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Nassonia Forest: Into the Common Wild

By Jonathan Piron

In Belgium, the Nassonia project aimed at re-creating a natural forest in Wallonia has generated controversy as well as enthusiasm. Beyond the initial start-up of the project, set up by the Pairi Daiza Foundation, the matter of how it will be run is rarely raised. By adopting an integrated approach and transcending tensions, the Nassonia experiment could prove to be innovative model of governance, at the social, institutional, and environmental levels.

The continuous degradation of the environment under the combined effects of pollution and the consumption of resources weighs heavily on human societies. Forests, which could have been seen as unchanging places, are some of the most seriously affected. Apart from some protected regions in Europe, the continent hardly contains any more primary forests1. The majority of forests have been shaped by humans, and are owned, whether privately or publicly, with a view to exploiting the natural resources. It is in this context that the Pairi Daiza Foundation’s proposal, via its president Eric Domb, for the long-term rental (99 years) of a forest in Wallonia for conversion into a protected area, has raised as many plaudits as questions. As part of an environmental approach, the project’s objective is to understand how a forest reverts to its natural state. However, the fear of seeing the land in private hands raises several questions: will those who had access to the forest still be allowed to use it? And how will revenues be used? Who will manage it? Faced with these different issues, wouldn’t a positive alternative be a forest that is managed in common?

As part of an environmental approach, the project’s objective is to understand how a forest reverts to its natural state.

From Nassogne to Nassonia: Re-appropriating the Forest

Owned by the local municipality of the same name, Nassogne forest covers 1,538 hectares, predominantly in the Natura 2000 zone. The end of the last hunting rights lease, which has not been renewed, led local people to seek other projects for the site. This was when the Pairi Daiza Foundation announced its interest in a lease for the Nassonia project. The project would be the first forestry project in Western Europe entirely dedicated to biodiversity. A preliminary agreement concluded with Nassogne’s communal college aims to allocate the land to ‘a series of actions to support the natural habitat and animal and plant species’.

On the practical level, the plan would involve a 99-year ‘emphyteutic’ lease. The foundation would thus become tenant of the forest. An annual sum of around 400,000 euros per year is suggested by the Foundation, close to the amount received by the Nassogne local authority via their usual income stream.

The day-to-day running of the forest would be taken over by the Pairi Daiza Foundation.  With a different mission from the Belgian wildlife park, the Foundation will protect natural habitats, and enable their natural recolonisation by existing local species. The advocates of the project emphasise that the Foundation’s status doesn’t allow for profit-making.

Another element of the mission statement is a commitment to possible deforestation operations as part of a short circuit system, in keeping with a circular economy. Furthermore, beyond the ‘biodiversity’ brief, the Nassonia project is also a vision of ‘integrated tourism’, centred on teaching and the respectful access to flora and fauna within their natural habitat.

Overcoming the Obstacles

The project rapidly generated enthusiasm in the scientific community. Several professors and public figures expressed their interest in the media, supporting the initiative and its environmental approach. A group of Nassogne residents also created a group called ‘Pro-Nassonia’, reinforcing local support for this ‘visionary project’. However, following the setting-up of the project, many questions remain about its day-to-day management.

First is the issue of Rights of Usage; the oligarchic nature of the Foundation raises questions about how open the management structures will be. The actual rights of usage of the forest have yet to be specified. The Minister René Collin, in charge of Agriculture, Nature and Rural Affairs, underlines the importance of the multiple use of the forest, including its productivity, such as timber, which provides thousands of jobs. The Minister is insisting that the project guarantees access to the forest, as well as the control of game, if necessary by human intervention, so this is still a moot point.

Beyond the ‘biodiversity’ brief, the Nassonia project is also a vision of ‘integrated tourism’, centred on teaching and the respectful access to flora and fauna within their natural habitat.

As far as the transformation of the forest is concerned, in the case of Nassonia, the lease in place relates to the nature of the asset. The forest would go from being a public asset to a private one. More technically, this transfer transforms a hitherto open and uncompetitive domain into a competitive and exclusive one. This also raises more questions around the most appropriate management model.

Finally, to financial management. Management, and therefore the distribution of the revenue from the forest, no longer come under the municipal purse. Many questions therefore come into play over the attribution of natural resources such as timber, game, and so on. These revenues could be considerable, compared with the annual rent paid to the local community. But these are not the only factors; the very financial sustainability of the project will rest on the shoulders of a private foundation, which raises issues about the future of the project if the foundation, along with the initiatives developed by Nassonia, should cease to exist.

Despite these various obstacles, this project is of definite interest. The question now is what mechanisms will be put in place to resolve these tensions, and this is where the model of the commons could play a role.

Common Nassonia: A New Horizon

The dynamics of the Nassonia project are interesting, in that it sees the forest not as a site of raw materials (such as wood), but as a systems network, built around protecting and enhancing a natural environment. However, environmental protection alone does not transform the area into ‘common land’. The variety of uses in itself doesn’t mean that the forest and its resources can simply be reduced to the owners of the land. Above and beyond resource management, the commons raise the question of governance and the appropriate institutional design. This institutional innovation is the key to this development.

Firstly, how best to approach the issues around the commons? A common asset is shared as a result of individual interactions. Unlike a public asset, it is thus not so much the asset in itself that produces well-being, but the very fact that its production is a common endeavour.

Above and beyond resource management, the commons raise the question of governance and the appropriate institutional design.

How can Nassonia best be inspired by these principles? As we have seen, the main issue is one of usage, and the management of this usage, and what sort of institutional tools are put in place. Thus, the decision-making process, in the hands of the owners of the land, leaves the asset in the private sector, and thus inaccessible to third parties. So, in the case of Nassonia, the management of the complexities of the forest, and the interactions between the various users, is a different process. A forest is a place where a host of different users come together, each with their own agenda, from enjoying its nature and culture to hunting and recreation, not to mention the involvement of local people.

Various examples of commons forest management exist in Western Europe. ‘Forest Group’ projects have been set up in Flanders. These spaces for dialogue and collective governance aim to manage the forests efficiently, based around user co-ordination and communal decision-making. The different users come together in a spirit of compromise to reach a consensus on common objectives. They can also collectively take over the management of different services provided by the forest.

For the organisation to be efficient, this communal management has to use effective systems of evaluation and penalties. Transparency, ongoing evaluation and self-critique, as well as warnings and a scale of penalties adapted to the situation, are crucial for this to succeed. Without this, management could descend into an anarchic situation that is difficult to get out of. Focused management of the ecosystem is a crucial cornerstone of the process.

This communal governance must also involve clear resource boundaries. These must be clearly defined, in coordination with the chosen institutional approach. The circles model, as proposed by the Nassonia Foundation, means a central pocket can be protected, and allowed to revert to its natural state, and must therefore be inaccessible. Successive circles are increasingly open to different uses. The links between the different circles, the adaptation of governance depending on different uses, and the principle of non-appropriation, are also central elements in defining the nature of the asset and are in line with its communal aims.

So, what about the matter of ownership? This question is central to the debate around commons theories. In the case of a large-scale project, the necessary initial capital is considerable, and can compete with more conventional initiatives. In the example of Nassonia, the cost of the lease, around 400,000 euros, puts it into another league. Until it has the means to lease the land, the Foundation has to rely for financial backing on the public limited company Pairi Daiza.

How the funds are earmarked, and which criteria are used, is an important issue, as is the danger of the foundation coming under company tax law liability, as the sale of wood is a profit-making activity.  There are various options for creating structures that can deal with these questions.  The land could remain in the hands of the local authority, which would cede the organisation and management to a recognised collective structure.  Released from the constraints linked to the initial purchase, this arrangement would place public authorities in the role of trustee, in the case of a serious setback. This arrangement already exists in some jointly managed nature reserves, in particular in North America.

Throughout these stages, continuous dialogue between the various users is crucial, as is decision-making based on trust and transparency.  Underlying this must be checks and balances to ensure that the rules of use are appropriate for local conditions.  This rigour is an essential basis for the stability and longevity of the project, enabling it to weather any setbacks, particularly financial ones.

The communal approach could be a beacon project around which to mobilise people; Nassonia would become a governance experiment.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

So, what can be learnt from all this? A communal management structure for the Nassonia project would engender ‘social peace’ between foundation members, public authorities, environmentalists, the timber industry, the forestry community, hunters, tourism, and elected representatives. Above all, the communal approach could be a beacon project around which to mobilise people; Nassonia would become a governance experiment, giving the project even more value.

The fact remains, however, that this approach is just one of many, in the context of a broad and diverse range of commons projects. Commons dynamics are reinventing politics, that is to say the way in which decisions are framed and taken.  The ethical and sustainable criteria that they introduce mean the commons go beyond traditional divisions.  They are also bringing about the emergence of a new area of management and usage, between private and public, overcoming the increasingly apparent limitations of this dichotomy.  The strength of the commons is also their great elasticity, which increases their field of appropriation and enables them to adapt to many other contexts. There is a lot to be learnt from this strength; promoting the commons has to mean making the best of existing structures, and their dynamism. In a context of crises of representation and redistribution, these new processes must emerge from their theoretical cocoons and face up to practical reality, and so to trials, and even errors.  This is the only way we can usher in the transition to which so many of us aspire.



[1] Primary forests are forests of native tree species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed. Click here for the source.