Examining how institutions and governance are both cause of and solution to contemporary environmental challenges

CIFOR has made valuable contributions to research on the governance impacts of a range of forestry-related issues, including biofuels, customary land rights, multi-functional and multi-actor landscapes, and the local, social and environmental impacts of global market trends.

Laura German, a former CIFOR Senior Scientist, explains that CIFOR’s work on biofuels put CIFOR on the ground before other researchers began analyzing “land grabs”, or large-scale land acquisitions. Since then, policy debates and academic research on the topic have taken off, and the number of books, journal articles and conference presentations dedicated to the topic have since proliferated as a result.

Featured scientist

Laura German

Laura German worked at CIFOR from February 2007 to December 2011, where she was Senior Scientist and Domain Leader for “Managing impacts of globalized trade and investment on forests and forest communities”.

Laura German is a Cultural and Ecological Anthropologist with over 25 years of experience on tropical land use and governance. Prior to her current position as Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Georgia (2012-present), she worked as a Senior Scientist with CIFOR; as a Scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)’s African Highlands Initiative in Uganda (2002-2007); and as a community development practitioner with the Pan-American School of Agriculture in Honduras.

These experiences have given her a unique combination of constructive, critical and creative orientations useful to both understanding and responsibly intervening in complex social, ecological and political systems. Laura German is lead editor of two edited volumes, Governing Africa’s Forests in a Globalized World (Earthscan, 2009) and Beyond the Biophysical: Knowledge, Culture and Power in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (Springer, 2010); and lead author of the book, Integrated Natural Resource Management in the Highlands of Eastern Africa: From Concept to Practice (Earthscan, 2011). She has also published widely in academic journals and popular media. A few common strands give coherence to an otherwise wide-ranging body of work: (i) a philosophical and ethical orientation to social justice and environmental sustainability; (ii) an interest in untangling the complex set of factors structuring human-environment relationships; (iii) a keen interest in institutions and governance as both a cause of and a solution to contemporary environmental challenges; and (iv) a commitment to bringing multidisciplinary evidence and critical perspectives to bear on policy and practice.

Areas of her current and past work include:
• Customary land rights (threats to, discursive framing of, governance of), and how they are shaped by formalization, community-investor consultations and neoliberal conservation
• The governance of tropical humid and dry forests
• The governance of multi-functional, multi-actor landscapes
• Community-based natural resource management, and self-governance of the commons and hybrid resource challenges
• Commercial pressures on customary land and forests, and the impacts and governance of land-based investments and large-scale land acquisitions
• Biofuels (social and environmental impacts of, governance of)
• Integrated natural resource management
• The integration of social theory with process interventions to catalyze equitable governance innovations
• Multi-stakeholder collaboration and institutional innovation

Discover more about Laura’s research at ResearchGate and on her professional website.

Find more information on the Institutions and Governance Lab here.

In conversation with Laura German

  1. What was the main focus of your work when you were at CIFOR?

    After joining CIFOR in 2007, I helped develop and then co-led (together with Chris Barr), the research domain “Managing impacts of globalized trade and investment on forests and forest communities.” The focus of my work was on: (i) evaluating the social and environmental impacts of major trends in globalized trade and investment – such as the policy-induced market for biofuels, China’s growing influence in Africa, and the growing commercial interest in forest and agricultural land; and (ii) analyzing existing and alternative arrangements (state, market, project finance) for governing the localized effects of these trends.

    Key bodies of work included the management of a European Union (EU)-funded project on the local social and environmental impacts of biofuels; co-development (with Krystof Obidzinski) of a project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to explore the effects of Chinese aid, trade and investment on African economies, livelihoods and forest ecosystems; and case studies on the social and environmental impacts of investments in tobacco (Malawi), copper mining (the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia) and timber (Cameroon).

    My work exploring the local impacts of biofuels led me to take a keen interest in customary land rights and how these were being shaped by both government policies and private investment, an interest which continues to the present day. Key products emerging from this work included a comparative analysis of legislation and practice associated with large-scale land acquisitions in four African countries (with George Schoneveld and Esther Mwangi); and a framework for analyzing the impacts of globalized trade and investment on customary rights holders and the citizenry at large (with Alois Mandondo, Fiona Paumgarten and Jacob Mwitwa). I also worked with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to facilitate the development of a regional forestry strategy; and with the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) to host an Africa-wide conference that led to an edited volume on decentralization and forest governance on the continent.
  2. How have your research and activities paved the way for future forestry-related developments and research?

    It is difficult to track the influences of one’s work, or to place that influence within the forestry sector specifically. The most obvious influence of my work within policy processes involves activities carried out directly in collaboration with policy makers or within policy forums, such as the Africa-wide workshop on forest governance and decentralization co-hosted with the UNFF; the workshops I facilitated with COMESA member states for the development of a regional forestry strategy; or the workshop held in collaboration with the biofuels taskforce of the Southern African Development Community (together with CSIR and SEI). Another indicator might be citations of published works. While I have over 2,500 citations according to Google Scholar, this is a poor indication of the influence of one’s scholarship outside of academia. Perhaps most relevant are references to my work in high-level policy debates surrounding biofuels and land-based investment.

    While our findings on the negative social impacts of biofuels were considered within debates between the EU’s Directorate-General for Energy and Directorate-General for Environment, we were disappointed to learn that they did not shape the sustainability criteria within the Renewable Energy Directive (EU-RED) – which remain focused exclusively on the environmental impacts of biofuels (namely, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity). This seems to reflect a bias towards the values held by European citizens rather than the citizens of developing countries directly affected by biofuel expansion, much of which has occurred in direct response to the renewable energy commitments in EU-RED even if the hard evidence, or willingness to acknowledge that evidence, remains limited.
  3. If you could choose one piece of work that would be the highlight of the research you did at CIFOR, what would it be? Why is it a highlight?

    I worked on so many different projects, each with its own highlights, that it is difficult to pinpoint one. However, the projects that stand out are: (i) those that were collaborative in nature and focused on synthesizing a larger body of work – such as a special issue in Ecology and Society on the social and environmental impacts of biofuels or the World Development paper mentioned above; and (ii) those linked to specific policy processes – such as the evaluation of social sustainability considerations linked to the EU Renewable Energy Directive, or the Issue Paper developed as an input into a regional policy dialogue on forestry. The highlights for me were as much in the process as in the destination, and in the excitement generated by collaboration itself.
  4. Since being at CIFOR, how have you seen research in your field evolve?

    CIFOR’s work on biofuels put CIFOR on the ground before other researchers began analyzing “land grabs”, or large-scale land acquisitions. Since then, policy debates and academic research on the topic have taken off, and the number of books, journal articles and conference presentations dedicated to the topic (e.g. World Bank, Land Deal Politics Initiative) have mushroomed as a result.

    I would like to also comment on how policy and practice surrounding this topic have evolved. While there is a growing consensus among governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector on the need to “respect land rights” in the context of (foreign) investment, this has come to be interpreted in largely procedural terms – namely, community consultations, often for the purpose of identifying the rights to be transferred. What this means is that irrespective of how much customary land is ceded or lost to investors or how people’s livelihoods are impacted, it is assumed that if consultations were carried out, then land rights were respected. This growing discursive alignment around purely procedural interpretations of land rights and land justice is extremely worrying in light of the divergence between the principles and spirit of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and its actual practice on the ground - and historical evidence that consultations produce largely dispossessory results.
  5. What future challenges related to your research area do you foresee? How does your research address these challenges?

    I see two key challenges related to my research area. The first concerns the growing commitment to the formalization of customary land rights through land titling. While there is widespread support for titling among governments, the private sector and civil society, and “legally recognized documentation” is now enshrined as a key measure of land rights in the Sustainable Development Goals, the academic literature highlights many ways that titling can and does further marginalize women, secondary rights holders and the poor. My own work in the last few years has shown how titling can strengthen exogenous authority systems at the expense of customary land relations, and pave the way for outside corporations to dispossess local land users. Similar findings are now emerging from Rwanda, Tanzania and other places. With donors putting their money into land titling programs rather than a balanced and systematic look at the evidence, research and responsible action are equally constrained.

    Another major challenge concerns the new pressures on land emanating out of the Paris Agreement. While the ambitious new afforestation and restoration targets enshrined in the Bonn Challenge, AFR100 and select nationally determined contributions could deliver “prosperity, security and opportunity” and “improved well-being” for local communities as some suggest (these are the words of Dr. Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s Minister of Natural Resources, as referenced in a World Resources Institute report), they could also lead to displacement and more exclusionary forest management as governments, the private sector or local elites seek to deliver on commitments or capture new rents. With “win-win” narratives guiding planning, the complex trade-offs embodied in species selection and alternative land uses and tenure regimes (e.g. between carbon sequestration, water and biodiversity; between global and local environmental values; or between local livelihood and macroeconomic objectives), as widely documented in the literature, are seldom acknowledged. Yet there is an opportunity to forge creative institutional and process-based solutions for multi-functional landscapes that advance diverse local values and aspirations while seeking ways to reconcile these with national and global values (e.g. private investment, SDGs, climate mitigation). I hope to develop these ideas together with Ethiopian colleagues over the coming months, as I move my family to Ethiopia to take up a visiting faculty position.
  6. Why do you think that the work CIFOR does on forestry is key for the future of our planet and the people living on it?

    CIFOR is somewhat unique in the research world, bridging a host of boundaries that tend to constrain efforts to bring balanced evidence to bear on humanity’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. In addition to placing social and biophysical scientists within the same research programs, it brings the expertise of each to bear on shared research questions and challenges without creating knowledge hierarchies between them. CIFOR also strikes a unique balance between critical and constructive research paradigms, hiring critical thinkers while placing them at the service of a constructive organizational mission – and thereby ensuring their work does not stop at distanced critique. In an age of unprecedented environmental destruction and social inequality, as well as the rise of “alt facts”, the importance of organizations like CIFOR to a livable world cannot be overstated.
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