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Local Practices and Decentralization and Devolution of Natural Resource Management in West Africa: Stakes, Challenges and Prospects

Alain Onibon, National Facilitator
Forests, Trees and People Program (FTPP)/Benin
Bernard Dabiré, Regional Coordinator
FTPP/West Africa and Central Africa, Cameroon and
Lyès Ferroukhi, Associate Professional Officer
Community Forestry Unit/Forestry Department
Rome, Italy


Decentralization is a burning issue in most countries of the world. Whether it is a requirement of donors, part of the general globalization process and downsizing of state bureaucracies, or a response to an emerging civil society within a particular country, decentralization offers an unprecedented opportunity to change how natural resources are managed. This does not mean that decentralization will solve all the ills of past flawed approaches to development and forest management. It offers an opportunity to reshape how central governments and communities relate to one another and provides space to build new socio-economic and institutional approaches to how forests are managed.

One of the major issues from the standpoint of community forestry is how decentralization processes affect traditional local management strategies. In West Africa, local institutions and practices have played an integral role in traditionally managing natural resources.

In this context, "local practices" encompass two aspects. The first are the local approaches, methods and techniques for managing natural resources. Approaches and methods can include rules and regulations, harvesting regimes, customary tenure, and local silvicultural techniques. The second are the local institutions, that are actively involved in managing natural resources. These can include NGOs, small farmers' associations, youth associations, local administrative units, traditional and local chiefs, and decentralized technical and administrative structures.

This contribution is not intended as a study of decentralization of natural resource management in West Africa, nor as an appeal for or against the decentralization of natural resource management. The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the role of local institutions, which traditionally managed local resources, in the decentralization process. This paper focuses on identifying the main issues and challenges affecting local institutions in decentralization. In addition, the paper discusses how various actors in general, and the Forests, Trees and People Program (FTPP) in particular, are responding to these challenges.

Natural Resource Management in the Region: Ambivalence

Traditional systems that are functioning but lack a legal basis

It is generally recognized that communities throughout the region have established customary systems for managing all types of natural resources. These systems struck a relatively satisfactory balance between such values as equity and social justice, efficiency, sustainability and the preservation of biodiversity. Many examples of such systems have been documented in West Africa. They include studies (Drijver et al 1995) on local systems of fishery management in the floodplains of the Logone River in Chad and Cameroon, and Onibon's (1995) work on traditional systems of land and forest management in Nagot, Benin.

Both studies share the same conclusion that traditional systems of natural resource management are based on dynamic institutional and regulatory frameworks. In other words, frameworks well adapted to the social and environmental conditions of their respective milieu. Keita (1985) describes a model of Sudano-Guinean savannah management fairly common in the southern Sahara, where local systems for managing fuelwood, required for cooking and other domestic purposes, were well adapted to local conditions.

Unfortunately, forestry authorities, both in colonial times and since independence, ignored customary practices when designing forestry policies. Instead, successive governments, developed strict command and control policies which deprived communities of their legal rights to manage their local resources. Despite this, the real power in natural resource management is still in the hands of traditional institutions.

Non-functioning legality

In almost every the country of West Africa, the state has declared itself the de facto manager of all natural resources, but has, in practice, been unable to assume this responsibility. Soumaré (1998) calls this a situation of non-functioning legality. According to Keita (1985) and Onibon (1995), the state's action, in stripping traditional institutions of their age-old rights, has plunged these functioning spheres into illegality. This situation supports destructive forces both from within the community as well as from the outside. On one hand, forests are valued by outsiders seeking to exploit its wealth. On the other hand, destructive forces within the community are also unleashed.

Ambivalence or the persistence of a sterile dualism?

The institutional and legislative framework for natural resource management in the region is thus distinguished by the persistence of what might be called a "sterile dualism". This means that the law entitles the state to be the main custodian of natural resources, but the state cannot handle this responsibility. Thus, traditional systems, which have no legal authority, remain the frame of reference for rural inhabitants in their day-to-day use of natural resources (Soumaré 1998).

This sterile dualism is the background against which the countries of West Africa have undertaken their decentralization processes. The aim is for the state to transfer authority to "local" spheres of responsibility (usually local administrative units). This leads to the question: can decentralization actually enable local communities to assume true responsibility for managing natural resources?

Decentralization: the Present Situation in West Africa

An opportunity or a crossroads for the countries of West Africa?

Decentralization and sustainable forest management are two major challenges facing all countries in the region. In fact, like the independence movements that broke the yoke of colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, and the rise democracy and multi-party systems in the 1990s, decentralization is now increasingly seen as a non-negotiable alternative.

However, a historical analysis of the development of West African states shows that decentralization is not a new phenomenon, particularly in terms of territorial and administrative organization. This has led some analysts to conclude that decentralization is a political and legal constant. Nevertheless, talk of decentralization and natural resource management still generates much passion, for it assumes a certain way of using and preserving natural resources and also a certain way to redistribute power.

While advances in decentralization during the colonial period are certainly of some interest, commentators agree that the study of decentralization processes really becomes relevant only after independence (Fall 1998).

In most West African countries, decentralization represents a fresh opportunity, or at least a new crossroads, which must not be missed (CILSS 1994). Although the processes under way in most countries are not identical, they have three common features:

Currently, decentralization processes tend to stress reform of territorial administrative units functioning within the government bureaucracy. In this instance, decentralization is about transferring responsibility from higher to lower administrative units. Decentralization does not support the devolution of responsibility and authority for managing natural resources to the local people. This is why the transfer of responsibility for forest management is restricted within the bureaucracies themselves, taking no account of the people and bodies who for all practical purposes are in charge of using and managing these resources. In other words, the traditional institutions are not involved in this process. Even when the aim is clearly to devolve authority to local institutions, decentralization processes have too often been designed under conditions laid down by, or influenced by, outsiders.

Providing the legal basis for decentralization

In each West African country, decentralization has been accompanied by supporting legislation, formally enacted and promulgated laws, and legislative documents. Sometimes, it is even a constitutional requirement. It has also led to the establishment of various governmental institutions such as ministries, decentralization missions, and national commissions. Such heavy juridicial attention may turn out to be a major constraint, if decentralization is not accompanied by devolution of authority to those responsible for managing natural resources (such as local institutions).

Content and scope of decentralization laws

The institutional context is marked by the creation of structures and bodies generally known as "decentralized local administrative units" (collectivités locales décentralisées). Varying slightly from one country to another, these bodies are found at three levels: regional/provincial (or departmental), district (made up of several villages), and communal.

The principle is that the state divides authority over these spheres of responsibility, including natural resource management, among the various administrative units. With few exceptions, the commune is the only local level institution that exists as a legal entity, has autonomy in financial management, and is administered by an elected authority.

What place is there for traditional and local institutions?

In every country of West Africa, there are various local institutions (both traditional and recently developed) which are recognized by local people as having authority over a particular sphere (CILSS 1994). Although the legitimacy of some of these local institutions is sometimes challenged today, their power is still very much alive.

While the commune is generally the decentralized unit granted authority with regard to natural resource management, it may encompass a range of socio-cultural elements corresponding to different traditional systems for managing natural resources. In such cases, the commune, composed of many villages over a vast area, is not congruent with the local and traditional institutions that hold the real reins of power and decision making.

Points for Reflection: the Issues Challenging the Region

Who really transfers and who actually receives?

Given the de facto control of natural resources by local institutions, in what sense is the transfer actually made? Is it from the state to decentralized administrative units, or (which is closer to the truth) from local institutions to new decentralized administrative units? In the latter case, what are the implications for customary social interactions?

Which will be stronger, the new legality or the de facto situation?

In the future, decentralized administrative units will have legal responsibility over natural resource management, but surely local institutions will continue to claim their rights. Will the state be able to persuade customary holders to hand over their authority to these newly elected authorities? Supposing it can, is there any guarantee, given their limited financial resources, that these administrative units will be more effective than the central authorities in performing their allotted tasks? Seen in this perspective, the state seems to be in the process of off-loading legal responsibilities that it has been unable to fulfill properly, with no guarantee that the new institutions will do any better.

Will the transfer carried out under decentralization be able to solve the problem of sterile dualism?

As envisaged, decentralization processes simply transform the "state vs. local" conflict to a "decentralized administrative units vs. local" conflict. The local administrative units will be in a better position to exercise their authority based on ground-level realities, and they will have to respond to local-level grievances and problems in a more efficient manner. However, conflict could arise between the established local institutions and newly established political units. This new dualism may thus be even more ridden with conflict. The challenge of sterile dualism is as present as ever!

Can decentralization in certain circumstances undermine and distort customary social interactions?

In certain cases, the objectives of decentralization policies cannot be achieved because the process will be co-opted by the "neo-traditional elite". The new local elite use decentralization to reinforce their power at the expense of the real users and those most dependent upon forest resources (Abdoul 1996). This is a serious shortcoming which can only be redressed by innovative and judicious ways to appropriately integrate locally accountable institutions into the decentralization process (Ribot 1995; Ribot 1996).

Does decentralization, as conceived of and carried out in the countries of West Africa, raise new challenges?

The weaknesses revealed above could imply that the state is unaware of the challenges raised by decentralization. But how aware are the other actors, in light of the great enthusiasm aroused by these processes? Can it be claimed that the challenges have been correctly identified? What are the responsibilities of the other actors (such as government agencies, local institutions, decentralized administrative units and NGOs)? Are there any relevant experiences upon which to draw?

FTPP and the Decentralization of Natural Resource Management

FTPP: a framework for reflection and exchange

The Forests, Trees and People Program (FTPP) is a global community forestry program that has been initiated by the FAO Forestry Department and is implemented through regional, national and local partner institutions. FTPP aims to boost the participation of rural communities in the sustainable management of their forest resources and profitable development by:

FTPP has grown steadily since 1978. At present, FTPP is comprised of a global component based at the Community Forestry Unit of FAO in Rome, a networking component based at the Swedish University of Agriculture Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala, and four regional components in Latin America, Asia, East and South Africa, and West and Central Africa.

The West and Central African component was established in 1995 and carries out activities in six countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Senegal. Activities are focused on four priority areas:

  1. Participatory approaches;
  2. Conflict management;
  3. Local practices and farmer's research; and
  4. Nutrition and non-wood forest products.

Based on the experiences of the West African component and its partners, decentralization has been identified as one of the priority areas for action and research over the next three years. FTPP/West Africa will focus its attention and action on supporting local-level institutions and actors to improve their efforts and capabilities.

For a program such as FTPP, the challenge of decentralization can be summarized in terms of the following key goals:

Mali case study: a first attempt to look at the challenges

To better understand some of the challenges in decentralization, FTPP/West Africa and the global component have teamed up with the Department of Sustainable Development at FAO. The main focus of this partnership is to the explore shifts in rights, responsibilities and benefit sharing, and the changes that accompany the process of decentralization. Under the supervision of the Land Tenure Institute in Mali, two case studies are being carried out in two regions of Mali.

The study in Mali is one of three comparative case studies, the other two being conducted by the Department of Sustainable Development in South Africa (Mozambique) and Near East (Yemen). As a contribution to the comparative study's assessment of relations between customary institutions and natural resource management, the Mali case study focuses on community forest management and issues of tree and forest tenure.

In rural Mali, decentralization has been interpreted distinctly as "power returning home". The implications of such an interpretation are in a context in which traditional power dominates (Béridogo 1997; Koné 1997). It should nonetheless be noted that in Mali there has always been a policy of integrating traditional institutions at the village level. The village chiefs and lineage councils (conseils de lignages) represent the official power of village authorities. The recent political events in the region, along with current decentralization policies being implemented, have made it critical to better understand which type of policies to adopt. This is especially true in a country where traditional institutions have a great influence over natural resource management and the center is gradually withdrawing its influence.

The overall objective of the studies is to initially develop tools and guidelines to better relate social capital, traditional institutions and ongoing decentralization processes. This in turn would help clarify how different institutions interact vis-a-vis rural development and natural resource management. Finally, it is expected that this would provide useful information to the various stakeholders involved in the decentralization process and stimulate further adaptive research and discussion on other issues.

The immediate objective of the two studies will be to provide an output that will contain preliminary answers to the following questions: Who are the main players of decentralization? How "uneven" is the playing field? What are the rules of the game? Who are, or would be, the "winners" and "losers" of decentralization at the local level? What is the price of (government/outside) interference? Is there a danger that the creation of new, prestigious local government positions will be used by the local elite to reinforce their power? Does legislation support local accountability? What are the types of administrative oversight and powers being entrusted to these bodies to enable them to truly participate in community based natural resource management?


FTPP/West Africa seeks to assess and better understand the uncertain impact of decentralization on traditional community institutions. This is done at the regional level to allow for the exchange the experiences of different processes of decentralization that are unfolding in the countries of West Africa.

Often decentralization is just a transfer of authority from the central government to the local government units, and fails to take into account the local institutions, which are the defacto local managers. It is increasingly important to consider the capacity of local institutions, not as an alternative but as a true complement, to both central and local bureaucratic institutions. Today, the key question remains "who transfers and who receives"? It is by no means evident that transfer of responsibility from the center to decentralized administrative units will empower local actors. In fact, the result can be quite the opposite.


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