Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Overview of Themes and Issues in Devolution and Decentralization
of Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific

by R.J. Fisher, Patrick B. Durst, Thomas Enters and Michael Victor

Decentralization and devolution are dominant themes in contemporary discussions of forest policy and management throughout the world. Many countries have drafted legislation or policies for implementing decentralization and devolution in one way or another. Nevertheless, between the policy, rhetoric and implementation there are obvious gaps, and there is little conceptual clarity about the meaning of decentralization and devolution. The "International Seminar on Decentralization and Devolution of Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific," held in Davao, Philippines, from 30 November to 4 December 1998, explored experiences and issues surrounding the implementation of decentralization and devolution approaches in the region. This introduction reflects on some of the key themes and issues that emerged from the seminar.

Differentiating Decentralization and Devolution

There are diverse definitions of decentralization and devolution, and the two terms are often even treated as equivalent. It is useful, however, to distinguish between them. Decentralization can be defined as the relocation of administrative functions away from a central location, and devolution as the relocation of power away from a central location. In this sense, power can be equated with the capacity or authority to contribute to decision-making. While decentralization and devolution may occur at the same time, it is quite possible to decentralize administrative functions without devolving the power to make meaningful decisions.

In practice, genuine devolution of power over forest resources has occurred only to a limited extent, even where decentralization and devolution are major policy thrusts. Types of both processes can also be differentiated by the direction in which functions or powers are shifted, such as from a central bureaucracy:

The first type largely represents decentralization only. This introduction focuses mostly on the second and third types, which involve both decentralization and devolution.

Who Sets the Objectives? Devolution of Power over Resources

Within the Asia-Pacific region, the tendency has been to grant local communities the responsibility for protecting forest resources, without granting the rights to use them in a major way. Where local use is permitted, it is usually highly circumscribed and generally limited to minor or non-wood forest products. For example, a tribal community in the Philippines was given the responsibility to protect a watershed, but no rights to use the resources within it. Ancestral domain legislation in the Philippines is intended to recognize traditional connections to resources as a basis for formal tenure, but in this case formal tenure has brought responsibilities without rights (see Datu Ontog Lolong1 ). Another clear example is the case of protected areas in India (see Badola), where people are given the responsibility to protect resources but are not given access to use them.

A related problem is the decentralization of responsibility without devolution of the power to make independent decisions or to take action outside narrow parameters set by forest authorities. Key forest management objectives are usually set by governments, and the decision-making authority of local communities tends to be limited to decisions that meet these objectives.

The pattern of devolving responsibility without power is also evident in the decentralization policies of the Philippines where local government units are the main local implementers. Local government units are given the responsibility to implement programs without the opportunity to define the programs - nor are they allocated adequate resources to meet the new responsibilities.

In real devolution, those to whom responsibilities are devolved should have substantive input in setting the objectives, rather than simply meeting objectives set by others. "Substantive input" does not necessarily mean that all decision making is devolved, but it does imply the genuine possibility of affecting outcomes, and a willingness on the part of those devolving authority to modify their objectives.

This discussion raises some serious questions about devolution. Why, given all the official policies and rhetoric concerned with decentralization and devolution, are governments and forest authorities apparently willing to devolve only responsibility? Are they trying to maintain control over valuable resources while cutting management costs? Or do forest authorities simply not trust communities to make the right decisions? To what extent are forest management objectives negotiable? To what extent should they be negotiable?

Should Forests be Given over to Communities for Management?

There is much disagreement as to whether forest resources should be handed over to communities at all. One line of thinking holds that devolution to communities is not only desirable, but necessary; another holds that it is totally undesirable. Between these extremes lie other less absolute viewpoints.

The main argument in favor of devolution is essentially pragmatic: conventional forest management (i.e. through forest departments) has not worked well in much of the region (see Banerjee). Continuing high deforestation rates have been viewed as evidence that the current system is not working. Devolution is expected to offer more effective management. In addition, it is often argued that devolution is desirable on grounds of equity and social justice.

One of the key arguments against devolution is based on the belief embraced by some foresters that communities do not have the ability to manage forests. This concern may be legitimate in particular cases and may indicate a need for some controls (and for capacity building at the community level), but it is not valid as an argument against community control of forests. This viewpoint indicates an obvious lack of trust and confidence in communities.

Another variant is the argument that some communities do not have the will or interest to manage forests. According to this view, commercialization and marketization have transformed the rural economy to such an extent that traditional resource use patterns have been replaced with newer livelihood strategies that include commercial exploitation. Many communities and devolution proponents argue that this change should not stand in the way of further devolution-that there is no reason why communities should not manage forests for commercial purposes. What this means is that many rural people are demanding the same rights and benefits as their urban compatriots (away from livelihoods dependent on forest resources) such as access to markets, choices in managing their natural resources, and education and health services. In particular the younger generation has largely set out on the path of "modernization", and that might mean that labor-intensive forest management activities are no longer in their interest. In fact, the harboring of high development expectations of many rural people can be a serious threat to sustainable forest management and biodiversity conservation (see Enters and Anderson). Thus, the implication is that forest management policies need to be flexible so they can be adjusted to local realities and the desire to break out of economic exclusion.

The idea that forests cannot be handed over because communities cannot be trusted to manage them properly is, in any case, based on a simplistic understanding of tenure - an assumption that complete control must be vested in either the forest department or communities. Actually, no form of legal tenure anywhere in the world encourages absolute control, so there need not be great concern about a loss of control in handing over forest ownership to communities (see Lindsay). In all societies, non-governmental ownership has always been subject to some regulation. Even in countries where private ownership is most strongly enshrined, such as in the United States or New Zealand (see Clarke), governments still maintain some rights and controls, so people are constrained from certain actions even on their own private land.

Partly underlying the apprehension about relinquishing control of forests seems to be a real concern on the part of some foresters about giving up the valuable understanding, tools and techniques of forestry science. If foresters do not control forests, then what will be their role?

It is feasible that foresters will gain by genuine devolution, because what they will lose is their regulating role, which is often considered a distraction from their focus on forestry science. Devolution can offer an opportunity for rethinking how forestry can support local management.

It is interesting to note that some of the very people associated with Joint Forest Management and similar programs oppose the handing over of forests to local people. This indicates a partial commitment to decentralization in the form of devolution of responsibility and some forms of participation, but an explicit rejection of devolved decision making or power sharing. These views are honestly held and clearly illustrate that the policy dialogue about devolution remains very diffuse. Furthermore, it is apparent that the assumptions of various people advocating devolution are sometimes inconsistent and that many people fail to distinguish devolution from decentralization.

A Typology of Approaches to Decentralization and Devolution

While there is no clear consensus about whether devolution is desirable, it is possible to classify most cases of decentralization and devolution into three basic types of approaches.

In the first type, governments seek public participation in (generally) large-scale programs, with centrally set objectives. This seems to be the pattern in most programs. The Indian model of Joint Forest Management certainly fits this pattern; it involves communities in forestry activities (including protection and planting) on forest department land. While some benefits are provided in return for participation, the objectives are set by the forest department and decisions are made on the basis of these objectives. In other words, communities participate in government programs, they are granted responsibilities and some benefits, but they are given little or no authority. This scenario is essentially decentralization without devolution.

The second type involves the decentralization of forest management roles from central government to local government, but not to local communities. Transfer of responsibility to local government units is a major focus of policy development in the Philippines. Even in this context, the discrepancy between responsibility and power is an issue. In one example, a provincial governor had to "pull power down" from the central government in order to implement the program. This approach involves decentralization, with a degree of devolution in some instances.

The third approach involves the handing over of a significant amount of control to local communities or individuals. This approach is widely discussed rhetorically, but there are very few working examples. The broadest application appears to be represented by community forestry in Nepal, where community rights to use national forestland can be formally recognized subject to negotiated and approved management agreements. However, even the experiences in Nepal indicate that decentralization and devolution are not always complementary (see Singh and Kafle; Uprety and Shrestha). On one hand, the Forest Act of Nepal devolves forest management responsibilities to forest users groups as independent organizations. On the other hand, the Decentralization Act gives local governmental units control over all natural resources within their administrative area. This has caused confusion and conflict at the local level regarding rights to benefits, access and responsibilities. Local communities are now trying to work out their own strategies to deal with these contradictory policies.

Enabling Meaningful Devolution

Meaningful devolution requires both that local managers (be they local government units or local communities) have the capacity to manage forests and that those with current authority to make management decisions are prepared to transfer that authority. It would be naïve to think that all people with control over resources wield their power only for the common good. No doubt some people wish to retain their power over resources for their own benefit. On the other hand, many (probably most) resource managers are reluctant to devolve authority because they genuinely fear the outcome of uninformed management. A major prerequisite for meaningful decentralization and devolution, therefore, is to build levels of trust in local management.

Trust is a prominent issue. Organizational or social arrangements that increase people's trust in each other are a major form of social capital, which is a resource that enables partnerships to work. It is essential to increase trust between foresters and communities as well as within communities; this will involve building local capacities and providing examples of effective local management to demonstrate improved capacities.

It is also essential that arrangements include safeguards (checks and balances). However, decentralization and devolution approaches should not simply allow forest departments to set and police the rules, and judge community performance. Forest departments must also be answerable to the communities, perhaps through third parties, special tribunals or other mechanisms.

The importance of monitoring the performance of community-level forest managers is often noted. It is important for at least two reasons. First, it provides checks and balances. Second, monitoring can help identify successful community-level managers and contribute, through the provision of good examples, to the building of trust and confidence.

Testing a community's capacity to implement a management plan designed by someone else is not a valid measure of the community's management capacity. In other words, it is difficult to assess community management capacity meaningfully if there is no real community input into decision-making. Monitoring the success of community-based forest management can only be meaningful when there is genuine devolution of authority.

As Banerjee stated during seminar discussion, it is also unfair to apply tougher tests to community-based activities than to conventional forest management. In this context, it is important to remember the high annual deforestation rates that prevail under the current management system.


Examination of the key issues surrounding decentralization and devolution of forest management in the Asia-Pacific region clearly reveals a single important theme: it is not enough simply to diversify the responsibility for implementing centrally defined objectives. Rather, decentralization and devolution policies and implementation must progress to genuinely devolved (usually pluralistic) forms of decision making and objective setting. Otherwise, decentralization and devolution will contribute relatively little to sustainable forest management and human development.

1 References refer to the specific paper presented elsewhere in this publication.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page