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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Personal trust and trust in abstract systems : a study of forest stewardship council-accredited certification in British Columbia McDermott, Constance Lynn


Forest Stewardship Council-accredited certification in British Columbia arose out of distrust in government and the forest industry as stewards of the province's forest resources. The initiative for forest certification emerged among environmentalists and other interest groups that have been marginalized in mainstream forestry decision-making. Forest certification is a system of green labeling for products that come from environmentally, socially and economically well-managed forests. In other words, certification attempts to redefine appropriate forest management, and build trust where other forestry decision-makers have failed. This dissertation examines how trust is (or is not) built amidst such widely divergent interests. Building trust amidst diversity is a common problem in our increasingly globalized world. In response to this challenge, modern decision-making systems are often built around abstract concepts, such as pluralist democracy and impersonal, rationalistic systems, that are presumably disembedded from social bias. Likewise, the Forest Stewardship Council has developed a pluralist system of standard-setting and an impersonal accreditation system as a means to win the trust of a diversity of forestry interests. The results of this research, based on five years of participant observation and forty in-depth, semi-structured interviews of key interest group members in British Columbia, suggest that the Forest Stewardship Council's "abstract systems" increased trust among some interests. However, these abstract systems did not serve to bridge group differences. Instead, decision-making processes became enmeshed in existing dynamics of distrust. The pluralist standard-setting process empowered previously marginalized interests while exacerbating distrust between some groups. At the same time, impersonal accreditation procedures did not win adequate trust because they did not address the socially embedded causes of distrust. This dissertation concludes that it is the balance of formal abstract systems and flexibility that creates enabling conditions for trust. Abstract systems set boundaries, reduce risk, and can redress power imbalances. They do not by themselves, however, build trust. Flexibility enables voluntary cooperation, which leads to the bridging of differences. In the context of conflicting values and diverse knowledge, therefore, decision-making should be adequately devolved to the on-the-ground implementation level, to allow room for reciprocal acts of voluntary cooperation and the creation of shared meaning.

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