3. Assessing social and economic impacts

​​​This consultancy examines indicators which can be utilised to help monitor the social and economic impacts of forestry in Australia.

The terms ‘social impact assessment’ and ‘socio-economic impact assessment’ (SEIA) are perhaps most commonly used to refer to processes that attempts to predict and mitigate future impacts of a proposed change. However, the process of impact assessment is agreed by most to go well beyond this. In particular, SEIA is agreed by most practitioners to include ongoing assessment and monitoring of impacts, as is focused on in this consultancy.

Monitoring processes are commonly used at several points in an impact assessment process. The indicators recommended in this report have been developed to be used in the following types of impact assessment situations:

  • Monitoring the outcomes of a policy or process as it is implemented, with indicators informing adjustment of that policy/process over time to mitigate negative impacts and maximise positive impacts; and

  • Providing information that informs a process in which the potential impacts of a proposed change are being assessed, and strategies developed to maximise the potential positive impacts and minimise potential negative impacts of that change.

Measurement of the indicators recommended in this report does not constitute an impact assessment in and of itself. Instead, the measurement of indicators over time should be understood as being a key part of the broader process of assessing social and economic impacts of forestry, and developing policy and practice to address those impacts.

When using indicators as part of monitoring social and economic impacts, some key issues need to be considered:

  • Identifying social and economic changes versus impacts;
  • Identifying the impact of one factor (e.g. a change in the forest industry) versus others on social and economic conditions; and
  • In the forest industry, separating impacts of different forestry sectors.

Identifying social and economic changes versus impacts

Attempting to measure any type of impact is challenging, but measuring social and economic impacts has particular difficulties. While it is often possible to identify the social and economic changes or characteristics that result from a particular sector or group such as the forest industry, it is much harder to identify the impacts those changes have on people’s lives. A change such as a shift in the type of employment generated by the forest industry may be experienced as a positive impact by one person, and a negative impact by another.

Because different people will be impacted by change in different ways, Slootweg et al (2001: 25) argue that it is necessary to examine both the social changes/characteristics that are caused by an industry such as forestry, and the impacts of those social changes/characteristics:

In the context of our approach, human impacts should be seen in the broadest sense. This means that they refer to quantifiable variables such as economic or demographic issues, as well as to changes in people’s norms, values, beliefs and perceptions about the society in which they live … we argue that a distinction between social change processes and human impacts should be identified in the social setting. … An increase in population, or the presence of strangers, is not the experienced impact, the experienced impact is likely to be changed perception about the nature of the community (‘communityness’, community cohesion), changed perception about personal attachment to the community, and possibly annoyance and upset as a result of the project. The ways in which the social change processes are perceived, given meaning, or valued, depends on the social context in which various societal groups act.

It is therefore important to understand both the social changes and characteristics that may result from forestry (for example, to identify how demographic characteristics or the nature and availability of employment differ in regions with differing levels of dependence on forestry), and how people experience these changes.

Indicators are useful for identifying social changes. It is then necessary to interpret what these changes mean for different people – what impacts they have. For this reason, indicators which monitor social change should be accompanied by studies which provide a basis for identifying the likely impacts of these.

Identifying impact of forest industry versus other factors

A key challenge when examining the social and economic impacts of any specific industry is identifying whether a social or economic changes has resulted from a change in the industry being studied, or from other causal factors.

For example, public concern has been expressed by several groups about the impact of changes in forest policy and practice on rural population levels in some Australian regions. Expansion of plantation forestry in some rural regions has been associated with debate about the impacts of this change on rural population levels. Identifying whether plantation expansion has had an impact on rural population requires disentangling the impacts of plantation-related changes from the many other factors that may be simultaneously influencing rural population levels in that community, such as migration from rural to urban areas, farm amalgamation and an ageing population.

Where possible, indicators should clearly identify the impact of the forest industry versus other factors. Where it is not possible to develop indicators which adequately separate impacts, this must be clearly communicated and understood.

The recommended indicators described in this report attempt to address this issue wherever possible. In particular, each of the recommended indicators has clearly identified benchmarks which identify whether the forest industry, or an area dependent on the forest industry, is different to an appropriate comparison industry, region or labour force. In some cases, however, it is not possible to clearly separate impacts of the forest industry from other factors in the indicators. For example, while it is possible to monitor changes in social and economic characteristics of forestry dependent communities over time, these indicators on their own provide no information about the extent to which the forest industry versus other factors contributed to the changes observed. The limitations of each indicators are described in detail in the ‘methods’ section, and must be clearly communicated when using the recommended indicators.

Separating impacts of different forestry sectors

The terms of reference for this consultancy specify that the indicators developed must be applicable across the range of forest sectors. The impact of each sector – e.g. native forest, plantation - must be able to be understood separately.

Separately measuring the impacts of different forestry sectors is currently difficult in Australia. Official statistics on the forest industry do not separate the plantation and native forest sectors. Employment data gathered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is collected for the whole forest industry only, and cannot be separated into plantation and native forest sectors, although it can be separated by different stages in the chain of wood production. The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE) Forest and Wood Products Statistics (FWPS) separate the two sectors for some, but not all, data reported in the FWPS series. With a rapidly growing hardwood plantation sector in Australia, there is a pressing need for indicators which clearly monitor impacts of hardwood sourced from plantation versus native forest.

When developing the recommended indicators described in this report, methods were identified to separate the native forest and plantation sectors wherever possible. In some cases, however, it is not possible to cost-effectively separate these sectors. The extent to which each indicator can be measured separately for the native forest and plantation sector is discussed when methods for measuring the indicator are described.

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Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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