The Community Forestry Unit of the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO's) Forestry Policy and Planning Division recently organized, in the framework of the Forests, Trees and People Programme (FTPP), an electronic conference (e-conference) on `Addressing Natural Resource Conflicts through Community Forestry,' January - May 1996. The purpose of the e-conference was to bring together information on conflict management and community forestry, and to make state-of-the-art knowledge on the topic available to a wide variety of people working on these issues, while encouraging the integration of regional perspectives into the thinking process.
Seven months of preparations (June - December 1996) preceded the e-conference, undertaken by a three-member secretariat working from the community forestry Unit at FAO headquarters in Rome. The operational phase of the e-conference (January - May 1996) was backstopped by a five-member secretariat including: a coordinator, a moderator, an assistant moderator and two logistical assistants.
The CFU/FTPP e-conference used a total of eight electronic conference rooms provided by FAO/UNDP's SARD-Forum conferencing facilities: three e-conference rooms were inter-connected for hosting the plenary discussions, while five other rooms were used for electronic working groups. Discussions were held in English, and were divided into five main two-week sessions during which nine discussion papers were presented. A total of 463 conferees from 55 countries directly subscribed to the e-conference. Other conferees, representing a wide range of institutions, both with and without direct access to e-mail, participated in the discussions through national and regional working groups in several countries in West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Senegal), in East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania), in Latin America (Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela) and in Asia (Nepal).
E-conferences can vary tremendously in scale, complexity, duration and desired outputs, depending on the objectives of the organizers. A specific approach was developed for organizing and operating the CFU/FTPP e-conference, but it is possible on the basis of this experience to offer some general recommendations for others interested in organizing an e-conference. Elements that can contribute to effective e-conferencing include: preparing e-conference inputs, such as discussion papers, opening statements, virtual cases and/or discussion questions, to help stimulate the debate; using a moderator to facilitate the e-conference discussions; setting up a mechanism for monitoring the circulation of email messages in the e-conference rooms to insure quality control and to regulate the volume of messages (particularly when large numbers of conferees are involved in the event); using regional e-conference focal points to stimulate participation and disseminate information in the regions; and setting up mechanisms for people without access to e-mail to participate in the e-conference discussions (such as the creation of working groups coordinated by regional focal points).
E-conferencing proved an efficient and cost-effective means of networking and disseminating large amounts of information quickly. It provided CFU/FTPP with the opportunity to involve both a large number and diverse range of conferees in the discussions. E-conferencing would appear to be particularly effective when used in combination with other communication or conferencing forms (e.g., as a preliminary or follow-on activity for face-to-face workshops, conferences, consultations, etc.). However, e-conferencing also has several limitations. It can be time-consuming both for organizers and conferees. It can be difficult to encourage regular and widespread participation in an e-conference, and to involve some categories of actors (e.g., policy-makers and grassroots organizations), either due to time constraints or limited e-mail connectivity in many parts of the world (particularly in developing countries).
The e-conference actively contributed to the integration of the fields of community forestry and conflict management, and helped define the interface between the two fields. The e-conference accelerated the conceptualization of natural resource conflict management as an important issue, and helped to increase the visibility of institutions working on the topic. The e-conference significantly advanced CFU/FTPP's own development of the topic, with a concept note, annotated bibliography and collection of case studies planned for publication at the end of 1997. The topic has been included on the proposed draft Agenda for the XIth World Forestry Congress, which will be preceded by a `technical meeting' for policy and decision-makers.