Rutt, R., Myers, R., McDermott, C. and Ramcilovic-Suominen, S. 2018. Another ‘forestry fad’? Environmental Science & Policy (89) 266-272.
There has been recent debate around the role of ‘fads’ in global conservation measures, and the lessons they hold for achieving desired conservation and development outcomes. Fads are characterized by initially widespread enthusiasm and major mobilization of resources followed by abandonment in favor of the next fad. Debate centers less on whether such fads exist, but rather on whether they represent opportunities for incremental policy learning, or are symptomatic of the more systemic failure of a market-based conservation agenda and the reinforcement of existing power inequalities. The European Union (EU)’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan aims to prevent the trade of illegal timber among the EU and its trading partners especially in the ‘Global South’. Fifteen years since launching the Action Plan, we ask whether the processes and outcomes of FLEGT, and specifically the Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), resonate with the dynamics observed in other processes dubbed ‘fads’ within conservation and development arenas, and if so, what we can learn from this. Drawing from interviews, grey literature, and scholarship, we examine FLEGT VPAs as following three key stages of a fad: (1) there is initial enthusiasm by a wide range of actors for FLEGT as something ‘new’ or ground-breaking, (2) discrepancies and disagreements emerge about its end goals, i.e. whether it’s core purpose is to distinguish legal from illegal wood in the EU marketplace, or to achieve deeper governance reforms; while the means for achieving those goals borrow heavily from previous market-based initiatives (3) actors and champions become fatigued, yet at the same time frame elements of their own involvement as a ‘success’. Identifying these fad-like characteristics calls into question the ‘newness’ of FLEGT, by uncovering its many similarities to other market-based measures such as certification that exacerbate inequalities. Hence, branding FLEGT a success without challenging its role in the unequal concentration of power and resources, is likely to further entrench these inequalities in subsequent conservation fads, while a focus on incremental learning misses the larger failures and injustices of market-based approaches and can reinforce their re-emergence.