What is a forest?

What is a forest?

Kelsey Hartman, MEM 20201

“¿Qué es un bosque?” (“What is a forest?”) Ana2 asked, interrupting my interview questions about La Ceiba, the dry forest reserve she lived next to. She seemed genuinely frustrated and puzzled. I thought I must have misheard her. That wasn’t unusual, since my Spanish was rusty, and though I was a few weeks into my summer research, I was still adjusting to the rural Ecuadorian vocabulary of farming and conservation. “Sorry, what?” I asked. She repeated herself, “What is a forest?” She gestured at the trees, dry in the summer heat, that climbed the hills across from her family’s corn fields. “What is a forest for? Why do you, the foundation, want there to be forest?”

I had not anticipated this question. After months of reading and conversations with my partner organization, Nature and Culture International (NCI), to prepare for my research, I thought I had a good grasp on the basic facts of the situation. NCI – or “the foundation”, as many people living around La Ceiba Reserve called it – had created the protected area in 2008. When NCI was considering purchasing a large swath of the Romeros’ family hacienda3 to create the reserve, they conducted focus group meetings with the nearly 200 families who lived on or used the land for farming, to pasture their animals, or otherwise depended on the forest. They concluded that actively involving these stakeholders was the only way to effectively and ethically create a protected area and established a community co-management association to run the reserve (Paladines 2012). For over a decade, nearly 50 volunteers from the ten communities bordering La Ceiba have been meeting monthly to make decisions about the limited logging and animal pasturage allowed in the forest and patrolling the reserve between meetings. However, most people who live around La Ceiba still have very little interaction with the reserve or the co-management association in their daily lives. The association is slowly losing numbers over the years, as some people drop out and few new volunteers join.

I was at La Ceiba Reserve at NCI’s invitation to investigate people’s perceptions4 of the reserve in order to better understand the effects conservation was having on people’s lives. Why do some individuals choose to participate in co-management and others do not? How do people feel the reserve has affected their lives, for better or for worse? I expected individuals’ differing experiences of the benefits and impacts of La Ceiba Reserve and the co-management association would shape their perceptions of the reserve and their willingness to participate. After all, a logger who lost most of their income when the forest was protected and a farmer whose goats depended on the forest for forage would likely have very different opinions about the reserve. However, I assumed everyone would be coming from the same baseline understanding of a forest and, with that, of why some people would want to protect it.

Ana leaned forward towards me across the porch table, ignoring her young son playing nearby and the chickens scratching at the dirt under our feet, fully focused on me for the first time during our interview. My answer was important to her, but I didn’t know what to say. “What is forest for? Why do you want there to be a forest?” If I told her what I think of forests and why they’re important, would that shape the way she answered the rest of my questions? If I didn’t, would that confirm her opinions about NCI? She had already hinted that she thought NCI neglected people like her who didn’t choose to join the community co-management association for La Ceiba Reserve. No matter what I did, my answers would influence how Ana would respond to me, shaping the rest of the interview. It might even affect how Ana felt about the reserve, as she was asking me to answer for NCI. Suddenly our interview felt much more consequential.

I was flustered. I tried to sidestep the entire question by explaining that I didn’t actually work for NCI, but was a researcher with Yale, a university in the United States. I had already explained this in my customary pre-interview spiel explaining who I was and why I was doing research before asking for her consent to be interviewed. However, the fact that I wasn’t employed by NCI was a distinction without a difference. I was an outsider, coming into people’s homes to ask about conservation and the forest. Effectively, I was NCI. Not a neutral observer, but someone who played a role – however temporary or fleeting – in the social dynamics I was there to research.

I thought I understood how being a white American woman researching conservation would shape my interactions with the people I was interviewing, but my understanding was superficial. Ana’s question – what is a forest? – helped me see just how different my view of the world, as a conservation scientist, was from hers. We were both looking out at the same trees, but we were not seeing the same thing. As a farmer, Ana knew the land, plants, and animals intimately, in ways that I never would for all my reading about and hiking in the dry forest. I thought of the forest as an abstract ecosystem, full of endangered biodiversity and providing ecosystem services like watershed protection and carbon sequestration. Ana made her life from nature, and talked about it as a series of things to be tamed, used, or feared. To Ana, the forest reserve “closed off” the land, denying people the customary benefits of logging, preventing expansion of her family’s corn fields, and harboring dangerous animals like mountain lions and crop-eating peccaries in its impenetrable depths. I had expected to encounter different worldviews and land use priorities in my interviews, but I assumed we would all share the foundational understanding of the ecosystem we were discussing. Now I was rattled. What else didn’t I understand? How could I be enough of an expert on La Ceiba to accurately report on people’s perceptions of the reserve?

Over time, I noticed that, unlike Ana, members of the co-management association did tend to speak about the forest as an ecosystem as I understand it. I had predicted that people who joined the association would be more environmentally conscious, but in my last week of research I learned that wasn’t the entire story. “We never used to talk about the forest,” Walter, a weather-beaten elderly farmer, told me as we waited for the now bi-monthly reserve management meeting to begin. “We used to only talk about the fields and the hills. The land we used and the land we didn’t. It’s only here, in the association, that we started talking about the forest and its benefits.” A few minutes later, I saw how that played out. The meeting was also attended by researchers from the University of Loja, who had driven five hours that day from the region’s capital. They taped up hand-drawn posters of the carbon cycle in the wood and adobe meeting pavilion and explained how trees clean the air before asking permission to interview people about their experience of climate change. After them, a herpetologist from Quito who was making the rounds of the dry forest reserves with NCI’s field officer presented a booklet on snake safety and spoke about how the forest’s snakes play an important role in controlling crop pests. I had heard these themes before in interviews, I realized: associates had told me it was important to protect the forest because it cleaned the air, and was home to animals like bees that helped their crops.

Was participating in the co-management association changing people’s understanding of the forest? I had hypothesized that people would choose to participate in the co-management association because they perceived value in conservation and believed that protecting the forest benefitted them. Actions (participating in the co-management association) would follow beliefs (the forest benefits us). In my interviews, associates were more likely to speak positively about the forest and say that its presence benefitted them than the non-members I spoke to, but the difference between the two groups was conceptual as well. Walter’s offhand comment about the vocabulary shift from hills to forest – from unused land to ecosystem – seemed more significant in light of these interviews, the meeting with the researchers, and Ana’s “what is a forest” question. The members’ changing narratives mirrored what I heard in the association too closely for it to be coincidental. Could it be that members’ environmental beliefs about the forest were changing because of their participation in managing the regime? Perhaps the idea of a protected area and the environmental logic it depends on had been imposed by NCI, a powerful outside interest. But by taking part in the new management regime, people began to imagine the environment, and their relationship to it, differently.5

A few remarks changed what I thought I knew about the way people living around La Ceiba Reserve relate to their land. Throughout my twelve weeks of research, this happened again and again; small things made me reconsider my understanding of the situation. The longer I stayed, the less comfortable I became with thinking I could capture a comprehensive, authoritative account of people’s perspectives on the reserve. As much as I learned from what I saw and heard, I knew there was so much more I was missing.

Many people were suspicious of the stranger in their town asking questions about their lives. People didn’t know or trust my motivations. Later in the summer, a friend told me some people thought I was there to report on them to the government about their activities, which baffled me at first since it was so far from what I saw myself doing. Without the help of my host family, who took me around the neighborhoods bordering the reserve and made introductions, I would have had a nearly impossible time getting interviews. Even with their help, most people who disliked the reserve were uninterested in talking to me. I had to try to deduce why through my own observations and in conversations with others, asking interviewees what problems other people in their community had with the reserve and the co-management association. When I learned that some people in the communities were still illegally logging in the reserve and that the Ministry of the Environment had fined one local man hundreds of dollars (a huge sum where the average wage is $15 a day) when someone reported his timber stockpile to the co-management association, I understood better why some people were suspicious of me. I didn’t think that was the full story: I doubt, given the low logging rates in the forest, that many people wanted to hide something from my prying eyes. I suspect that, more often, people resented the imposition of the reserve and saw no reason to offer up their time and personal information to a researcher associated with NCI. I wouldn’t, in their place. Interviews like the one I had with Ana were rare and depended on building personal goodwill. In fact, other people had told me as I was starting to conduct my interviews that she wouldn’t be interested in speaking with me. It was only after weeks of playing soccer with her on our neighborhood’s team, helping watch her toddler son on the sidelines, and chatting as I tried (clumsily) to help build a new school fence during a town minga, or collective workday, that she agreed to an interview.

The importance of personal relationships to my research made me uncomfortable: it went against what I thought science was supposed to be. My previous training and research experience were in ecology, where numbers, regression analyses, and carefully constructed charts construct a veneer of objectivity over the messy, complex systems we study. As I embarked on social science research, I still imagined my methodologies could shield me from the unruly subjectivities of human interactions. To do research “right,” I thought, I had to standardize each interaction as much as possible, control for the ways my interview subjects and I reacted to each other, to extract some pure form of data unrelated to me, the researcher. But each interview, each activity I participated in as an active observer, and all the data gathered there, was produced between the people of La Ceiba and myself. Sometimes these processes were obvious to me: Ana was willing to be interviewed and to ask me questions in return because of the personal connection we’d built. I knew how my own perceptions of her opinions of NCI shaped how I answered her questions; I downplayed my connection to them because I wanted her more honest opinions. Every encounter during my research was an interaction, an interplay between my perceptions of the people I was working with and theirs of me. My positionality – my whiteness, my gender, my connections to NCI, my nationality, my personality – structured the social and power dynamics of every interaction.6 The data I collected is a chimera built from interactions between myself and those I met and spoke with. What I do with that data is equally subjective.

As I re-read my interview transcripts and fieldnotes, assigning codes and pulling apart statements to extract themes, I’m filtering my limited data set once again. My data is strained through my personal analytical filters and intellectual community: my interpretations, experience, theories drawn from the literature I’ve read, the critiques and discussions with my academic peers and mentors. What comes out the other end – this essay, any reports, or articles – reflects as much of me and my setting as it does La Ceiba. All my work is grounded in the data I collected, but the narratives I form are influenced by my situation. I was originally struck by Walter’s comments because he illustrated, I thought, how people around La Ceiba might be actively reforming their environmental attitudes through their participation in co-management. It wasn’t until I returned to campus and someone mentioned the making of environmental subjects to me in a class discussion that I began to think of the complex interplay between self, powerful institutions, and environmental practices in shaping how individuals relate to the environment.7 The theory was especially compelling to me because I was undergoing a similar process in my own life. I was actively reshaping how I thought about the environment and my role in protecting it in response to the discourses and practices I participated in, and sometimes challenged, as part of the Yale institution. Another researcher with different references points might take the same data and experiences and form an entirely different narrative.

The way I (and other scientists) select what to focus on and how is its own form of power because those narratives influence others.8 As I examine how my own position influences my research, I have started to look more critically at how NCI builds and deploys narratives about La Ceiba. I’d read NCI’s published reports as I prepared my research proposal and, through them, formed my ideas of what life is like around La Ceiba Reserve. Re-reading them now, I see as much of NCI in the studies as I do of the people living around the reserve. NCI’s story of La Ceiba fits neatly within the endangered ecosystem tropes I am used to in my conservation work. La Ceiba is a core protected area in the UNESCO Bosque Seco (dry forest) Biosphere Reserve, which covers much of the Tumbesian dry forest spanning the border between Ecuador and Peru. These forests are intact remnants of this ecosystem, which once stretched over large portions of Ecuador and Peru. Globally, an estimated 97% of dry forests are in danger of disappearing.9 This anticipated biodiversity crisis10 compelled NCI to purchase 10,000 hectares of former hacienda in Zapotillo County, Ecuador, and turn it into La Ceiba Reserve. They established a new set of resource-use restrictions in order to preserve the forest, limiting logging and farming within the reserve on what had been essentially open-access land. NCI established the community co-management association with 50 volunteers from the small towns bordering the reserve. Together, NCI and the association created regulations for the communities’ forest use under NCI’s one overarching, non-negotiable rule for the reserve: no deforestation allowed.11 This restriction significantly limited communities’ resource use and the association’s decision-making power. Still, NCI maintains that the reserve’s co-management regime empowers local communities:

The concept of co-management refers to joint management between NCI and community organizations, which guarantees access and regulated use of natural resources based on jointly developed regulations.

This initiative was created by the goat farmers with the least access to and control over their natural resources, who had never been considered under the reigning hacienda system until the arrival of NCI and who, once the protected area was created, became the people most committed to the regulations for use and conservation in order to guarantee forage for their animals.12

This empowerment narrative isn’t false, but it is selective. Certainly, some people felt that they had gained more control over the land and that the community was better off for it. “We’re in charge now,” Eduardo, a member of the association, told me in an interview, “and we protect the forest for everyone’s benefit.” He and other members described the hacienda before the reserve as perilously uncontrolled. People came from near and far to log and pasture their animals, unsupervised, in the forest. The forest was disappearing and crime, especially livestock theft, was prevalent, they told me. The reserve protected their resources and gave them more power than they’d had before. But for others like Ana who saw the forest as “closing off” the land, the reserve’s resource use restrictions were a painful loss of opportunity, an arbitrarily, externally imposed limitation on their livelihood. However, the disempowered and disgruntled do not show up in NCI’s reports, though the empowered members of the co-management association make up a small minority of the total population. This creates a skewed vision of the reserve’s impacts on the communities of La Ceiba and makes more inclusive co-management challenging.

NCI’s focus on this empowerment narrative influences how NCI employees and some members of the association approach managing the reserve and their interactions with others living around it. Both an NCI employee and some members of the association expressed frustration to me about how people weren’t taking ownership over the management of the reserve. At times they bordered on dismissive: “I don’t know why some people don’t want to join the association,” Eduardo told me, seeming irritated. “We protect the forest for everyone’s benefit, but some people don’t want to do the work.” Everyone could control their own natural resources and gain the benefits of livestock forage, household timber, clean water sources, honey and pollination from forest bees, and clean air from the forest, if they would just put in the effort to protect it! Although everyone interviewed agreed that the management of the reserve would be easier and more effective if there were more members, the assumptions seemed to be that non-members were either illegal loggers, too stubborn to want to be told how to use the forest, unwilling to act for their own benefit, or just happy to let others do the work for them. These stories do not leave room for people like Ana who do not see the forest as a unique ecosystem in need of protection and find NCI’s insistence on protecting it incomprehensible. NCI is not engaging with those viewpoints, however, because they are not (yet) part of the narrative of the reserve the organization has constructed from other data and studies. NCI employees I spoke to genuinely wanted to get more people involved with and benefitting from the association and reserve. However, outreach is difficult when they don’t know why most community members do not choose to join. Improvement would require complicating the narrative.

Similarly, in doing this case study, I have had to complicate and question my understanding of science and the role of research. I was deeply uncomfortable in my interview with Ana because her question and our interaction made me reexamine my “expertise” and scientific objectivity. Weeks later, Walter’s off-hand comment made me re-evaluate the dynamics of how people form their environmental attitudes. How else would my understanding of the context have deepened if I had been there for months or years longer? I will never know La Ceiba the way the people who live there do. That doesn’t mean my research has no merit: all studies have limitations, but they can still provide insight. The problem is that our society elevates this kind of scientific expertise above all others. If a study like mine is published in an academic journal, that makes it a credible source of information for decision makers creating protected area policy or donors deciding funding for conservation projects. Scientists like me get to be considered experts worth listening to, but people like Ana, Walter, and Eduardo with a lifetime of lived expertise in the effects of conservation do not. As I saw repeatedly over the course of my research, who we listen to and the narratives we interact with shape the way we approach problems and propose solutions. If those in power only consider a single type of expertise, they become locked into a single narrative. That is a political choice with power over people’s lives. To become a scientific expert takes privilege and access to education that most people from marginalized communities like those around La Ceiba simply do not have. Scientific expertise and the ability to shape the narrative – what is a forest, why does it matter, and what should we do with it? – is then tied to class and becomes another way power is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Science cannot be separated from its social context.13 That is more obvious in social science case studies, like mine, which are based in data created by interpersonal interaction. But it is equally true for other disciplines. The foundational questions of what is worth studying and why are subjective, and these inquiries reflect the scientist and the contexts that shaped them. Insisting on objectivity obscures the political nature of how we produce and use scientific knowledge. That is not to say science isn’t useful: there are many advantages to having a commonly accepted method for creating, comparing, and critiquing knowledge.14 But holding up science as completely neutral limits necessary analysis of who is doing science, who benefits from it, and the limitations imposed by elevating a single form of expertise. If people with lived experience in conservation were allowed to be experts, how different would the narratives be? If NCI and the community co-management association sought the opinions of people like Ana, how might their approach to conservation change? Might challenges and problems be addressed more equitably?

What is a forest? It depends on who you ask. That can change everything.


Agarwal, A. 2005. Environmentality: Community, Intimate Government, and the making of Environmental Subjets in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology 30, 161–90.

Bennett, N.J. 2016. Using Perceptions as Evidence to Improve Conservation and Environmental Management: Perceptions and Conservation. Conservation Biology 30, 582–92.

Faria, C. and S. Mollett. 2016. Critical Feminist Reflexivity and the Politics of Whiteness in the ‘Field.’ Gender, Place, & Culture 23, 79–93.

Hartmann, B. 2014. Converging on Disaster: Climate Security and the Malthusian Anticipatory Regime for Africa. Geopolitics 19, 757–83.

Jasanoff, S. 1996. Is Science Socially Constructed - And Can It Still Inform Public Policy? Science and Engineering Ethics 2, 263–76.

Lubchenco, J. 2017. Environmental Science in a Post-Truth World. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 15, 3–3.

Muñoz Chamba, J., Armijios Ojeda, D., and Erazo Sotomayor, S. 2019. Flora y fauna del Bosque Seco de la provincia de Loja, Ecuador. Ediloja, Ecuador. 107.

Paladines, B. 2012. Manejo compartido y gestión integral de la Reserva “La Ceiba” y zona de influencia en el bosque seco del Sur del Ecuador. pp 75–85. In: Casavecchia, C., Lobo Peredo, A., and S. Arguedas Mora (ed.) Planificación y gestión de áreas protegidas en América del Sur: avances en la aplicación del Enfoque Ecosistémico. IUCN, Quito, Ecuador.

Svarstad, H., Benjaminsen, T.A., and R. Overå. 2018. Power Theories in Political Ecology. Journal of Political Ecology 25, 350.


Hartman. K. 2020. What is a forest? Tropical Resources 39, 00–00.


  1. Kelsey Hartman is a Master of Environmental Management (MEM) candidate at the Yale School of the Environment. She is interested in the intersection of conservation and rural development, and the complex socioeconomic systems, institutions, and values shaping both. Previously, Kelsey worked with the World Wildlife Fund’s Greater Mekong river stewardship program, facilitating international efforts to safeguard the ecological integrity of the Mekong River. Other work includes grassroots conservation projects and population ecology research in Madagascar. While at Yale, she has worked as a Kerry Fellow, a science communications fellow for the Yale Institute of Biospheric Studies, and a Conservation Biology teaching fellow. Her current research is on community-based conservation, focusing on the social process of conservation and resource management in Ecuador’s dry forests.↩︎

  2. All names in this essay have been changed to protect people’s privacy.↩︎

  3. Land ownership in Zapotillo County is dominated by single-family owned haciendas, or large-scale estates. Most people do not own their own land but rent or pay a usage fee to the hacienda owners to live on and work the land. NCI purchased 10,000 acres of the Romeros family’s 16,000 acre hacienda to create La Ceiba Reserve.↩︎

  4. Perceptions refers to the way an individual observes, understands, interprets, and evaluates a referent object, action, experience, individual, policy or outcome. […] These individual and subjective interpretations of reality are socially constructed, the product of one’s history and surroundings. A myriad of contextual factors (e.g. culture, politics, socioeconomics, livelihoods), past experiences of similar events (e.g., imposition of a different environmental policy), and individual and collective attributes (e.g., gender, race), values, norms, beliefs, preferences, knowledge, and motivations mediate and influence perceptions. As a result, like and unlike groups and individuals can perceive the same situation in vastly different ways.” (Bennett 2016)↩︎

  5. Arun Agrawal’s theory of “environmentality” explores the relationship between governance and subjectivity and how participation in community decision making can transform participants’ beliefs (see Agrawal 2005).↩︎

  6. See Faria and Mollet 2014 for how positionality, specifically race, structures the research encounter.↩︎

  7. Agrawal 2005↩︎

  8. “‘Discursive power’ is exercised when actors such as corporations, government agencies, and NGOs produce discourses [a socially shared perspective on a topic] and manage to get other groups to adopt and contribute to the reproduction of their discourses” Svarstad et al. 2018.↩︎

  9. Muñoz et al. 2019↩︎

  10. See Hartmann 2014 for the concept of anticipatory regimes.↩︎

  11. Paladines 2012↩︎

  12. Paladines 2012, translated from Spanish by me.↩︎

  13. Sheila Jasanoff(1996) addresses how science is socially constructed and why a deeper understanding of that construction can make science more useful to public policy.↩︎

  14. Jane Lubchenco (2017) argues for the merits of science-based decision making in a “post-truth” world but does so without engaging any structural critiques of how science is constructed.↩︎

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