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Four Considerations for Decentralized Forest Management:
Subsidiarity, Empowerment, Pluralism and Social Capital

Jon Anderson
Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations
Rome, Italy


Unfortunately there are many examples of inadequate and unsustainable forest management by central governments and large private interests alike - from both the developed and developing worlds. In developing countries, where governments are often distant from the resource base and have little means, some government forest reserves exist only on paper, having long ago been exploited and converted into other land uses. On the other hand, forest concession management by industry, especially when it tends to follow short-term economic interests, has equally been questioned about its sustainability.

Perhaps because of these failures, decentralization has been viewed as a promising way of achieving more sustainable forest management. Decentralization in general, and its usual accompanying concepts like participation and co-management, holds prospects for increased proximity to clients, local ownership, reduced transaction costs, increased equity, and enhanced sustainability (Van de Sand 1997); and improved management, accountability, agricultural and economic productivity, and cost recovery (Vermillion 1997). Brown (1998), discussing the rationale for community involvement in forest management, mentions proximity, impact, local livelihoods, capacity, equity, cost-effectiveness, adaptation and development philosophy as key elements.

Decentralization as a means to improve forest management and promote sustainability has had a great number of adherents over the past decade or so. To many, it is a less naive form of participation, and is a form of participation that recognizes political and administrative realities, and moves beyond the isolated, small-scale, success of some participatory rural development projects. A number of documents and reports deal with its positive and potential impact. However, a growing number of voices point out that decentralization is not sufficient, or does not and can not work unless some important accompanying measures are in place.

Forestry has not been immune to the "decentralization fever". Decentralization in forestry holds a number of perhaps illusory and unkept promises. However, devolution of forest management responsibilities and authority to local communities, private small holders or other local groups is not a "sustainability panacea", especially when one type of inadequate, monolithic management is replaced by another. Some experience seems to show local communities and groups perform erratically, sporadically and inequitably (see Enters and Anderson in this volume). They need interaction with outside entities for technologies, techniques markets, and other things that might not be available to them. They are also not immune from capture by special interests and manipulation. They may lack interest and skills, they may be unable to manage conflicting interests within the community, and its knowledge and management systems may be stressed by an increasingly globalized, populated and liberalized world. Indeed, it was partly for some of these reasons that many forests were nationalized in the first place. In isolation, local communities may lack sufficient checks and balances to prevent environmental abuse and may not develop the capacities for sustainable forest management. Decentralization does not mean that local communities or groups magically have the capacity for sustainable forest management.

Decentralization, like participation, means many things to many people and has become common in the jargon of donors and governments alike. Clearly a critical approach is needed if decentralization is to live up to its promises and produce meaningful change and better forest management, and not just remain cynically used phrases to camouflage the status quo. A number of critical questions are currently being asked:

Complete answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this paper. However, the paper attempts to introduce four considerations - subsidiarity, empowerment, pluralism and social capital - that contribute to a better understanding of the processes involved in the decentralization of forest management, and therefore to more realistic approaches. While many other issues could be discussed, such as participation and accountability, the contention of this paper is that these four considerations are centrally (but perhaps not uniquely) important for understanding and succeeding in decentralized forest management. Despite this importance, they are often overlooked.

This paper builds mainly on the deliberations of two workshops, both held in Rome in December of 1997, the "Technical Consultation on Decentralization" and the "Working Group on Pluralism and Sustainable Forestry and Rural Development". While the paper raises some concerns as to the possible success of some forms of decentralization, the aim is not to doubt the need for decentralization in many cases, but hopefully to make it a more effective process.


Subsidiarity is the principle that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level where competencies exist. It aims for the effective implementation of tasks within a given policy and a hierarchical level, which minimizes costs and maximizes social well-being. For forest management, this implies that "concerned local populations should be officially responsible for a part of the cost and benefits of functions essential for the local management of resources". (Babin and Bertrand 1998). In essence subsidiarity is the concept behind decentralization. In many instances in the past, local communities were assumed to not have the capacities to make decisions about local resource management, even when they were required to shoulder some or most of the costs.

Babin and Bertrand (1998) cite two examples of the concrete use of the concept of subsidiarity in forest management. One is the development of "rural wood-energy markets" in Niger. The Government of Niger developed a framework that confers extensive local autonomy to local populations on the basis of a contract negotiated between the state and a local management structure. The process does not impose technical solutions, but promotes the emergence of possible solutions and self-organization. It does not assume that the central level has all the answers, technical or otherwise, but assumes that solutions will emerge as challenges are encountered. In their words "the state plans and manages forest resources at the national and regional levels and leaves local management to the local population". Some results of this process include 150,000 ha of forest under management, appropriate quotas and harvesting techniques, high tax collection rates, increased incomes for local populations, and increased levels of social investments.

In Madagascar, contracts (secure local management contracts) and environmental mediators are being used to help promote more sustainable forest management. The government passed a law in October 1996 (Law 96-025) on the local management of renewable resources - mainly through a process of contracting management to local communities. The Government of Madagascar, CIRAD (Centre de Co-operation Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Development) and their partners in GELOSE (local and secure management of natural resources) are applying the principle of subsidiarity to forest management. This includes a process of mediation in the negotiation of contracts and activities that allocate responsibility and authority for management to the local level.

Subsidiarity can be a useful tool to judge decentralization efforts and choose among options. It requires not only a careful and realistic analysis of local capacities, but also a comparison of capacities and devolution of responsibility and authority to the most appropriate entity. Strangely, this is often absent from much discourse on decentralization. Subsidiarity can help against the tendency to apply potentially universal solutions, like decentralization, without local adaptation. Subsidiarity is also helpful in pointing out the element of time (i.e., that levels of competency change over time). So should decentralization.

While subsidiarity helps to assess the different, but complementary roles of the state and local actors and the necessity for roles for both, it also points towards the type of role the state might play. According to Kaimowitz et al. (1998) local governments and actors

"...also need an overall policy context favorable to local initiatives and clear mechanisms for exercising their legal rights and carrying out their responsibilities. Unfortunately, so far, national and departmental government agencies have done little in this regard, and in some instances have indirectly undermined local government activities. Externally funded projects and NGOs have provided municipal governments with some technical assistance, training, and funds, with largely positive effects, but this has been insufficient to consolidate their natural resource management activities."

Other roles for the state mentioned by Babin and Bertrand (1998) include "referee, economic decider, supervisor of actions and their effects, planner of actions in the framework of land-use ... providing structural instruments for orientation and development". It is also necessary for the state to look after "public goods" that may be undervalued by the private sector or at the local level.


There is a saying that "power is never given, it is always taken - it has always been thus and it will always be thus" (possibly attributable to W.E.B. Dubois). Thus the notion of 'empowerment' is immediately problematic. How can one party empower another? Does not the less powerful party have to take power? Dependence on power sharing and the good will and altruism of the powerful (either in government or in the private sector) is a highly risky and unpredictable affair for the less powerful. In most instances, local communities and user groups will have to be organized (to demand power) before power is shared. They have to be organized to take it - otherwise they are condemned to wait for a few altruistic people to come along. To paraphrase Bratton (in Robinson 1996) once the question was "how can development and government agencies reach the poor majority?" - the participation question. Now it is more likely to be "how can the poor majority be enabled to influence meaningfully public policies and choose those who will implement them?" - the empowerment question.

Ribot's (1998) work on forest management in the Sahel describes the decentralization process, which indeed benefits local people, but perhaps not as much as it should.

"The language of decentralization and participation is often of local control, autonomy and benefits yet the new structures being introduced in their name afford little. Local populations are still relegated to a carefully circumscribed set of roles and relations with forests, little autonomy is created and few new benefits are devolved."

In some cases, the costs of decentralization are disproportional to the benefits. This has been the case in Mali and in some forms of Joint Forest Management (JFM) in India when the requirements and part of the costs of developing a "local" forest management plan are such that in reality decisions and authority remain with the centralized forest service. Contracts for forest use can have the same problem. Some contracts between local users groups and the forest development authority for classified reserves near Bamako, Mali were looked upon very favorably by local groups. However, it became clear that the forest service was not only the sole judge of what amounted to good forestry practices with respect of management plans, but also the arbitrator in case of disputes. Local groups accepted the arrangements because they got slightly more benefits and security than they would have otherwise. But as Ribot (1998) points out, this was perhaps more in the way of charity than of empowerment. These actions improve life slightly for rural populations and thus are welcomed, but they do little to change the fundamental relations and bestow secure rights. There is a growing literature that critiques much of the participatory approach on these or similar grounds (see for example Brown 1994). In many cases it appears that local communities through decentralization become little more than proxies for the central technical units.

In some cases, it appears that decentralization is solely motivated by financial considerations. For example, forest service personnel working for a project responsible for the management of peri-urban forest reserves near Bamako, Mali explained to villagers that the decentralization of forest management and the sharing of rights and responsibilities with user groups was implemented due to financial constraints at the center. The implication was that if funds became available again then the participatory approach would be discontinued.

Ribot (1998) implies that decentralization without empowerment is in reality another form of centralization. Attempts to decentralize are often made without proper analysis of either the situation or the process of decentralization itself. It has rarely gone beyond the terms of projects and marginal small-scale exceptions. Ribot (1998) also states that the concern for decentralization is not new - he enumerates four waves of interest in decentralization in West Africa since 1900 - and thus is not always successful or extensive.

There are numerous ways of empowerment. The obvious legal and political ones may in fact be the most difficult if not necessarily the most important. Ribot (1998) cites several processes or preconditions that contribute to local empowerment and accountability that do not necessarily rely on legal and political systems or reforms. These include:

"embeddedness of authorities in the local community; belief systems that orient authorities toward service and dedication; reputations that local authorities seek to maintain; journalists, NGOs, community organizations or individuals lobbying or acting as watchdogs; social resistance or threats of resistance; ... central state oversight oriented toward downward accountability (in place of the current form of central tutelle); reporting requirements concerning local government meetings and public service; information dissemination about the obligations and powers that local governments have to local populations;... open fora for public discussion;... education and literacy campaigns."

Decentralization and empowerment should also include the various services working at the local level. If these services, such as extension, are not empowered (i.e. field agents do not have certain rights, authorities and responsibilities), they will be unable to respond adequately to the demands placed on them.

Aspects of empowerment should be built into decentralization and devolution efforts and these efforts should be critically assessed for their degree of empowerment of local entities.


Successful decentralization often implies new and more open and equitable relationships between a range of groups and organizations - community, government, private sector, NGO, etc. - at the local level. As Fiszbein (1997) states, "After all decentralization means that certain functions previously performed by national bureaucracies will be performed by a given combination of public and private agents at the local level". This combination means that multiple and, at times, conflicting interests are in play. Decentralization implies an emerging pluralistic situation.

Pluralism can be applied to many domains (see Box 1). As a system applied to politics - to the way society is to be conducted and guided - pluralism is grounded in the need to ensure that several decision-making powers should find expressions thus creating a series of checks and balances between groups. As applied to the analysis of society, it asserts that experiences differ as well as opinions, behavior and reactions. It usually refers to the existence of a number of social groups who coalesce around certain apparently common traits or experiences. As a philosophical doctrine, it affirms that beings are many, are individualistic, and do not depend on an absolute reality (Clément 1997). In epistemology, it implies that there are no universal truths (at least for non-trivial questions of substance) and that separate knowledge systems exist which cannot be absolutely proved or disproved (Rescher 1993).

Box 1: Some key elements of pluralism in sustainable forestry and rural development

  • Different groups have and always will have different positions, opinions and objectives on sustainable forest management and rural development
  • Groups are autonomous and independent
  • There is no single, absolute, universal and permanent solution to any substantive natural resource management problem - for any given land unit there are numerous "sustainable scenarios"
  • No group/organization can claim a superior or absolute scenario; sustainable forestry and rural development decision-making is no longer the sole mandate of expert authorities
  • A system of organizational checks and balances is central for avoiding errors of a narrow single entity management system - this is the positive aspect of 'bounded conflict'
  • Conflicts are inevitable and can not be resolved but managed
  • Equity in decision-making is a distant but worthy ideal
  • Platforms, mediators and facilitators are often needed to provide the conditions for negotiation and cooperation
  • Communication is essential and helps participants understand their differences
  • Consensus is unlikely but progress can be achieved without it
  • Approaches to sustainable forest management that aim at consensus are often misguided and unsustainable
  • Proactive approaches and new processes of sustainable forest management decision-making in pluralistic environments are emerging - more experience is needed

Anderson et al. (1998)

In forestry, there are growing numbers of groups who are independent and do not share the same forest management objectives. Disagreements on objectives are often interpreted by the parties as lack of capacity (Fiszbein 1997). For example, forest services sometimes assume that because local groups do not agree with central expert authorities on how forests should be managed, that they must lack capacities or knowledge, and therefore are not capable of managing these resources. In fact this often has to do with having different sets of objectives and frankly disagreeing on approaches. Disagreement does not always signal lack of capacity.

One of the major reasons mentioned in opposition to decentralization is the lack of capacity of the decentralized entities. In addition to the argument that "lack of capacity" is often in reality a disagreement on objectives, it can also be argued that this is a hypothetical statement or self-fulfilling prophecy. Local entities can never prove their abilities unless they have some authority. Fiszbein (1997) observes that in Colombia the proponents of decentralization did not argue that local entities already had the capacity to manage. They argued that only through decentralization would these capacities be developed. He also observes that what is often perceived as lack of capacity is in reality conflicting objectives. Studies in Mali (Sow and Anderson 1996) and Sudan (Sulieman 1997) for example demonstrate that local people have very different perceptions and perspectives on the forest resources and their management. This does not mean, of course, that local people lack capacity. This strongly reflects the pluralistic situation.

Presently, pluralism's most common use in development jargon seems to be to describe a multitude and diversity of actual or potential "delivery mechanisms". Traditional public sector service delivery has been heavily criticized for such weaknesses as inadequate coverage, ineffectiveness, inefficiency and audience bias. Observers have seen a greater role for other partners ( such as the private commercial sector, NGOs, and farmers or forest owners' associations) to overcome constraints in public delivery. Much of this discussion assumes that there remains unity of objective and purpose, a single knowledge system and a right answer to be extended. It assumes that somehow all these different organizations fit together to serve the same objective and to deliver similar scientific content. In many cases, different non-government partners are simply seen as "sub-contractors" or acknowledged to be better at meeting the needs of certain audiences, but with the same body of knowledge. Sometimes it appears that other partners are integrated as long as they recognize a sole source for technical content and thus become mere proxies for the centralized authority (Anderson et al. 1998).

The situation may be more complex. Pluralism does reflect a differing set of views, and on complex issues (like ecosystem management within a dynamic social system) these views are resistant to scientific reductionism.

"... pluralism will not only be accorded recognition, but it will be used and made an integral part of government policy. Among the institutional consequences of pluralism obtaining recognition in various countries, decentralization is frequently listed, i.e. pluralism as handing over the governance of a component part of the territory to some elected local authority (and not to appointed agents of the central government). Two factors enter into play, however, and relativize this link between recognizing pluralism and decentralization. One is bound up with the imperfect nature of decentralization, which is often de facto the fruit of a subtle compromise between deconcentration and decentralization. Accordingly, decentralization does nothing to simplify problems attendant upon pluralism; there will always be groups and individuals with differing opinions and objectives, and the resolution of local problems does not always facilitate the solution of problems at the national level. Quite the contrary". (Clément 1997)

Decentralization inevitably unmasks conflicts, genuine disagreement and lack of consensus at different levels. However this is critical to the development of capacities. Partnerships and political competition at the local level and the greater involvement of non-state actors are a strong motivator of capacity building (Fiszbein 1997).

There are fears and some real risks that some types of competition between multiple interests at the local level can lead to degradation. This is even sometimes the justification for the imposition of central control. On the other hand, the presence of multiple interests can lead to a system of checks and balances and mutual monitoring by autonomous groups where the chances for sustainability are improved over single interest management. Crucial to new relationships and the success of decentralization is the recognition that this implies pluralism and the creation of coordination mechanisms (forums where multiple groups and interests get together and negotiate) and participatory methods that respect the plurality of participation. There is no single mechanism and approach that fits all situations.

Social Capital and Capacity Building

Many forestry and environmental problems and activities require some type of collective action, usually on common pool resources, but also on public and private lands. Most forms of JFM in India and community forestry in Nepal, for example, are based on types of collective local action. Decentralizing management to local groups poses the question of capacity at the local level. Collective action can be very difficult where levels of social capital are low and capacity is weak or lacking.

Social capital is often seen in vague and ambiguous terms. It remains a secondary consideration for many involved in decentralized forest management. An example, from Hobbes, perhaps best shows what it is and how important it can be. To paraphrase: One neighbor's rice is ready for harvest today and another's will be ready tomorrow. The second neighbor does not help the first because she is not sure that the other will help her the next day. Both neighbors lose in real economic terms because of the lack of "norms, trust, and reciprocity networks that facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation in a community" (Harriss and de Renzon 1997). A study of social capital in Tanzania (Narayan and Pritchett 1997) revealed that higher village social capital is associated with higher levels of individuals' incomes even after controlling for household education, physical assets and village characteristics.

Harriss and de Renzon (1997) distinguish an array of different types of social capital including family and kinship connections, wider social networks or associational life, cross sectorial linkages, political capital, institutional and policy frameworks and social norms and values.

The concept of social capital may be of particular relevance to the decentralization debate. In an important study, Putman (1993) shows how the differences in existing social capital (meaning norms of reciprocity, networks, and trust) impact and condition the success of decentralization efforts in Italy. In 1970, Italy embarked on an ambitious program of regionalization and decentralization of governance. The central question of the study was "what are the conditions for creating strong, responsive, effective representative institutions"? The success of decentralization in the North of Italy can be traced back to higher levels of civic engagement or social capital. Putman (1993) even traces differences in social capital back one thousand years. His analysis stresses that the success of decentralization depends on the levels of social capital that already exist within the local area, which is path-dependent or historical in nature. His work is interesting because it lays the groundwork for predicting the success of decentralization. Once the key factors are known it might be possible to design decentralization strategies that take them into consideration. However, his outlook is ultimately somewhat pessimistic - the techniques to build social capital and the length of time involved are daunting.

Bebbington and Kopp (1998) provide examples in forestry where social capital was built (in a dialogue between the local and central levels) and these networks and norms of trust served to promote sustainable forest management. In one case, these processes were mainly from the bottom up, as the decentralization of forest management was initiated originally by rural people's organizations (RPOs) wanting to take more control over there indigenous lands in Bolivia. In another case, from Colombia, the process was more top-down with central government level actors taking a lead role in decentralization. He also emphasizes the important role of social capital in making the use of other forms of capital more efficient and effective, and the key role of government officials.

On the other hand, the effects of the lack of social capital in forest management can be quite dramatic. Conroy et al. (1998) give a striking example from Orissa, India. Here four villages took collective action to protect a degraded patch of a reserved forest. They started in 1975 and by 1984 the vegetation had increased in density and height. However that same year, several of the villages had a series of conflicts about the siting of a road, the sharing of benefits from a jointly managed pond and local elections. The villagers no longer had the levels of social capital (including trust) needed for collective action. Within the space of several days the protected patch was cut down by the villagers (and also by some unconstrained outsiders). By 1986, the patch was worse than it had been in 1975 with roots even having been dug up. It should be noted that while the conflicts had a dramatic effect on the collective action needed for forest management and protection they originally had no link to forestry.

The relationships between local institutions and central governments are complex and effective decentralization may well mean that the latter takes on a stronger role in some areas. "Local governments clearly require external assistance both to bolster their support for sustainable resource management and to strengthen their capacity to promote such management" (Kaimowitz et al. 1998). Those policy arguments which pose civil society or the local community against the state, or which rest on the view that a "robust civil society" is necessarily a precondition for "good government" are almost certainly misconceived (Harriss and de Renzon 1997). Governments can help build social capital and capacity. What appears to be needed is new forums for the various actors to come together and methods of participation that are indeed empowering and take into consideration dissension and dissonance.


Decentralization and devolution hold promise for improving forest management and moving towards sustainability. Many local communities and groups are uniquely placed to contribute to these goals, for a number of reasons. They often have important endowments of social capital making collective action possible, although this is not always the case. Less well recognized, they are often pluralistic in nature and contain traditional systems of administrative and political checks and balances and accountability (Thomson 1994). As such, they are more pluralistic than government departments and private sector concerns, and are therefore perhaps slightly more likely to manage their forest resources sustainably.

Decentralization should result in more effective and productive interplay between organizations involved in forest management - from community-based organizations through private companies to state agencies. Sustainable forest management requires constant learning and adjustment. The presence of a multiple actor system promotes needed mutual learning and innovation in addition to checks and balances. Multiple interests, instead of being a threat to sustainability, may in some ways be essential. To the extent that decentralization promotes this, and not single entity management, it will contribute to sustainable forest management.

Much decentralization is top-down - implemented as programs with too much time spent discussing levels and representation. It is an artificial non-organic approach to something that should remain, if one is honest, unpredictable. "Each municipality has a quite distinct dynamic that can lead to widely diverging social and ecological outcomes" (Kaimowitz et al. 1998). Hence sometimes decentralization helps achieve sustainable forest management and sometimes it hinders the achievement of this goal.

Decentralization cannot guarantee that communities will reap more benefits and be more interested in sustainable forest management. However, it does seem to increase the chances that this will happen - especially when combined with other enabling actions and incentives. As Kaimowitz et al. (1998) state: "There are clearly instances where decentralization has or will allow these groups to participate more in local government, have greater access to forest resources, restrict encroachment by large timber companies and ranchers, and influence policies affecting forests". While containing promising elements, this does not guarantee sustainable forest management per se. Experience shows that decentralization and devolution are complex processes and in themselves not sufficient to guarantee sustainable resource management.

Decentralization is an approach that embodies many elements - some of these elements may even be more critical than decentralization itself. In fact it may not be a universal "good" thing - some things should not be decentralized and a strong center may be needed to assure the success of decentralization. Decentralization may be needed to meet the goals of local capacity building, pluralism and subsidiarity.

Decentralization can be both an end and a means, it can pose almost as many problems as it solves. It is also not a panacea and should not be taken, for example, as a substitute for democratic representation. It seems to work best in situations where a number of criteria are already in place and is not a substitute for those conditions. Since decentralization does not seem in itself to be the answer to sustainable forest management and its outcomes are somewhat unpredictable, it may be useful to give more attention to subsidiarity, empowerment, pluralism and social capital.


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