Reflecting on the outcomes of the Rio Dialogue on Forests: Policy learning for the crowd?

Reflecting on the outcomes of the Rio Dialogue on Forests: Policy learning for the crowd?

On June 17, Yale Professor Ben Cashore took part in the Rio Dialogues on Forests. As one of several facilitators of the online discussion, Ben was responsible for encouraging discussion related to forest governance recommendations at the Rio+20 conference and for bringing the outcomes of that dialogue to the Rio Dialogues panelists for today’s discussion. During the event on the 17th, panelists debated topics ranging from a net zero deforestation goal (as an addendum to goals for restoring 150,000 hectares of forest lands), as well as the inclusion of indigenous voices (as it is difficult for individuals living in traditional communities to gain access to the technology necessary to participate in an online discussion). Panelists also placed much emphasis on valuing forest resources, which could allow society to consider the value of forest ecosystem services in national accounting systems.

But in the weeks before the official panel, the Dialogues organizers were already getting the ball rolling on recommendations drafting. The Brazilian Government with the support of the UN provided the platform for an online voting process that engaged individuals from all over the globe. This represents a first effort for a UN conference towards incorporating voices that would otherwise be excluded from the in situ negotiations process. The top recommendation from the online voting process—to restore 150,000 hectares of degraded lands—automatically made the list of three recommendations to be delivered to negotiators later in the week.

During the panel event it was the responsibility of the panelists and the 2,000 some attendees to choose two more recommendations for these negotiators: one from the panel and one voted in by the crowd. The top voted recommendation from the crowd was the following:

Promote science, technology, innovation and traditional knowledge in order to face forests main challenge: how to turn them productive without destroying them.

As I reflect upon this outcome, I have several concerns.

First, I wonder whether this is an appropriate recommendation for those to whom it is being advanced. The value of science, technology and innovation is unquestionable. However, as a recommendation for diplomats and heads of state it is out of touch with reality. The recommendation the crowd chose today is exactly the type of solution that these actors are ill-suited to implement.

During the pre-panel briefing Ben made a passionately dispassionate argument that we focus on solutions we can implement today—those that don’t require lengthy negotiations or political planning and will—for example, better tracking of forest products. He emphasized that governments can take this type of action tomorrow, and that it can have the effect of enabling further efforts towards sustainable forest use, efforts like legality verification to ensure that timber products have been legally harvested. However, the chosen recommendation misses this mark.

The crowd’s choice, however well intentioned, lacks a concreteness that would make it implementable.  With no detail as to how the promotion of science, technology, innovation and traditional knowledge should be accomplished, and by whom, there is no clear first step towards this goal.

Finally, I wonder whether the audience was prepared for the voting process. Though the panel’s host explained that the top recommendation from online voting was already one of the three that would be passed along, 21% of the audience still voted for it. While there are many interpretations of this outcome, I can’t help but think that some audience members simply did not receive a clear enough explanation of the voting process to be able to spend their votes wisely.

Overall, the Rio Dialogues represented a first experiment in the inclusion of a wide range of voices into the negotiations process, and as such were a success. Perhaps with more time to form, discuss and vet recommendations, a future Rio Dialogues process can present recommendations with a clear path to implementation. I hope the effort continues into the future, with ongoing improvements.