disadvantages of the used methods.

    Probably all the Asian countries that have been able to increase forest area rapidly have used “drastic measures” which is a problem of course but at least in some of the cases the benefits have outweighed the costs in the long run.

    I agree with Javier that my simply quantitative study should be complemented by qualitative analyses. For example, I had to assume that democratic countries based on the democracy-indices do have a “democratic forest policy”. Actually, in the first version of my article I had a section comparing reforestation projects in the Philippines (democratic) and in Vietnam (non-democratic) but the reviewers asked me to remove it, as it did not fit in the context of the rest of the manuscript.

  2. Javier Arevalo

     /  October 17, 2012

    This is indeed an interesting article, and I assume that the author was in fact being rather provocative in the enunciation of the titles (article and post), as well as in the last sentence of the abstract that reads “… the vigorous promotion of democratic methods by donors in high-income countries should be questioned”. If for such democratic methods we understand the same notions (participatory planning and management, empowerment and capacity development, issues of livelihoods, rights and ownership…), it’s hard to see how less democratic methods could be beneficial especially in the long run -unless evictions and other drastic measures are used. I feel it would be interesting to complement the numeric analysis with qualitative measurements or case studies (what type of forests are being cut and planted, how deforestation is evolving in areas with participatory management versus those with top-down management, etc). In any case I appreciate that this interesting issue is brought to discussion, and look forward to hearing more from the author as well as from others.

  3. Markku Larjavaara

     /  October 12, 2012

    I thank Blas and Pradipta for the interest in my research and for the valuable comments.

    I agree with Blas that the strength and stability of governance is likely to important in explaining forest area change. However, if non-democracy leads to strong and stable governance we should not belittle the positive impact of non-democracy to forest area in less-developed countries even if it is indirect.

    Pradipha suggested studying whether “importance of forest to GDP” explains forest area change. I believe the results would depend much on how this is defined. Which of the positive (hydrological benefits, ecotourism etc.) or negative (land not available for agriculture etc.) economic impacts of forests are included.

    Before plotting the data I was assuming like Pradipha that democratic countries would be mediocre but that non-democracies would have more variability in the forest area change depending on whether the leaders are interested in the best of the country and its people (e.g. Vietnam) or not (e.g. North Korea). Surprisingly this was not the case but the variability of forest area change was roughly the same in democratic and non-democratic less-developed countries.

  4. The topic is very interesting, as well as the conclusions. I am wondering if there would be some alternative explanations, as the author hinted. Some countries have in fact still weak institutions, or the government has little control to implement policies, in comparison with highly centralized authoritarian states. It could be that the matter of comparison here is weak governance in democratic countries. I suggest additional research efforts for this interesting field, as the consequences are very relevant.

  5. Pradipta Halder

     /  October 10, 2012

    This is an interesting finding and I congratulate the author for bringing up this important issue. However, it needs to be seen that the democracy indices can really explain the negative changes in the forest areas in those ‘so called’ democratic countries. What would happen if we include ‘importance of forest to GDP’ as a predictor? Are those countries loosing more where forest is important to their economies? In Brazil and Indonesia, the loss of forest can be attributed to the recent biofuel boom. However, that is not the only reason obviously. It is true that being a ‘democratic country’ does not ensure efficient use of natural resources in that country. When people are poor, depend on forest for their livelihoods, politicians have vested interests, law compliance is not strong, and rampant corruption is the norm then democracy matters little. However, in non-democratic countries forest areas might be increasing but the risk of loosing it is also very high. In short, this is just my opinion to this bigger issue.


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