The Forestry Sector in Italy: an Unfamiliar Instrument of Resilience and Sustainable Production

In 2015, the XIV World Forestry Congress, hosted by the Republic of South Africa in September 2015, set out a new vision for forests and forestry. The network between the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and forests became crucial. Despite having a clear reference of forest management only in SDG 15 (life on land) and SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), the sector plays a key role in: end of poverty and hunger, promotion of sustainable agriculture, access to sustainable energy, and tackling climate change (WFC 2015). Forests provide an incredible number of ecosystem services, from carbon sequestration to the prevention of infectious disease and sustainable food supply for people in rural communities (also called NTFP).

During the last decade, most of our readers must have heard about increased hazards throughout forest lands: from forest fires in California to increasing deforestation of the Amazon driven by meat demand and illegal logging activities, and even in Italy, where increasing storms, wildfires and landslides are threatening the territory where we live.  What is going on in Italy from an administrative perspective?

The Italian territory currently counts approximately 10.9 million hectares of forests, accounting for 37% of the national surface (CFS 2015). These numbers are quite high if compared with the situation in the ‘60s when the forest cover was about half of the present-day extension (Pettenella and Romano 2010). Surprisingly, this radical increase is not the result of a national recovery plan, nor of private reafforestation initiatives. According to FAO, many developed areas, like East Asia, North America, and Europe, have experienced similar and radical land-use changes during the last decades. Due to industrialization and the consequent abandonment of many agricultural and pastoralist areas, forests have spontaneously expanded in neglected territories, bringing back those lands to the wilderness. Not only has the landscape changed, but also the wood-working industry and the demand for forest products and services have undergone a transformation. 

Further predictions of future tendency to prefer sustainable and carbon-neutral raw materials in many fields, like packaging, constructions, and biofuel production, will increase the pressure on the timber market and, thus, on forests. Italy seems to be unprepared for such market transformation as, despite its great potential, the entire forest sector is facing a contraction. As evidence, forestry, in the national GDP, has decreased its share from 1.1% in 1990 to 0.8% in 2006 (FAO, 2014). Furthermore, the logging sector accounted for about 0.05%, showing extreme dependence on the foreign market. The employment and the number of companies involved diminished as well, by respectively -27.7% and -19% between 1990 and 2015 (FAO, 2014; EUROSTAT, 2016). 

To better understand these numbers, we will go into an analysis of the Italian administrative structure, its jurisdictional shifts, and development plans.

One of the reasons for the Italian forest management inefficiency is the lack of a mechanism of cooperation and connectivity between the administrations charged with jurisdictional duty. Following the “Titolo V” of the Italian Constitution, the administration of environmental-related sectors is subject to overlaps among institutions, which often entails difficulties in law enforcement. Art. 117 encompass the guidelines for the partitioning of legislation rights between the State and the Regions, asserting that the State has “exclusive legislative power” when it comes to “environmental, ecosystems, and cultural heritage protection”; while the Regions have “participant legislative power” in the “valorization of the environmental and cultural heritage”, “food security”, “health protection” and “energy transport and distribution”: a definition that often encompasses difficulties in its interpretation. Moreover, Article 118 completes the system’s description applying the subsidiarity principle, according to which decisions should be taken as closely as possible to citizens, and only in the case where local authorities lack the ability to manage their given tasks, the responsibility would be given to higher administrations. Art. 119 on the other hand, appoints to Regional Administrations the task of budget allocation and budget provisioning from the EU, within their own budget availability and constraints. 

Following the subsidiary principle, from 1977 onwards, a decentralization program overtook the political agenda in Italy, exacerbating conflicts and powers that are withheld between the central institution, the State Forest Service (CFS) and the new Regional Administrators, leaving aside external stakeholders. Such a process of fragmentation resulted in 21 different administrations and organizational models whose implementation depends on the budget and the instruments implemented by the regions “at-will”, under the monitoring of the Ministry of Agriculture (MIPAAF). On the other hand, the Ministry of Environment has lost much of the authority, while some remaining power over National Parks, with overlapping competencies with the Ministry of Tourism. 

To facilitate similar forestry development along the whole territory, the Ministry of Agriculture, together with the Conference “State-Regions”, drafted in 2008 the “Programma Quadro per il Settore Forestale” (PQSF), a ten year program (2009-2019) that directly implements the EU Forest Action Plan, a set of soft measures (informations and guidelines) to be implemented by the Regions in order to fulfill four priority objectives:

  1. Developing an efficient and innovative forest economy – Technological research and development, diversification, innovation and investments are essential for the Italian forest sector to develop a strong and dynamic sector which are strong enough to counter global challenges and changes;  
  2. Protect the territory and the environment – Retain and improve the productive capacity, resilience and biological diversity of the Italian forest resource is essential for the future thrive of the resource and the community dependent on it;  
  3. Guarantee the services of public and social interest – The objective is set up to maintain and enhance the social and cultural dimensions of the Italian forest; 
  4. Promote coordination and communication – The importance of improving communication and coordination in order to determine economic objectives, environmental and socio-cultural aims in different organizations and institutions are covered in this objective. 

Also, the monitoring and sanction system is shaped as the EU one, monitoring was done twice over ten years, one “in itinere” in 2014 and one “ex-post” in 2019. Regarding sanctions, no clear measures were taken in case of non-compliance. 

While these “light measures” resulted effectively at the EU level, in the Italian Regional system a clear and frequent monitoring and sanction system was needed. A remarkable case of such failure happened in Molise, which gave back its functions to the State Forest Service (CFS) for lacking administrative structures and sufficient budget capability. Besides, the CFS is not effectively present in the territory, resulting in a lack of administrative power overall. To add further complications, such processes have not been coordinated nor communicated efficiently during the life of the national plan, with northern regions mostly focused in supporting private companies and southern regions weighted down by bureaucracy failures and, subsequently, lack of action. This happens to be a cross-sectional issue, in light of the recent health scandal regarding Calabria Region and his health commissioner Saverio Cotticelli.

Stakeholder Participation

From the stakeholder perspective, a condition of indifference is described across all Italy concerning their relations with public authorities. A survey carried out by Dott. Laura Secco (2016) outlined stakeholder participation perception, as shown in the graph below. 

Stakeholder participation perception in shaping forest legislation (Secco L. et al., 2016) 

From this graph one might think that the actors able to change the Italian forests exist already, from NGOs to private actors. Yet, while it was among PQSF’s key points, information flows and stakeholder participation are still missing. In this regard it is arguable that soft measures work in a decentralized context where single regions withhold substantial power.


However, something is moving among the private sector aiming at compensating inefficiencies of the public. The endorsement of environmental certifications, that act as “de-facto” regulations for both State-owned and private forest owners, is helping to achieve sustainable production, processing and consumption. These certifications work as a market-based instrument designed by private entities to integrate the, sometimes insufficient, public measures and to give a voice to all the stakeholders usually excluded from the discourse. The Forest Stewardship Council and the Programme (PEFC) for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (FSC) are the main two independent organizations providing these labels. They both set environmental and labour standards through a multi-stakeholders decision-making approach whose purpose is to protect biodiversity, workers, local and indigenous communities, to spread sustainable practices, and to raise awareness among consumers. The forest owners that, voluntarily, want to be certified, have to demonstrate compliance with all the standards by relying on external consultants, a necessary measure to secure reliability of results but with significant costs. Also, companies that are depending on retailers for raw materials supply can request a Chain of Custody (CoC) certification to attest the sustainable origin of timber. 

The power of these voluntary instruments was tested by different studies. According to the article by Galati et al (University of Palermo),  the main incentives of being certified include market competitiveness and signalling of the company’s ethics, which effectiveness depends on consumers’ preferences. However, at the present date, forest certifications have few effects on shaping demand, despite the proven efficacy in terms of biodiversity conservation and forest quality (Gafo et al., 2011). Therefore, operation costs needed to obtain and maintain the requested standards, are only partially compensated. Among other expenses, the investments in training employees and the increase in operation and management costs are the most challenging to cope with (Galati et al., 2017).    

Italy is considered one of the most advanced countries w.r.t. the proportion of enterprises covered by either FSC or PEFC. According to Dott. Pasquale Falcone (2020), out of a total of 23,835 Italian forestry companies, 2,023 are FSC certified while 963 are PEFC certified, covering respectively, 65,433 ha and 820,000 ha. However, the majority of them are located in the Northern Regions, where subsidies are allocated by the authorities to foster the spread of certifications.  

Starting from the ‘80s the Ministry of Agriculture tried to invest in the Southern Regions in order to develop a forestry sector. Yet, these incentives proved inefficient and stuck with bureaucracy. As environmental hazards are growing, mostly in the South, such incentives should be rethought once more. In the North, while institutional practices are lacking, the implementation of certifications revealed itself as a potent mechanism to revitalize the forest industry.

According to Mylek and Schrimer (2015), issuing social sustainability certification schemes along the entire supply chain (targeting, e.g., human rights and working conditions) and implementing better workplace strategies could provide a more productive and resilient industry workforce. 

Yet, we recognize that State participation cannot be substituted by such a mechanism: both methods should go along smoothly. For this to happen it is required an effort in promoting networking and stakeholders participation among local communities, including monitoring and sanctions patterns between higher and lower institutions. Up to now, the Forest National Program implementation has proven to be ineffective, having no developed industry that demands it as in other countries.

To conclude, despite being conscious of the amount of power withhold by non-acting institutions, there are solutions. Concerning decentralization, other countries struggled within this process as well. Switzerland, for example, which started such path 90 years in advance, experienced similar problems at the beginning (Kuchli and Blaser, 2005). , Also, some regions in Italy are starting to implement effective programmes (i.e. “Ossigeno”, Lazio) The hope is that Italy has not yet reached an accrued system, but instituting clear responsibility and information patterns among institutions, and providing more coordination measures with stakeholders, a resilient trajectory could be achieved, ensuring reforestation and biodiversity programs, and ensuring the internal supply of raw timber. 

Yes, the two of them can go at hand.

For this to be achieved, the actors at stake already exist: it will be a matter of hearing their needs, their proposals, and coordinate their local initiatives. Yet, institutions must come closer to rural lands and mountain communities, not to restrict, but to incentivize.

Authors: this article was co-published by Gaia Gariboldi.

Further readings:

SWOT analysis over the state of Italian Forests (2020):

State of the World’s Forests 2016 by FAO:

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