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Magna Carta and the road to agroforestry

Forests as contested sites have a long history, including featuring in the Magna Carta, itself a contested document

 

On 15 June 1215—so exactly 800 years ago—King John of England agreed to attach his seal to the document that became known as Magna Carta, or the Great Charter.

This is widely celebrated as the foundation of modern governance, where the powers of the king or central ruler, justices and constables were bounded by the law, and taxation was coupled with representation.

Less well known is that the Magna Carta also explicitly promised (in chapter 48) changes in the behaviour of foresters: ‘… all evil customs connected with forests and warrens, foresters and warreners, sheriffs and their officials, river-banks and their wardens shall immediately be inquired into…’, and (in chapter 47) stated that ‘… all forests that have been made forest in our time shall be immediately disafforested’.

Forests have played important roles in human history. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Forests have played important roles in human history. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

These statements can be easily misunderstood in the current context. Forest referred to exclusive hunting and exploitation rights by the king, and the barons who led the revolt that led to an ‘appeasement text’—the Magna Carta—successfully challenged the royal privilege.

Warrens were land set aside for breeding game, especially rabbits. In 1217, the forest governance elements of Magna Carta were separately formulated as the Charter of the Forests. The ‘deforestation’ that the Magna Carta agreed to did not refer to cutting of trees but to recognition that the Crown had claimed lands without respect to pre-existing local rights.

In April 2002, as if in reenactment of the Magna Carta, forestry officials met with local community representatives and agreed to change behaviour, respect laws and negotiate the way the Sumber Jaya landscape in Indonesia was to be managed for public benefits plus local livelihoods. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

In April 2002, as if in reenactment of the Magna Carta, forestry officials met with local community representatives and agreed to change behaviour, respect laws and negotiate the way the Sumber Jaya landscape in Indonesia was to be managed for public benefits plus local livelihoods. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

 

In the colonial and post-colonial histories of many countries, the powers of the state, even though it claimed to act on behalf of all citizens, has often clashed with what are perceived to be local rights. Forests became zones of conflict and in many places they still are.

Two central concepts of Roman Law were the ‘first-come-first-served’ principle that applied to ‘empty’ lands (‘Terra nullius’) and the ‘common good’ principle (‘Res communis’). Magna Carta’s forest clauses made clear that there was no Terra nullius left in the England of those days that the Crown could claim without infringement of local rights. There still is a long way to go to have the world’s forests managed as Res Communis.

Progress has been made, though, where forest authorities found ways to negotiate with local stakeholders, reigning in the exploitation by external parties legitimized by the central authority.

Whether in North Korea, Indonesia, India or Niger, the way ‘forests’ are considered to be a privilege for the state and its rulers has been a major source of conflicts, in many cases requiring the formal recognition of agroforestry as a form of land use with trees that is not controlled by the state.

Today we celebrate 800 years of this document that became a symbol for governance reform, and hope it will be better understood so that trees and forests are managed for local and global benefits alike, simultaneously.

References for further reading
Xu J, van Noordwijk M, He J, Kim KJ, Jo RS, Pak KG, Kye UH, Kim JS, Kim KM, Sim YS, Pak JU, Song KI, Jong YS, Kim KC, Pang CJ, Ho MH. 2012. Participatory agroforestry development for restoring degraded sloping land in DPR Korea. Agroforestry Systems. DOI 10.1007/s10457-012-9501-0.

De Royer S, Visser L, Galudra G, Pradhan U, Noordwijk M. 2015. Self-identification of indigenous people in post-independence Indonesia: a historical analysis in the context of REDD+. International Forestry Review 17(3).

Van Noordwijk M, Agus F, Dewi S, Purnomo H. 2014. Reducing emissions from land use in Indonesia: motivation, policy instruments and expected funding streams. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 19(6): 677–692.

Van Noordwijk M, Minang PA, Hairiah K. 2015. Swidden transitions, in an era of climate change. pp 261—280. In: MF Cairns, ed. Shifting cultivation and environmental change: indigenous people. Agriculture and Forest Conservation series. Oxford, UK: Earthscan.

Yatich T, Kalinganire A, Weber J.C, Alinon K, Dakouo JM, Samaké O, Sangaré S. 2014. How do Forestry Codes affect access, use and management of protected indigenous tree species: evidence from West African Sahel. Occasional Paper no.15 Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre.

 

Meine van Noordwijk

Meine van Noordwijk

Meine van Noordwijk is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre. He joined the organization in 1993. Dr van Noordwijk guided the global integration of the Centre’s science and co-led ICRAF's global research program on environmental services. He also participated in a number of bilateral projects and is professor of agroforestry at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

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