Why are we still failing to stop deforestation?

While national and international efforts to reverse the trend of deforestation have multiplied in recent years, there is still no clear evidence to suggest these initiatives are actually working, according to a paper published in One Earth (Cell Press) this week. The international team behind the paper are calling for a radically new approach that focuses on how we understand individuals make their choices about forest and livelihoods.

The call comes from a collective of 23 researchers, consultants and NGO actors from 13 different countries in Europe and North America, including Dr. René Verburg from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Together, they argue that deforestation and reforestation policies must be as complex as the humans they implicate.

They identify the way humans take decision to be a blind spot in policies and discourses over forest and landscape change. They put forward the need to make explicit the way decision makers think to negotiate forest management and the tangle of different stakeholders and interests that entails. One way to do that according to the authors is to use strategy games, a method already proven successful in village halls and boardrooms alike. They say such games help players overcome bias and resolve deadlocks.

Targets are being missed and trends of deforestation have continued

The authors hope negotiators at major international talks - such as the COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (postponed to 2021, Kunming, China) and the COP26 of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (2021, Glasgow, UK) - will also be willing to play. “We have been talking for a quarter of a century, and we are nowhere close to reverse the trends. Maybe it’s time to try something new”, says Garcia, ecologist at CIRAD and lead author of the paper.

A track record of failure 

The paper highlights that, despite the plethora of national, international, public and corporate initiatives in recent years, targets are being missed and trends of deforestation have continued. In September 2019, for example, major companies Nestlé and Procter & Gamble announced they would fail to meet their self-imposed targets for zero deforestation.

Ten percent of the countries involved in the Bonn Challenge have set themselves the impossible target of restoring an area of land that considerably exceeds what is available for restoration within their borders. More recently, during the Covid-19 crisis, there has been a surge of deforestation in Brazil. In all these cases, the driving factor is the way humans make decisions.


Successes here and there do not register at the global scale, and at best they tell a story of battles won but of a losing war

“Successes here and there do not register at the global scale, and at best they tell a story of battles won but of a losing war,” the team wrote in their paper entitled The global forest transition as a human affair

Landscapes of values and norms 

To even begin to address why policies are failing, the collective says we need to gain a better understanding of the human agency involved in forest transitions and the “mental models” of people, i.e. how individuals see the world and how they make decisions. To date, this part of the puzzle has been largely neglected and this may explain why negotiations end in stalemates and commitments and policies prove ineffective. 

Sini Savilaakso, visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki and co-lead author of the paper, says: “This is what we’re saying: instead of imposing targets, and proposing visions that are not shared, start building together. It’s a very different approach.”

The games allow participants to live through the experience of decision-making and its hypothetical consequences

The collective says the assumption that everybody needs to work towards a common goal should be discarded. Instead, they propose a method that allows stakeholders and decision-makers to “align forces”, despite having different and sometimes even opposing values and worldviews. Specially designed board games are key tools in this process of introspection, learning and negotiation. 

Playing the Anthropocene game 

Through the games, the participants can become aware of their outlooks and decision-making processes, which gives way to reflection and identification of compatible goals. The games allow participants, playing their own role or the role of someone else, to live through the experience of decision-making and its hypothetical consequences, making lessons learnt more meaningful. The method proved particularly successful back in 2018 when, after two years of deadlock, one such game helped participants reach an agreement on intact forest landscape management in the Congo Basin

“Rather than blindly putting our trust in artificial intelligence to identify what decisions we should make, we put our trust in and wager on collective intelligence”, Garcia says of the markedly low-tech method.   “It’s a very anthropocentric approach,” declares Garcia. “But after all, we are living in the Anthropocene.” 

Further reading

Garcia, C. A., Savilaakso, S., Verburg, R. W., Gutierrez, V., Wilson, S. J., Krug, C. B., ... & Rhemtulla, J. M. (2020). The Global Forest Transition is a Human Affair. One Earth, 2 (5), 417 - 428.