Our associate Luke Whaley is travelling to the Dolomites of the Southern Alps in Italy, seeing what lessons can be learned from historic community forest governance structures. Watch this space for updates on his travels!

In the UK, forest management has tended to be the preserve of Government agencies. Yet in recent years there has been increasing involvement by community groups and social enterprises in owning, leasing, managing, or using forests and woodland. This hints at a shift away from the hierarchical and technically-minded governance approach that came to dominate over the course of the last century. Instead, these new developments highlight the need to rethink forest governance in the UK, including who participates, the ways in which they might participate, and the sorts of benefits that can be derived for both humans and the environment.

An important question now is, what sorts of organisations, institutions, and interventions might best facilitate the emergence of a more participatory agenda, and how do they fit into the current system of governance? Here there is value in looking elsewhere, to see what lessons can be learned.

In the Dolomites region of the Italian Alps, there exists forms of collective forest governance that in some cases have persisted for a thousand years or more. These community organisations are known as regole (literally “rules” in Italian). The regole are governed by a system of rules that detail a collective responsibility to manage and use the forests and pastures that comprise their territory; the rights of their members to benefit from these resources; penalties for rule transgressions; conditions pertaining to how membership is inherited; as well as bylaws that reflect more ad hoc arrangements.

These rules have typically emerged as responses to changing environmental, social, political, or economic conditions. They have also been challenged on a number of occasions. Not least among these has been the various national regimes that have attempted to impose themselves from Napoleon onwards, and which typically operated to undermine the legitimacy and function of the regole. In many cases these reforms succeeded, and regole were lost to history as the job of managing the land was given to the municipalities, under the control of central government.

Yet since World War II, and particularly since the 1990s, changes in national and regional legislation have recognised the right of the regole to exist, in large part because of their perceived ability to sustainably manage the land and to preserve social and cultural heritage. This has galvanised several of the regole who had survived the political upheaval of the previous two hundred years, whilst allowing others to revive and establish themselves.
Yet today there are important questions being asked of the regole. Many of these revolve around new challenges that relate to how they integrate themselves within local, regional, national, and European policy visions and legal frameworks. At the same time, the traditional role of the regole to ensure the livelihoods of their members by regulating how forests and pastures are used and managed is being altered by new social and economic pressures and opportunities. Not least among these is a bourgeoning tourist market, immigration and population growth, and an increasingly connected and integrated rural landscape.

It is with this in mind that I will be spending three weeks in and around the Dolomites, researching into these community organisations and trying to better understand the challenges and opportunities they face, and the ways in which they are dealing with them. This in turn might provide a useful sounding board for collective and participatory forms of forest and woodland management in the UK, where the intention is to contribute to more sustainable and rewarding forms of governance in the future.

Click here for the second part of this series, where Luke previews his three case studies of historic community governance arrangements in the Dolomites.

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