Tajik forestry officials survey recently planted poplars and willows in an attempt to afforest riverside areas in 1977, Namadgut, Tajikistan. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Pamir Mountains in Eastern Tajikistan witnessed a rapid environmental degradation. Efforts to stop this degradation have been mixed. A new study shows how local history and positive leadership have been crucial for implementing a more sustainable forest policy. Photo: Historical record from Tajik Forestry agency, photo courtesy from K. Khosimbekov

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Forest management in the Pamirs

Striving for sustainable forestry: history matters

Applying Elinor Ostrom’s principles on common pool resources management demonstrates how forest management in the Pamir Mountains may not be so tragic after all. But Soviet era legacy lingers, new research shows

Story highlights

  • Resilience thinking together with Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s principles for collective action and social-ecological systems framework proved useful to analyze why decentralized, joint forestry management was more successful in some villages in the Pamirs than in others
  • The study engaged local forest officials, NGO staff and communities in the study design. The forestry officials and NGO found the design principles most helpful in informing improvements for joint forestry management in Tajikistan
  • Historical use of the forest, positive local leadership and a closer relationship between local people and the forest, e.g. through cultural practices were related to a more successful implementation of joint forestry management

The Pamir Mountains in Eastern Tajikistan is a region with harsh environmental conditions and a dramatic history. During the Soviet era, large amounts of fuel, food and fodder was imported to sustain this poor, semi-arid region, which made it possible for the population to grow. The forest management was strongly centralized.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the economic situation deteriorated and Tajikistan was thrown into a civil war where the Pamiri people rebelled against the central government. The result was years of isolation from the rest of the world, forcing them to turn to scant areas of forests for both fire wood and grazing for cattle. Severe and rapid environmental degradation followed.

Since then, international development organizations together with forest authorities have attempted to implement a more sustainable and decentralized forestry to improve the situation, based on the principles of joint forestry management (JFM), where rural people and tenants are contracted as forest users and who are responsible for maintaining and protecting their plots.

The results have been mixed across different communities.

Applying Elinor Ostrom’s principles

To identify conditions that could render JFM in the Pamirs more successful, centre researcher Jamila Haider and colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre turned to Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom for answers. Haider worked together with Tajik forestry officials, a local NGO and communities to design a study to explain the differential success in joint forest management.

Ostrom’s work on designing principles for management of common pool resources became groundbreaking because she countered the conventional wisdom that only private ownership or top-down regulation could prevent "the tragedy of the commons", a scenario where users would inevitably destroy the resources that they held in common.

Through an interdisciplinary approach that combined theory, field studies and laboratory experiments, Ostrom showed that people are capable of creating rules and institutions that allow for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources. These principles describe the conditions needed for collective action for sustainable resource use, for example clear boundaries for the resource, rules for its use, a monitoring system and sanctioning if rules are broken.

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History matters

However, the added element of Pamir’s dramatic history forced Haider and her colleagues to complement Ostrom’s principles with insights on how people reorganize themselves following a crisis, an important element in resilience thinking.

Even if JFM has been successful in establishing many of Ostrom’s principles for collective action, only a few communities think they have the possibility to influence the rules, and therefore it is difficult to implement a decentralized and more sustainable management.

“This may be due to the legacy of a highly centralized forestry sector, and will likely take more than a generation to change”, Jamila Haider explains, referring to the Soviet era.

"We see that a lot of the observed variability in planned harvest is linked to the history of forest use and that three villages have much more productive forests than others. These are all villages that have pre-Soviet forests," Haider explains.

Map of Tajikistan (coloured), with Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, or the Pamirs in light brown, and the rest of Tajikistan in grey. Yellow points indicate villages where JFM has been implemented and surveyed for this study. The topographic map demonstrates how villages are located on valley floors

Positive leadership needed

Quantitative data about social-ecological variables that could affect forest condition was complemented with interviews with people in three villages where JFM was implemented to various degrees. To evaluate forest condition, the authors looked at planned harvest, an expert assessment by local foresters of how much material can be taken from the forest on an annual basis.

The study showed that the more tenants per forest, the higher was the planned harvest and thus the ecological condition. However, the analysis also showed that history matters even more: Old forests were often in better condition than younger forests.

JFM. The village that was most successful had a strong group of leaders responsible for the forest management, and the inhabitants also placed more spiritual and cultural values on trees and forests than the other villagers.

Haider believes resilience thinking offers a useful set of tools for bringing historical dynamics into social–ecological analysis.

"We found that differences in forest condition between communities under JFM to be strongly influenced by the history of the Pamirs. The longer their use of a forest, coupled with positive leadership during periods of crises, the more resilient the forest management would be."


The study used a mixed methods approach. Data about the social ecological variables were collected through document analysis and a survey with 25 focus groups with forest user from forests in the Western Pamirs. Statistical analysis was performed to relate the ecological status of the forest (using planned harvest as a proxy) to different variables. Furthermore, 45 qualitative interviews were performed with inhabitants in three different villages, one that had not implemented joint forestry management, one that had tried but with limited success, and one that had implemented it successfully.

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Published: 2018-05-17

Related info

Haider, J., L., Neusel, B., Peterson, G.,D., Schlüter, M. 2018. Past management affects success of current joint forestry management institutions in Tajikistan. Environ Dev Sustain, 9 March. DOI: 10.1007/s10668-018-0132-0

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Jamila Haider is a post-doctoral researcher studying resilience and development. Her research looks specifically at development as a process of coevolution where ecosystems and people are deeply intertwined.

Garry Peterson is professor in environmental sciences with emphasis on resilience and social-ecological systems at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. His research combines three themes: abrupt systemic change, how ecological changes impacts people, and using futures thinking to improve navigating surprising social-ecological change.

Maja Schlüter’s research focusses on social-ecological interactions and mechanisms that may explain social-ecological systems phenomena, such as the collapse of the Baltic Sea cod, the trapped situation of water management in Uzbekistan, the diversity of self-governance forms in Mexican small-scale fisheries, or cooperation in common pool resource management.


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