Boreal Forest Platform study tour, Russia

Open dialogue platforms focused on sustainable forest management create trust, transparency and an enabling safe space for WWF forest work to take place in.

There is a big difference between bringing forestry companies, government agencies and NGOs together in the field to collaboratively share their sustainability experiences and improve their practices on the ground, than working with these organisations separately. This is what both WWF’s New Generation Plantations (NGP) platform and its Russian sister programme, the Boreal Forest Platform (BFP), do really well. Having such close working relationships on the ground with multiple global forest companies and key government forestry agencies has created an enabling environment that other WWF forest sector transformation programmes and platforms can use to leverage their work.

Over the past six years, part of my work has involved designing social learning processes and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogues for week-long study tours held by NGP. This year, at the end of June, I took part in my first BFP field study tour in the Arkhangelsk and Komi regions. It was exciting to come to Russia to share my social learning experiences of how we facilitate dialogue in NGP on complex plantation forestry issues. And it was useful for me too, as the context in Russia is different, and so too is the culture. Here I learnt again the vital lesson that you can’t just take one recipe, even if it is used elsewhere in the world, and apply it in Russia. And you can’t take a Russian recipe and apply it in South Africa or elsewhere. You need to tweak it and adapt it to suit local needs. It’s really important for people involved in different WWF projects to get together and to share experiences, difficulties and solutions, and learn from each other. It’s a useful and powerful tool to improve practice. This is the strength of being an international organization, where the context and experiences of each country are very different, but the challenges are often very similar. Having staff with these different perspectives is vital when dealing with complex issues, where no one person has the solution, but we all have a part of it. In the discipline of social learning (a type of informal adult education), different opinions are a trigger for transformative learning that can catalyze powerful social change.

My role in the BFP study tour was to maximize social learning opportunities where people could listen to different views, openly and freely discuss them, and learn from each other during the week-long learning journey. I worked with Alexander Kostenko, BFP coordinator from the WWF-Russia Forest Programme, and experts from forestry corporates Ilim and Mondi who were partners in this field tour, to develop the agenda and maximize social learning opportunities. These were designed to allow everybody’s voices to be heard, even the quieter people. We split the large group of more than 60 participants into smaller groups for meaningful discussions trying to answer focused questions. We designed field activities where people could get their hands dirty, and investigate practically what Green Targeting and Blue Targeting are. These were two tools introduced by Swedish Forest Agency experts who were invited to share these tools to see how relevant they were to the Russian context. On the last day we used the ‘World Café’ methodology to hold small group discussions focused on finding solutions to key questions of the study tour that WWF and the study tour partners could follow up with afterwards. These are some of the mechanics of social learning.

Probably the most important aspect of the BFP and of NGP is having an organization like WWF convening people from all walks of life. Our job is to bring together different people from governments, NGOs and corporates to discuss complex issues to which there are no easy answers, and then to act on co-constructed solutions. We have experience and are good at doing this. So it’s nice to see how WWF can play that role of bringing people together to develop this common understanding and then co-construct new ways of doing things together. As sister projects, both BFP and NGP have common aims and goals, but their diverse background makes them different at the same time.

About the Boreal Forest Platform

The Russian Boreal Forest Platform was launched by WWF-Russia and other partners in 2015 as an open dialogue and experience exchange platform for all forest sector stakeholders. It has been designed as an international initiative with a scope on all forests of the boreal and temperate zone; however the Platform’s current practical activities are focused on Russia.

The Platform is based on the idea of achieving a balance between timber industry development and the conservation of areas of High Conservation Value (HCV). Another focus is to facilitate the transition to sustainable intensive forest management in Russia, using the knowledge and best practices of local and foreign forestry companies. BFP aims to achieve this through encouraging and maintaining a dialogue among all stakeholders, developing proposals and initiatives for improving the forestry legislation, setting socio-economic and environmental priorities and their combination on the basis of landscape planning.

Diverse background causes different connotations

Intensive forest management is a very controversial topic, and in different countries where forest sector backgrounds are diverse we have different understandings of this term. In the Russian context it’s a reasonable approach to practicing intensive (but sustainable!) forestry management, where timber companies are allowed to commercially use secondary growth forests for the supply of sufficient forest resources for long-term use while allowing for the conservation of biodiversity.  The benefit of forestry companies using these secondary growth forests for intensive commercial use while providing jobs to the local communities inhibits forestry companies from logging intact forest landscapes (IFLs), allowing them to remain in a pristine condition.  However, even within the borders of one country, government authorities, NGOs and corporates have different views. There are many different ways to manage forests intensively and sustainable. And this study tour gave a wonderful opportunity for Russian and some international forest market stakeholders to get together to deeper understand each other’s views in what they think sustainable intensive forest management is. And how it should take place within the new regulatory framework in Russia.

This field-based study tour convened all key stakeholders and let them see the different sustainability practices of intensive forest management, so that they could discuss this very controversial topic, and begin to develop common thinking and common understanding. That’s the biggest impact of the study tour – providing a safe space for all stakeholders to begin developing a common understanding of what intensive forest management can look like, how it can be sustainable at a landscape level, and how it can take place in already utilized secondary growth forests. The only way this can be done is by being out in the field, seeing what we saw and discussing it in a free and safe space where everybody can express their views, irrespective of what they are – not around the boardroom table, which would inhibit key conversations and understandings.

Social learning and experience exchange as a market transformation tool

Forest experts from Sweden, South Africa and Netherlands attended the BFP field tour, not just to share their experience, but to explore and learn from each other as well. The Swedish Forest Agency specialists found the study tour incredibly enlightening, because there are practices implemented in Russia that they did not do in Sweden. Vice versa, there are some practices in Sweden that did not occur in Russia. This provided the ingredients for a lot of transformative learning between Sweden and Russia. It would be really important to have BFP study tours outside of Russia, in neighboring countries, and have more participation at the Russian BFP from other boreal forest countries. It will be important to maximize the lessons learnt on how these countries are managing their boreal forests, how are they doing sustainable intensive forest management in commercial forest while conserving HCVs and IFLs. That will open up new opportunities, new ways of seeing things, new ideas, and new solutions to those who are grappling to find solutions to the complex issues of intensive forest management.

This is a significant reason for making BFP an international learning platform between the major countries that have boreal forests. By going to different countries, people in these countries will see intensive boreal forest management in a different light. The Russians in turn will be exposed to different viewpoints, as will the Swedes, Finns or Canadians, who will be exposed to the Russian viewpoint of intensive sustainable forest management.

When solving complex issues, it’s vital to have as many different viewpoints as possible. Study tours will only work if you have people with different ideas, values, ideologies, and different viewpoints. Disagreement is a trigger for transformative learning. If everybody agrees with everything, nobody will learn anything new. Open dialogue, that takes place in safe and transparent space, is a key to creating shared understanding, collaborative learning, and the co-construction of new solutions and sustainability practices for improved forest management.