International forest policy makers in most countries recognize the importance of sustainable forest management (SFM) [1
], that is, a management system that pursues a balance between social and economic development and the ecological values associated to the forests, for present and future generations [2
]. As References [3
] point out, SFM was initially interpreted as the sustainability of forest logging, where forest logging is improved in order to ensure the equilibrium of production between cycles. Although the ecosystem aspects are most relevant for attaining sustainability, the social and economic dimensions have gained importance in the last few years. Thus, the relevance of property rights, organization and participation, knowledge about the institutions that rule SFM, and ecosystem services, has increased [5
], so that SFM has turned into the dominant paradigm [7
Forest certification schemes constitute one way to demonstrate the performance of SFM. They are standardized evaluation processes that include product labelling, ensuring that the products come from properly and sustainably managed forests. Another way to demonstrate sustainability is the compulsory adoption of Sustainability Principles, Criteria and Indicators (PCIs) [8
]. The PCIs usually describe desired ends for SFM, without necessarily addressing potential means to achieve those ends [9
]. These sets of reference indicators are no different from structured lists that can be utilized in different contexts and conditions [10
]. PCIs on SFM have been developed by many countries and regions [11
]. PCIs are the structure that Costa Rica and other countries in all regions around the world have used in the formulation phase of management plans (MP) [14
Since the 90s, Costa Rica’s Government has recognized the importance of sustainable development. The first version of the National Forest Development Plan (PNDF, for its acronym in Spanish), at the start of the millennium, indicated that Costa Rica had the potential to manage 160,000 ha of forests that were in the hands of private owners [15
]. However, this plan did not include any specific policy regarding promotion or attention of SFM, apart from what was established in the Forest Law. During the period 2001–2010, SFM in the whole country accounted for 3% of the harvested volume and in 2010, it achieved only 1.7% of the total harvest [16
]. Clearly, although the 2001–2010 PNDF’s aim was that 25% of the timber for the local market would come from SFM [17
], that target was not achieved. In order to correct this deficiency, SFM is explicitly addressed in the 2011–2020 PNDF as a policy [18
]. During this period and since 2009, a system of payments for environmental services (PES), specifically for SFM, has been in effect and the PCIs’ regulations have changed. Under this scheme, SFM contribution increased from 1.7% at the end of 2010 to 5.1% in 2016 [19
], though still a small contribution in terms of area relative to the potential indicated by Reference [20
At present, SFM in Costa Rica legally require that any logging activities within forest must adhere to strict PCIs clearly defined in the MP. In Costa Rica, PCIs are complemented by a code of good practices that determine the technical regulation of SFM as a productive activity. Moreover, a manual of procedures is available to ensure the legal sustainability of FM, which defines the field of action of the State Forestry Administration [21
]. Under this system, complex technical and legal conditions are imposed in Costa Rica that discourage SFM development by forest owners [22
This hierarchical system leads to the formulation of the MP, which is evaluated for approval. However, the evaluation of the MP—after its execution—is not usually performed. This is due to high control and follow-up costs, because the activities developed are usually registered in written documents rather than in integrated digital systems. Sustainability evaluation is, thus, arduous and costly, with expenses even surpassing the benefits of the system. Consequently, the development of evaluation systems contributing to an easier decision-making process by using few criteria is recommended. In this regard, discrete choice experiments (DCE) can help simplify the initial decision-making system, without having to abandon the complex PCI system that allows a thorough analysis of the managed forest units. DCEs are widely used to perform assessments of multidimensional programs, such as forest management (FM) [23
A DCE allows estimation of use and non-use values, the latter being intangible values whose purpose is to bequest present assets to future generations or exclusively for conservation purposes [24
]. Sustainability could be considered as one of those intangibles. Although sustainability is discussed worldwide [25
] it can only be measured approximately. In this sense, a DCE could contribute to the analysis of the sustainability of FM units based on a limited set of criteria—assumed to be fundamental for most people—without entering into highly complex aspects that would require systems of abundant—and likely expensive to collect—evidence. Similarly, the results of a DCE could provide information to forest planners for their decision processes and policy design [26
Contributions from DCEs are abundant in varied applications worldwide, although in Costa Rica these tools have not been used much nor are they well known. Some exceptions are preference studies for the development of ecotourism [28
], transport [29
], organic products [30
], environmental management [31
], renewable energy and recreational tourism projects [24
] and conservation of protected areas [32
] among others.
In this article we propose that the sustainability of FM—beyond the specific technical fundamentals and the complexity of quantifying it by means of hierarchical complex systems such as the PCIs—is perceived differently by forest experts, based on a set of limited variables. Thus, quantifying these variables in terms of social preferences would allow obtaining a synthetized indicator of sustainability of the FM.
3.1. Attitude towards Critical Elements
The first round determined which elements in a MU represented the critical points for the unit’s sustainability, that is, those elements that influenced the probability of the unit of being classified as sustainable. Initially the expert evaluated the critical isolated elements qualitatively, then in the DCE, these same elements were evaluated jointly so that trade-offs among them occurred.
After asking the experts about each element in the first round, we confirmed that a high percentage agreed on certain critical points as being critical for sustainability more than in others (Table 2
). For example, legal and administrative inflexibility accounted for 90% of the responses, variation in the procedures between offices, 53.3% of the responses and the technical, legal and administrative variations, 70% of the responses. As this result (technical, legal and administrative conditions) was from the first round (and not from the literature review), it was not included in the first round DCE but the strength of the opinions of the expert panel led us to include this critical point in the second round DCE. Also critical for sustainability is high dependence on financing, related to high indebtedness of producers (73.30% of the responses). Both, the high cost of management tasks (63% of the responses) and the low production performance (53.30% of the responses), were also included as critical by the experts. Neither migration of nearby populations to other parts of the country, nor deterioration of communal organization were considered as critical elements at all. These results were used as elements to be considered in the definition of the points to be evaluated in the second round of the DCE.
Deforestation, which is related to the loss of the value of the land covered with forests (73.3%), was considered a critical point in 80% of the opinions. But this element was not used in the second round as critical point, because the change of land use in Costa Rica is prohibited by law, in addition, the mere fact that deforestation was identified caused the entire MU to be catalogued as unsustainable. Finally, the loss of land value of the forests was considered a critical point for sustainability and along with deforestation, it was discarded in the choice exercise of the second round.
Contrastingly, it is remarkable that few experts considered the absence of PES as a critical element for sustainability (13.3% of the qualitative responses). However, this attribute was used again in the second round because the results of the first round DCE showed that this attribute was statistically significant at 99%, (Table 3
). Lastly, none of the experts considered necessary to add critical points to the list chosen in first round DCE.
The DCE second round confirmed that deterioration of community organization and migration of populations close to the forests in other parts of the country were not considered critical points for sustainability (Table 2
). The mentioned critical point was included in the first DCE but because of this result, it was removed in the DCE second round. Another relevant result of the DCE second round was that the critical points of sustainability were confirmed, with the advantage that each critical point increased the overall number of opinions. In conclusion, we can affirm that the panel of experts reached consensus about the critical points.
3.2. Tendency of Each Attribute
The results of the RPL model obtained from first round indicated that all the critical points were significant at 99%, except for the membership in organized groups (Table 3
). The pseudo R2
was 0.5724, that is, model fitting was above the minimum ranges commonly accepted in the literature [45
]. Similarly, the significance of the random parameters, under the assumption of normality, showed that there was heterogeneity among the experts. Thus, despite the fact that the panel included individuals with different interests and perceptions, a relative convergence was achieved on most sustainability critical points.
The critical points identified by the RPL model in round 1 included production performance as the most relevant, followed not too close by the cost of obtaining and executing the MP. Then, with similar levels, we identify the need for external financing to carry out management activities, followed by the presence of PES. These results indicated that the higher the production performance, the higher the probability of the MU of being classified as sustainable. If the cost of obtaining and executing a MP was on average, the probability of the unit to be considered sustainable increased, compared to a situation with high cost. The PES also increased the probability of a MU being classified as sustainable. Finally, the presence of external financing for the management increased the probability of sustainability.
The critical point ‘membership in organized groups’ was eliminated in the second round because it was not statistically significant in the RPL model obtained in the first round (Table 4
). However, the technical, legal and administrative conditions were included in the second round because this critical point included a priori
relevant elements determined by the expert´s panel. In this case, we presented the results of the RPL model, codifying the qualitative critical points as effect codes and avoiding null values for the reference levels. The pseudo R2
obtained a value of 0.3454, again above the minimum threshold recommended.
According to the obtained results in the RPL model of the second round, the selected critical points significantly influence the decision about the sustainability of a MU. It was observed that the higher the cost of obtaining and executing the MP, the lower the probability of the MU of being considered sustainable. Meanwhile, the greater the production performance, the greater the probability of qualifying the MU as sustainable. The coefficient relative to the need of external financing showed that when there was a need for financing, not only it was the MU less likely to be considered sustainable but it was one of the most relevant critical points. Moreover, when external financing was not required, the coefficient obtained was in the expected direction, that is, when the MU does not need external financing, the sustainability of the MU is higher. Similarly, if the MU had benefits deriving from PES, the likelihood of being sustainable increased. Lastly, the experiment suggested three levels of technical, legal and administrative conditions for the management—inflexible, variable and stable conditions. The model results showed a significant level for the condition ’inflexible‘. According to the sign and the magnitude of the coefficient, an MU that faced inflexible conditions in regard to the technical legal and administrative process was less likely to be
As mentioned by Reference [25
], the SFM is about “many issues for many people” but production of goods and services for present and future generations is a common topic. They also mention that the promise of sustainability lies in two premises—first, self-renovation potential of the ecosystems, which is summarized in adaptability and resilience; and second, that economic activities and social perception are options that can be modified to guarantee the long term productivity and health of the ecosystem.
This article presents a two-round DCE framed within a Delphi analysis. To our best knowledge, there are no similar studies in the literature related to the management of renewable natural resources. The comparative advantage of realizing two rounds is that it allowed validating the use of 4 of the 5 attributes originally selected based on the SFM literature review and added one more, the technical, legal and administrative conditions. This critical point was highly recommended by the panel of experts and it resulted in the critical point that most contributed to the assessment of the sustainability of the MU. When the technical, legal and administrative conditions are inflexible, classifying a MU as sustainable becomes difficult. This result is not a novelty but it constitutes a new empirical evidence, since for sustainability to be achieved, there must be an equilibrium between the pillars that support it (social, economic and ecosystem aspects), while enabling, instead of threatening, socioeconomic conditions around the SFM. On this topic, Reference [47
] found in an analysis of cases that the existing over-regulation around the SFM in Costa Rica negatively affects its profitability. Among the aspects regarding over-regulation, Reference [47
] include logging intensity, minimum time of the cutting cycles, definition of zones of protection and banning of highly valued commercial forest species. All these regulations are still present in the new PCI’s scheme approved in 2008. However, the regulation persist as barriers to SFM of natural forests, according to Reference [21
]. Regarding this same topic, Reference [21
] found no consensus among the officials of the State Forestry Administration relative to the legal, technical and administrative regulations. For this reason, private forestry professionals and property owners have to rely on the officials’ interpretation and application at their discretion.
Over-regulation also negatively affects production performance, since part of the elements that are inflexible in the procedures are indirectly related to production performance. That is why in large single MU or more productive MUs for reasons of location and environmental conditions, the overall effect is higher production performance. In an over-regulated scenario, this condition places the forest in comparative advantage, over those with average sizes around 50 ha. Among the effects on production performance is that some officials add banned species, at their discretion [21
]. According to Reference [47
], in more productive lands the effect on profitability is up to 40% higher than in less productive lands. This reduced productivity is linked to an increase in the slopes of the land, where SFM is feasible but more expensive.
The need for external financing is confirmed as a critical point of sustainability, for, when it is needed, the likelihood of the MU of not being sustainable is among the highest compared to the rest of critical points proposed. This is because financing entails additional payment deadlines and interest rates that exacerbate the costs impacts. When the production performance is restricted by some variable, the foreseeable immediate income must be high in order to compensate the financial costs. As Reference [21
] mentions, under SFM the owners generally do not have access to financing sources to develop and execute the MP, either because of lack of information or real impossibility (not qualifying for financing). The commonest consequence is that the producer sells the standing timber, with no additional value to the legal cutting permit. Under this scheme, it is obvious that the profit margins are greatly reduced compared to selling logwood at the farmyards or sawmills. According to Reference [19
], timber prices can be incremented from 50% to 92% if the timber is sold as logs at the industry yards, although that implies additional costs.
SFM costs are confirmed as a critical point of sustainability, with significant negative values both in the first and in the second round of the DCE. In Costa Rica, costs refer to three fundamental aspects—(1) preparing the permit, (2) formalizing the permit that includes preparing the application of environmental viability and (3) timber extraction [47
]. However, there are other costs related to surveillance, boundary maintenance, administration that are assumed by the owner and not accounted as part of the SFM. The most significant and fundamental cost is permit formalization (i.e., cost of procedures and waiting time), reaching up to 65% of the total costs. Permit preparation follows with 27.3% [47
]. Thus, any variation in the costs negatively affects the sustainability since, as mentioned, most of the forest owners in Costa Rica sell the standing timber, mainly because they do not have access to favourable financing programs to carry out the SFM of a private natural forest.
The PES results obtained are noteworthy because private owners who carry out SFM in Costa Rica can have access to PES for (1) protection of hydric resources for human consumption; (2) protection of biodiversity; or (3) only because they have a MU. However, there are owners who do not register for PES either because they do not want to or because the forests are not within the priority areas that benefit from PES. The PES amounts are different, the highest being payed to owners who register their farms for protection of hydric resources for human consumption. As expected, whoever enters this scheme will do so under the expectation of additional benefits including the likelihood that the MU will be classified as sustainable under a PES scheme. It is also true that if the property is not within a priority area, the owner will have to acquiesce to a management PES or will simply have no access to the PES program, which results in reduced probability of achieving sustainability. As Reference [20
] mentioned in 2002, PES to forest management was eliminated as a response to pressure exerted by the environmental groups who were opposed to SFM and who were not even willing to recognize the environmental services provided by managed forests. Also, Reference [48
] confirms that only people or companies with greater economic power can absorb the expenses of the SFM since the activity is not profitable without the management PES. This same finding was supported by Reference [47
] and later confirmed by Reference [21
], despite the fact that the management PES was restored in 2009. The amount of the PES benefit currently given in Costa Rica is not as high as the transaction costs involved, which can bear negative consequences for sustainability. However, As Reference [49
] indicates, should there be no payment for environmental services, the costs of providing these services would be fully assumed by the owner. If PES is payed, at least society perceives that the services received are compensated in some way, even if the amount payed to the owners is only a small portion of the total benefits they are really providing through forest management [49
The use of DCE as a valuation tool for non-market goods is once more confirmed as a valuable information source. Using few attributes, assessments can be performed to predict the complexity around sustainability, in this case, of MU under a SFM system. The weight given by the experts to each critical point in the first and second rounds and the results of the coefficients showed the same tendency, that is, the magnitude of the weighting of the expert panel was confirmed by the modelling results.
The experts’ perception with respect to the common variables that define the sustainability of a managed forest relates to elements simple to determine. Four of these aspects were restated as significant in the two rounds of application of the DCE—the need for external financing, production performance, costs of preparation of the MP and of the work of execution and availability of PES. These four variables correspond to the social, economic and ecosystem dimensions that traditionally have been the basis for the definition of SFM. The fifth variable that the experts recognize as relevant refers to the technical, legal and administrative conditions. This is a significant variable in the DCE and it was identified as the most relevant with regard to inflexible conditions. In addition, this variable corresponds to the institutional dimension, which as a component of the social dimension, gains relevance from the point of view of governance relative to the decision making concerning the use of forests in private lands.
The results of this study also indirectly confirm the results of other studies about SFM, which conclude that certain technical, legal and administrative conditions influence profitability, becoming barriers to SFM. This study shows how those conditions, identified as barriers in other investigations, can become one of the main reasons for classifying managed forests as unsustainable.
The perception of sustainability and the variables that could define it should be analysed by decision makers and those responsible for governance, since it is clear that the heaviest weight for forest management to be considered sustainable must not be put on ecosystem aspects solely. Now, more than ever, those who depend on forest management as a means to subsist should also regard it as a source of well-being, in coherence with the environmental, social and economic relevance of these ecosystems.
In the near future, it is important to address in depth the subjacent causes of non-access to the PES by private forest owners, as well as the amount of the granted payments. It is also important to deepen what requirements are fundamental to enrol more private owners of MU, which would contribute in part to improve the profitability of the SFM.