Story | 01 Sep, 2016

Better natural resource governance in practice: improving how institutions work with people

All too often, natural resource projects are designed without regard for how local people’s needs and interests will be represented in decision-making bodies during planning and implementation. Even project designs that have built-in participatory mechanisms, such as community-based user groups or resource management committees, can have detrimental impacts on local people’s representation. Without effective representation of local people, projects risk silencing the voices of those whose support is so critical for long term success. Worse, projects can endanger local people’s natural resource rights and create inequalities and conflict within communities.


content hero image

Photo: Gretchen Walters / IUCN

To address some of these issues, a multi-year research, practice and policy project, the Responsive Forest Governance Initiative (RFGI) was established and led by Jesse Ribot, James Murombedzi and Gretchen Walters of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, respectively. The team was comprised of more than 40 researchers and practitioners in 13 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) as well as in Peru and Nepal. The work questioned how projects by intervening agents (e.g. donors, governments, NGOs) were being implemented and how this influenced elements of governance such as participation, representation, accountability and citizenship. Projects focused on REDD+, carbon, community forestry, development and conservation. This work was then translated into practice and IUCN sites in Ghana and Uganda (download research papers) .

Dr. Jesse Ribot of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign explains, “Forest conservation has a long history of disenfranchising forest-dependent people. REDD+, while aiming to overcome this legacy, is at risk of reproducing the age-old patterns of displacement and marginalisation. The RFGI working papers explore the performance of forestry conservation programs that aim to increase rural people's democratic control over forestry decisions – that is, forestry projects that aim to be emancipatory. We find that no matter how democratic or participatory their discourses, they have not been emancipatory; yet the RFGI research also gives many hints on why they fall short and how they may be made more democratic  –  so that rural people's needs and aspirations are inscribed in rights and protected by representation!”    

While many interventions in development and conservation have good intentions to work with people to conserve, manage or restore the environment, these projects can fail the very people they aim to help. Edmund Barrow, Director of IUCN’s Ecosystem Management Programme says, “Conservation is a social construct – though informed by good science (biological and social). While rights and responsibilities are key aspects of governance – that is too simplistic without being informed by issues such as accountability (who is accountable to whom and why?), representation (who represents who, and do they?) and choice (who do external agents choose to work with?). Without integrating and responsibly addressing such issues, conservation will, ultimately, fail – irrespective of how good the science is.” 

Often there are safeguards in place at a high level within an implementing institution, but these are translated with difficulty to field situations. Dr. Robert Mbeche of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya explains that, “Intentions by donors, government agencies and project developers to safeguard interests of local forest-dependent communities are not sufficient. They have to be backed up with means to do that.”

Saadia Bobtoya Owusu-Amofah of IUCN (Ghana) further explains that, “Strengthening local level governance requires significant technical, human and financial resources which are often only available through external agents or interveners, especially at the early stages of development of these structures. In providing such short-term or project based support, however, interveners should ensure that clear exit strategies are developed with the communities and their capacities built to drive them towards self-sufficiency or independence.”  In order for the work with communities to be successful, both local people and intervening agents need to have the right skills to engage with each other, including local people being empowered to engage and intervening agents being aware of how their choices of institutions and ways of working with them can impact local power dynamics. In many ways, practice can be improved by adjusting the way that intervening agents engage with local people and the organisms that represent them.

The research in over 30 sites across Africa showed that, in most cases, interventions fail both people and the environment and that much of the failure, could be attributed to poor representation of local people. Dr. Emmanuel O. Nuesiri, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in the USA indicates that, “This is the first study that shows how to empirically measure representation in natural resources management. This is important because it enables us to objectively determine the degree of inclusion of the weakest members of society in decision-making over natural resources essential for their survival.” 

In providing ways to measure poor representation and then explore the impacts, RFGI work bridges the research-implementation gap. Dr. René Oyono, Research Fellow, Rights and Resources Initiative, says, “The interface science-policy is traversed by differential languages and visions. By focusing on issues that are fundamental for policy making – namely citizenship, representation, local democracy, redistribution – RFGI appears as a unifying tool.”  However, in such tools, the utility will come with the application of the work to field and policy situations. In two IUCN sites, action learning was used as a technique to help communities translate the research on local governance into practice by enabling communities to discuss issues and decide on ways forward (more). However, Emmanuel Marfo, of CSIR - Forestry Research Institute of Ghana encourages intervening agents to take it one step further, “We know a great deal about the politics of representation but we have been timid in confronting policy actors with what we know.” RFGI’s work culminated in using the research to develop principles for working with local governments, parallel authorities (e.g. customary institutions, NGOs), citizens and local people (more). Further work is being explored on how to bring these principles into wider practice and a summary of lessons learned from the programme can be found here 

All natural resource projects are unavoidably political and will impact, in one way or another, local power relations. When project designers and implementers choose to work with a particular set of local institutional arrangements, they are making a choice as to whether, and to what degree, they are going to support local justice, rights and governance, and whether the decision-making process will be consensual and based on representation. Project staff will need to be persistent and sensitive to develop locally appropriate and creative strategies for supporting and increasing local level governance and ultimately improving conservation, management and restoration of the environment. These outcomes are not achieved at once. Experience shows that using a transformative governance building process in which local people can engage in designing innovative management frameworks that build on institutional and sociocultural infrastructure that is both legitimate and familiar to them. Improving governance is a continuous struggle. However, governance work will be more durable when the institutional arrangements, empowered citizens and local authorities are in place to fight for these outcomes.