Can collaborative forest management promote sustainable forestry?

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Table of Contents


Collaborative forest management and conflict

Collaborative forest management and management capacity
Collaborative management as a mechanism for building social capital and trust
Collaborative forest management and the potential for increasing resource availability for management
Expanding the range of knowledge through collaborative management




The sustainable management of forested land is an intensely complex and contentious issue, one that continues to challenge governments and local forest users around the world. Contemporary forest management entails the management of the many complex and dynamic components of a forest system, including the oft-neglected human components (Eva, 2000). Historically, the human communities associated with forest environments have had major impacts on their ecosystem functionality. The immense influence of humans on forested land was either in the form of direct silvicultural activities such logging, pruning and planting, or through indirect activities such as hunting and diverging vital river and stream systems (Colfer, 2005). Such manipulation arose out of a need to meet the basic requirements of the communities who dwelled within forest environments, many of whom were severe impoverished, lacking even the basic necessitates of life (Pelsu, 1994). Forest had the potential to provide food, construction material, wood for burning and even medicines (Pelsu, 1994). As small forest communities began to expand, surplus forest products became major sources of income, serving to drive economic and social development. Consequently, such dependency has resulted in forest communities becoming interlinked with the forest they depend on, and almost inevitably the socio-economic issues faced by these people has started to have major impacts of forest management and sustainability (Springate-Baginski et al., 2003, Klooster and Masera, 2000). Thus, contemporary issues in forest management can be attributed not only to environmental effects, but also to social effects such as population pressure, rapid urbanization and stagnating economic and social conditions (Marcoux, 2000). Consequently the synthesis of a solution to modern issues in forestry necessitates an understanding of not only the many environmental issues associated with deforestation, but also the multifaceted socio-political problems that underpin such issues.

In light of this realization, approaches to forest management the world over have undergone paradigmatic shifts in recent years (Carter and Gronow, 2005). There is a growing realization that if contemporary forest problems are to be adequately addressed, there is a need to take into consideration the many complex social and institutional issues associated with managing a given forest in conjunction with its many silvicultural issues (Klooster and Masera, 2000, Carter and Gronow, 2005, Edmunds and Wollenberg, 2003, Berkes, 2009). Consequently, in a number of nations around the world, there has been a consistent devolution from a previously dominant centralized forest management model to one that emphasizes the inclusion of local communities in the management of a given forest. This form of ‘collaborative forest management’ (CFM) is increasingly being viewed as a means by which environmental, social, and economic issues can be addressed in tandem (Carter and Gronow, 2005).

However, the potential for CFM to promote ‘sustainable’ forest use is still a much debated issue. Exponents of the concept argue that the working partnership between local stakeholders and government bodies serves to promote sustainable forestry by reducing conflict and increasing capacity (Colfer, 2005). Alternatively, critiques of CFM argue that in actual fact, it only serves to set into motion new tensions or allow old ones to escalate (Kvitashvili, 2005, Castro and Nielsen, 2001), inevitably leading to conflict and further forest degradation. Subsequently, a satisfactory appraisal of the potential for CFM to promote ‘sustainable’ forest use requires an evaluation of the many arguments, both for and against the concept.

Collaborative forest management and conflict

In most conventional forest settings, the relationships between the state and local forest users have nearly always been characterized by disagreement, competition and conflict (Colfer, 2005). Historically, most state forest management regimes assumed exclusive responsibility and capability for managing forest (Pelsu, 1994). Much of these ‘state’ forests were acquired through the large scale appropriation of forested land, in the process usurping prior systems of land rights and establishing novel land use and resource laws (Pelsu, 1994). These practices were justified by claims that local forest users employed patterns of forest use that lead to degradation and unsustainable harvesting and as such were unable to develop policies that promoted conservation or sustainable forestry (Pelsu, 1994). The loss of access to local forest oftentimes meant the loss of the capacity for basic sustenance. This issue was often further compounded by state forest management regimes that ignored the social, cultural and economical dependency of people on the forest, leading to the development of policies that further marginalized local forest communities. Not surprisingly, conflict often arose between state and local communities over territory, redefinition of rights and constraints on resource access, which often resulted in non compliance and illegal and unsustainable forest use. Unfortunately the cost and consequences of such conflict and crisis due to state failure continues to be an issue in modern forest management scenarios. Consequently the sustainable management of contested forest first and foremost requires the resolution of the conflict between the many forest stakeholders.

Collaborative forest management has emerged out of the recognition that government bodies need to address social inequities of the local forest communities and environmental conservation in tandem. Proponents of collaborative management argue that the solutions to local issues begin at a local level (Colfer, 2005), and as such social inequities can be best dealt with through the incorporation of local stakeholders in aspects of decision making that relate to forest use. This argument is based on the idea that local communities who are dependent on a particular resource for their livelihoods, are demonstrably capable of crafting rules in conjunction with local government agencies that encourages sustainability but at the same time take into consideration the socio-economic requirements of the local people (Klooster and Masera, 2000, Klooster, 2002, Mayers et al., 2005). Thus, in situations where disaffection of conflict between government management and local users has become the norm, the participatory approach of CFM is seen as a way out of a stalemate. This form of a ‘participatory based’ management strategy is fast emerging in India, Nepal, Mexico and other growing economies, where conventional forest management has resulted in severe forest degradation, and CFM is now the most popular approach to dealing with both social, and environmental issues. In all of these countries, there has been no single community viewpoint. For instance, some of the more economically and politically stronger forest communities in India have joined India’s Joint Forestry Management (JFM) initiative with the hopes that collaboration will offer an economic advantage over not collaborating, as it will give them a say on matters of significant economic importance. Other, more underprivileged communities have joined the JFM initiative with the hopes that the equitable partnership focus of CFM will promote more socially appropriate decision making that will take into account their social needs. Irrespective of the rationale for collaborating, the joint management of local forest is being accepted by more and more communities as a means by which conflict may be reduced (Carter and Gronow, 2005).

However, given the multifaceted political, economical and social complexities associated with bringing together diverse government and local stakeholders, it is impractical to expect collaborative management to completely abolish conflict. In fact, some critiques of the CFM concept argue that such integration can set into motion new conflicts or allow old ones to escalate; effectively accomplishing the exact opposite of what was intended (Yasmi, 2003, Kvitashvili, 2005). Consequently, a number of researchers emphasize the dangers of seeing co-management as a panacea for conflict resolution. (Kvitashvili, 2005, Mikalsen et al., 2007)

The concept of co-management as means of empowerment is often critiqued. CFM regimes ideally revolve around the idea of a ‘participatory approach’ to governance, where partnership implies a degree of equity in decision making among government agencies and local stakeholders (Carter and Gronow, 2005). However, more often than not, the concept of ‘participation’ is rather ambiguous (Cornwall, 1996, Borrini-Feyerabend, 1997). Participation can mean different things to the many actors in a forest system, ranging from manipulation or co-option, in which lip service is paid to the active participation of local forest users, to self mobilization, where local communities assume nearly full control in decision making (Carter and Gronow, 2005). Many opponents view the former aspect as the primary reason why collaborative management is not the most efficient means by which to reduce long standing forest conflict (Kepe, 2008, Tipa and Welch, 2006). They argue that the concept has significant potential to be misleading (Kepe, 2008). Opponents of the concept further argue that the partnerships in co-management regimes are not always equitable, as the many actors in a CFM agreement are not necessarily of equal standing in terms of political pull and money. Consequently, there is the potential for stakeholders who are poor and politically weak to be marginalized. Such a capture of power by the ‘local elite’ has negative effects on equity, and consequently only serves to weaken the faith of communities in the management doctrines of the state.

CFM has also been critiqued on the basis of the claim that it actually serves to strengthen state supremacy over decision making rather than promoting the equitable distribution of power to local stakeholders. Authors such as Hara and Nielsen (2003) claim that through collaborative management, government agencies aim to consolidate power by seemingly improving relationships with indigenous communities, thus enabling them deceptively reform existing policies so they become more acceptable. This form of collaborative management is seen more as a camouflage for the continuation of state hegemony, where the state retains much of its power and the idea of ‘equitable partnership’ is nothing more than a façade (Kepe, 2008, Hara and Nielsen, 2003).

However, as Kepe (2008) also suggests, communities with a long history of conflict over forest and other land rights are unlikely to agree to arrangements that reduce their standing in the long run. While this may be the case in some instances, examples of state hegemony through collaboration are nevertheless, still numerous. In Nepal for instance, while CFM has resulted in substantially more ‘power-sharing between the state and local forest users, there have been numerous instances when government departments have ignored community perspectives, and taken independent management decisions. Similarly, in certain states of India, especially in forested regions inhabited by impoverished schedule tribes, the benefit flows to local communities from CFM programmes are often unduly modest. Most of the tribes inhabiting these regions have very little political clout; hence they are often marginalized during decision making. Thus, even though government agencies are in collaborative management agreements with these tribes, the true decision making power lies in the hand of the local government.

Such regional differences in the conflict resolving success of collaborative management has often cause the question to arise; why does collaborative management work in some scenarios, and fail in others? Such failure can often be attributed to the fact that government agencies often utilize the ‘carbon copy’ approach to CFM. Government agencies often utilize successful commanagment cases as examples by which to construct every other co-management programme, regardless of the regional differences. However, very rarely are different forest communities homogenous in their ideologies and consequently it is doubtful that they would have the same vision of land use for the area. Furthermore, social and ecological issues vary quite substantially from region to region, and a single, commonly used CFM plan will not be able to appropriately address issues relevant to a local forest and its communities.

Therefore, if collaborative forestry is to ever yield positive results as a conflict resolving mechanism, there needs to be strong emphasis on the democratization of forest governance. An effective collaborative management effort will recognize the inalienable rights of the local forest communities. The decisions made through CFM will need to adhere to what is fair, honest and moral. Government agencies initiating collaborative forest management programmes, need to be aware of local situations, and consequently ‘tailor make’ co-management agreements to fit in with local scenarios. Government agencies also need to be aware that while forest conservation is a national and international imperative, if conflict between the state and local forest users is to be resolved, CFM models need to focus first and foremost on land rights and equitable partnerships as the state of the forest is highly dependent on the state of its human inhabitants.

Collaborative forest management and management capacity

Collaborative management as a mechanism for building social capital and trust

It is increasingly being acknowledged that the effective management of forest services and human well-being in conjunction requires an understanding of the many social-ecological complexities of a forest system. Because of such complexity, no one entity, be it local forest users or government agencies, has the capacity to effectively and sustainably manage multiple forest resources (Berkes, 2009). Rather, the entirety of the knowledge and resources needed to effectively address the many social and environmental issues of a given forest are widely dispersed among local, regional and national level agencies (Berkes, 2009). Consequently the sustainable and socially acceptable management of forest necessitates the development of multiple links across different levels and domains. Proponents of CFM such as Berkes (2009) maintain that such ‘bridging’ of the gaps between the many actors, allows their knowledge and resources to be combined to develop more effective management decisions. Such networking can be best facilitated by CFM initiatives that provide an arena for vertical and horizontal collaboration, knowledge building as well as trust building.

The importance of trust building in forest management is an especially significant issue. Historically, the colonial occupation of a region meant that many forest communities lost access to forest that compromised a major part of their culture and livelihoods (Pelsu, 1994). State appropriation of forested land redefined the rules of access and rendered the unauthorized access to forest that were once freely accessible to indigenous people as a criminal act (Pelsu, 1994). However, from the perspective of indigenous forest users, the denial of vital resources and the reassignment of such access to others whose claims were considered invalid was considered the actual crime and led to an eventual mistrust of state doctrines (Pelsu, 1994). Unfortunately, such mistrust has continued long after the termination of colonial rule, and has simply been transferred to modern government regimes that follow similar patterns of indigenous marginalization (Carter and Gronow, 2005). Consequently, developing the management capacity of forest managers to manage forest in a manner that promotes sustainable forest use and socio-economic development in tandem is not only a matter of dealing with social inequities, but also on re-establishing trust between local forest users and forest governments. In fact, trust appears to be a determinant of management success in multiple cases of co-management, especially as a prelude to building a working relationship (Berkes, 2009). Proponents of CFM rationalize that a collaborative framework of management that include rural and indigenous forest users as equal partners has the potential to enhance local capacity to develop sustainable practices as it gives these communities a very real sense of ownership.

Collaborative forest management and the potential for increasing resource availability for management

The collaborative approach to management that forms the cornerstone of CFM recognizes the need for local communities, the private sector and government agencies to engage in some form of equitable partnership that results in the development of multidimensional links between communities. Such links are not only necessary for building trust and promoting social capital, but also for sharing the responsibilities and resources funds necessary for managing forest. While funding is only one of several basic needs for creating sustainable forest management systems, it is undoubtedly one of the most important. Funding plays a pivotal role in nearly every aspect of forest management, ranging from pest management to policing forested land. Inadequate financial support therefore, plays a central role in the loss and degradation of forest, as it limits both the management effectiveness forest managers and the coverage of protected forest systems (Bruner et al., 2004).

Unfortunately, inadequate management funding is a very real problem in many of the world’s most degraded forested areas (Bruner et al., 2004, James et al., 2001, Wilkie et al., 2001). In small GDP and developing nations deforestation and forest degradation are phenomena that often correlate with poverty, economic instability and low human capital (Sunderlin, 2005, Springate-Baginski et al., 2003, Sunderlin et al., 2005, Sunderlin et al., 2008, Bruner et al., 2004). In such situations, the mitigation of social issues such as poverty, lack of education and health becomes paramount. Funding towards forest management and conservation is therefore extremely limited. Insufficient funding means that many protected forested areas have inadequate staff, equipment, and other management necessities. Funding for necessary protected-forest expansions through activities such as replanting is also limited. Not surprisingly, the ability of state managed forestry to economically and proficiently manage forest independently has often come under scrutiny from economist and conservationist alike (Curry and McGuire, 2002).

On the other hand, some authors consider the exclusive management of large forest by independent forest user groups and communities as impractical and unrealistic. In some of the many cases in which management responsibility has devolved entirely to local forest users, the complexities and inequities of managing forest unaided become a prominent issue due to a lack of adequate funding. Inevitably, as time progresses the need for external support becomes critical (Carter and Gronow, 2005), (Springate-Baginski et al., 2003).

Thus the independent management of forest by either government or local stakeholders becomes increasingly difficult as resources diminish and responsibilities mount up over time. CFM has the potential to mitigate these issues by bringing together government management bodies and local stakeholders, thereby pooling in resources and increasing the management capacity of all the parties associated with the forest. By integrating local stakeholders, collaborative management allows government bodies to tap into the strengths of other partners and to share responsibilities (Sunderlin et al., 2008).

In the past however, the argument of the transactional cost of CFM has been put forward (Vira, 1997, Mahanty et al., 2009). Even though CFM allows government forest services to reduce cost by sharing responsibility (Carter and Gronow, 2005), there is still considerable transactional cost involved in determining roles, negotiation, establishing cost and benefit sharing arrangements, monitoring and evaluation (Vira, 1997). Thus it can be argued that rather than increasing financial capacity by combining resources, the procedural aspects of CFM essentially decrease capacity due to the high cost involved. However, while the initial cost of setting up an effective, working collaborative management regime undoubtedly incurs considerable cost (in the form of product development, policy development marketing etc.), in the long run the relative economic benefits associated with combining state and community resources offsets these costs.

Expanding the range of knowledge through collaborative management

Because ecosystems and the human groups who depend on them are in a constant flux, the many social, economical and environmental issues that constantly arise during management are inevitably unpredictable in their complexity (Stevenson, 2006). Consequently, the management of such issues necessitates a keen knowledge of forest ecosystem complexity and the role of humans in such a system. However, given the complexities of such issues, it is generally not possible for a single agency or group to possess the full range of knowledge required to deal with them (Berkes, 2009).

Consequently, CFM has often emerged out of a need to collaborate the many knowledge systems associated with a forest. The term recognizes that managing the multifaceted issues of a forest requires social networks that span multiple levels of organization in order to effectively mobilize and integrate the knowledge widely disperse among the many stakeholders (Berkes, 2009). As the previous section illustrated, CFM acts as an arena for social-networking. The different stakeholders in this ‘network’ have the potential to bring to the discussion table knowledge that is acquired from multiple sources and at different scales (Berkes, 2009). Government institutions, for example, have a regional and national vantage point, and thus a better understanding of how the multiple forest regions and forest communities interact in a national setting (Berkes, 2009). Local indigenous communities on the other hand, are best informed about the local level. Local communities often have traditional resource-management systems which have been derived over time through a process of cultural learning and adaptation (Klooster, 2002). As such, these systems frequently encourage the maintenance and expansion of forest cover as communities utilize generations of knowledge about the land to increase the productivity of the forest they depend on (Rist et al., 2010, Klooster, 2002). Communities’ local and territorial knowledge is also an important resource for the site specific information needed to make adaptive management decisions about forest issues. Such knowledge enables forest managers to respond rapidly to threats such as wildfires, tree diseases and illegal logging (Rist et al., 2010).

However, while the success of local knowledge integration in promoting sustainable forest management is abundant in the literature, the complexities associated with cross cultural knowledge integration are often ignored (Nadasdy, 2003). Community perceptions of ecological issues vary quite significantly from those of forest scientist and researchers. Conventional state forest knowledge is based upon very specific quantitative information which is acquired though rigid, scientific methodology. On the other hand, community knowledge, especially in aboriginal communities, is acquired through the ‘interaction’ with the land in the form of activities such as hunting and gathering (Stevenson, 2006). Aboriginal people generally take a keen interest in the resources they depend on, and are well aware of their location and abundance. However, much of this knowledge is anecdotal, passed down through generations by word of mouth. Consequently, given the lack of a formal structure and procedure, aboriginal management and knowledge systems are often considered to be very ephemeral and inaccessible to most state managers and technical specialists. This issue is further compounded by the fact that, because decisions undertaken in the implementation of many co-management agreements require regulatory/ministerial approval, the information upon which these decisions are based must be defensible, replicable and compatible with the institutional structures and procedures of the state (Nadasdy, 2003). Alternatively, from the perspective of the aboriginal people, the procedures and scientific jargon utilized by most conventional state forest managers seems very alien to them.

It has thus often been argued that the complexities of integrating local knowledge into existing structures of state forest management can serve to somewhat detract the effectiveness of collaborative management (Colfer, 2005, Carter and Gronow, 2005). However, while such problems do exist in collaborating knowledge, they are far from insurmountable. CFM does indeed have the potential to combine state and indigenous knowledge systems, but in order to do so there is a need to focus on the development of a professional literacy among both aboriginal and non-aboriginal parties that will allow for the easy transfer of knowledge between the two. In order to do this, conventional government management systems will have to restructure their management systems so as to reinstitute traditional codes of conduct and forms of governance (Stevenson, 2006). At the same time, aboriginal forest communities will need to restructure and formalize the existing knowledge systems so as to be more compatible with state regulations (Stevenson, 2006).


Collaborative forest management is fast emerging as the one of the most popular means of forest management the world over. However, given the sheer variability of the forms of CFM being currently utilized, the success of collaboration in promoting sustainable forestry varies quite significantly on a case to case basis. In order for a collaborative approach to management to be successful in promoting conservation and sustainability, its emphasis needs to be focused first and foremost on the social conditions of the communities that utilize forest for their livelihoods. By focusing on an equitable partnership and the democratization of decision making, the management decisions generated though CFM are better able to tackle social and environmental issues in tandem, thereby reducing conflict between the state and local forest users.

CFM also has the potential to promote sustainability by acting as an arena for social networking. Given that the effective management of large forested regions is not possible through the sole efforts of a single agency, CFM has the potential to bring together multiple stakeholders, each with their own strengths. Such collaboration also has the potential to build bonds between the many different stakeholders, which in turn help build trust between previously conflicting parties. The sharing of responsibilities and resources that comes about through CFM also enables increases the management capacity of all forest users, and has been noted to result in increased conservation and forest expansion.

By bringing together multiple stakeholders, CFM also facilitates the sharing of knowledge from different sources and at different levels. Such knowledge collaboration will result in a wider perspective of ecological issues, which in turn will result in the development of more effective solutions.


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Can collaborative forest management promote sustainable forestry?
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Collaborative Forest management, CFM, sustainable forestry, forestry, forest management
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Prabhir Correa (Author), 2016, Can collaborative forest management promote sustainable forestry?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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