Deforestation and Politics in Africa: Connecting the Dots

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In the latest in our popular Book Club feature, Nadia Rabesahala Horning probes the relationship between politics and deforestation in Africa, and argues that one can’t be understood without the other.

What does deforestation have to do with politics in Africa? Not much if we listen to scientists, development practitioners, political scientists, and conservation alarmists. In a book that I published last year, The Politics of Deforestation in Africa: Madagascar, Tanzania, and Uganda, I contend that in Africa deforestation has everything to do with politics. I claim, in fact, that to make sense of persistent deforestation throughout the continent, one needs to unpack African political systems to see how, when, and why interests align or misalign across three levels of decision making: local, national, and international. To make my case, I examine three political systems with a common challenge: despite significant institutional and financial investments in conservation, deforestation won’t go away. How come?


Since the late 1980s, powerful state and non-state actors have taken interest in saving the world’s biodiversity, and efforts to save natural habitats have intensified notably in the global south. So much so that by the early 1990s, environmental conservation was an integral part of national and international politics. Today, environmental stewardship cuts across several of the 17 UN sustainable development goals, suggesting that the international community sees environmental conservation as a key component of world security.

In Africa and elsewhere, the rise of the global conservation movement coincided with the fall of communism and corresponding triumph of neo-liberalism. No longer preoccupied with containing communism, the West took on the task of promoting democracy the world over. African governments, for their part, pivoted away from autocratic rule in search of new sources of foreign assistance to sustain themselves. In the context of securing foreign aid, many compromised their sovereignty and allowed donors to influence their development policies. Thus began the greening of African politics and politicians.

Persistent Conservation Myths

The book’s empirical chapters are organized along three under-examined assumptions underlying conservation policies and projects. On the surface, these assumptions appear reasonable. However, upon closer inspection, they amount to what I term conservation myths.

The first assumption is that state-sanctioned rules, including environmental legislation, deter deforestation where resource use choices are made daily: the local level. In reality, the rules that apply at this level are hybrids of formal legislation and community-devised rules, and the compliance calculus that local users perform takes into account three critical elements: (1) whether users think that the rules and those who enforce them are legitimate; (2) whether rule enforcement is consistent and predictable; and (3) whether local leaders are capable of securing social cohesion.

The second assumption is that foreign aid boosts conservation thinking where policies are negotiated and enacted: the national level. At this level, what typically emerges from key players’ interactions is an impressive array of environmental institutions put in place ostensibly to fight deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation. The resulting institutional proliferation is commonly mistaken for African governments’ commitment to conservation. Below the surface, African governments and donors are locked in a situation of mutual dependence in a game of advancing their respective interests, which are hardly limited to environmental conservation.

The third “truth” driving conservation politics is that the national and local levels of decision-making function in a symbiotic manner whereby conservation outcomes at the local level drive policy decisions at the national level, and vice versa. In reality, these two decision-making levels work in tandem, connecting only sporadically and under specific and limited conditions. In fact, the chronic disconnect that afflicts the relationship between local and national decision makers largely explains why community-based conservation projects have failed to deliver.

The Key to Conservation Success: Interest Alignment

Nothing would be misleading about the above assumptions if African political systems were functioning democracies, but most are not. In democratic systems policies reflect competing interests represented in, not outside, society. Studying the politics of deforestation affords the opportunity to re-examine the democratic nature of governance in Africa. It assesses how interests are shaped, how they are defended or promoted, and how they prevail. It further allows to identify which actors shape policies in states that are, in principle, sovereign.

This book will inform not just scholars of deforestation or environmental conservation. It is fundamentally about African politics because it uses the challenge of delivering effective conservation policies to reveal who the key actors are, what interests they bring into politics, what institutions results from their interactions, and what outcomes these institutions yield in terms of public welfare in Africa.

In the final analysis, deforestation persists in Africa because conservation policies and projects obstinately fail to recognize the limited and specific conditions under which conservation is feasible. These conditions relate to interest alignment among key actors at the local, national, and international levels. Thus interest alignment is the best predictor of conservation policies and projects’ success and failure.


Nadia Rabesahala Horning is an associate professor of political science at Middlebury College (VT, USA). Her specialty is African Politics.

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