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Common property forest management systems in Mali: resistance and vitality under pressure

J. T. Thomson and C. Coulibaly

James T. Thomson is a senior associate at Associates in Rural Development (ARD), a development consulting firm in Burlington, Vermont, and Silver Spring, Maryland, USA.

Cheibane Coulibaly is president of the Institut malien de recherches appliquées au développement (IMRAD) and publisher of Cauris, a semi-monthly Malian newspaper.

This article presents evidence, gathered through a number of rapid rural appraisals, on local initiatives in common property forest management systems in the Fifth Region of Mali. The appraisals are based on a series of in-depth studies conducted over the past five years by several non-governmental organizations (notably the Near East Foundation, CARE/Mali and SOS Sahel).

Many forests in the southern part of Mali's Fifth Region (see Map) have been governed and managed by local communities as common property resources for several centuries. Yet, from shortly after Mali's independence in 1960 until the end of its Second Republic in March 1991 these indigenous systems faced persistent and heavy pressure from agents of the national forestry service to impose state control. Since March 1991, local initiatives in forest management have blossomed again. Some, such as the alamodiou institutions in the Bankass cercle (district) are resurfacing after more than 30 years of being "clandestine" organizations. Leaders of these institutions hope that, in the new era, their activities will regain legitimacy and be formally recognized. Other local initiatives include efforts to revive in a modified form past traditions and organizations of forest governance and management.

While the Third Republic has to date allowed the resurgence of common property forest management institutions, their future remains unclear. The political debate over control and management of Mali's forest resources continues and forestry rules are inextricably linked with ongoing efforts to define the country's decentralization policy. Nonetheless, several lessons can be drawn.

This article traces common property forestry traditions in the plains and hills surrounding the Bandiagara plateau (although not the plateau itself) in the southern part of the Fifth Region, below the inner delta of the Niger River. This area includes three cercles or districts (a unit in the current Malian administrative system which is in between the arrondissement [zone] and the region) Douentza, Bankass and Koro. In all three districts, substantial efforts are under way to strengthen or revive community-based governance and management of forestry resources. In an initial section, the article reviews the goals and institutional arrangements, at community and overlapping levels, that characterized common property forestry governance and management in the area before colonization (in 1890). Next it highlights the kinds of conflict that arose between these community and local systems, on the one hand, and central government authority, first during the colonial period (1890-1960) and then after independence when the national forestry service attempted to extend its authority over forest resources in the area. A third section describes the current resurgence of local common property management, including the continuing conflicts, but also new attempts at collaboration between community users of forestry resources and forestry officials. The article concludes with observations on the policy conflicts that now confront Malians in this area.

A view of the plains and hilts on the outskirts of the Douentza district

FIGURE. The of the three districts studied in the Fifth Region (Mopti)

Forestry traditions around the Bandiagara plateau

Rainfall in the southern Fifth Region varies from 400 to 600 mm per year. In this arid, nearly desert-edge terrain, trees rarely attain heights exceeding a few metres. A major part of the forest resource is composed of brushwood. Local shrubs such as Combretum spp. and Guiera senegalensis are found along with larger trees, including Acacia albida, Borassus aethiopum, Pterocarpus erinaceus, Grewia bicolor, Scelorocarya birrea, Balanites aegyptiaca and Anogeissus leiocarpa (Dennison, Miller and Thomson, 1992).

These bush and tree species sometimes occur in recognizable forests: large areas of wooded land alternating with grassy clearings and areas of bare soil. These areas provide many benefits, including wood, but much of the woodstock takes the form of trees occurring irregularly on agricultural land and in small valleys created by seasonal watercourses that cut through village land.

During the precolonial era (up to 1890), institutional arrangements governing local tree tenure developed largely unimpeded by rules imposed from the outside. Basically, each village could develop institutions to govern and manage its own woodstock resources if it chose. Some did so, while others apparently saw no need to, and did not (Dembele, 1993; Dennison, Miller and Thomson, 1992; Diallo, 1993; Thomson and Sylla, 1985).

Levels of community investment in developing institutional arrangements to govern and manage forestry resources seem related to perceptions of resource scarcity. Although this relationship does not always hold, the most elaborate management systems generally occur in the most resource-poor environments or are imported to better-endowed areas by people migrating from those that are ecologically more degraded.

Ethnicity, in addition to ecological variations and the related relative scarcity of forest resources (discussed above), plays a role in explaining these variations. The Dogon, for instance, have a strong tradition of resource governance and management, whether they inhabit the Bandiagara plateau or the surrounding plains:

"...the Dogon are remarkable in the extent to which they manage natural regeneration, organize to protect the environment, and... prefer to deal with cases of environmental destruction by aggressive application of management rules." (Thomson and Sylla, 1985)

This group in fact shares a common heritage of life on the arid, relatively resource-poor Bandiagara plateau, where the Dogon sought refuge from civil and dynastic wars during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. Poor stewardship of plateau resources eventually would have forced them to descend to the plains where resources were more plentiful but less attractive because plains villages were much more exposed to attack. During the colonial period in the twentieth century a number of Dogon groups did however descend and resettle on the plains. They maintained their traditions of governing forestry and other resources, but with somewhat less rigour.

Other groups - particularly the Fulbe, their serfs, the Rimaïbe, the Kel Tamasheq Twareg and the Bambara - appear to have had somewhat less elaborate systems for managing their forest resources until recently, perhaps because supplies were more abundant. Nonetheless, many of these groups did control access and use of common pool forests to some extent (McLain, 1990).

A prevalent pattern of institutional arrangements for common property forest resources in the area was a village-based organization that regulated access to and the harvesting of forest products. Among the most important products were building poles and construction timbers, firewood and wood cut for charcoal, wood for tool handles, fruit and nuts and browse consumed by local and transhumant livestock. Access to these resources was generally limited to community residents. Restrictions varied by community and resource type. For example, dead wood could generally be freely harvested by residents for household consumption, whereas the cutting of green wood required special authorization by village authorities, usually the village chief (for example, see Dennison, Miller and Thomson, 1992)

An Acacia albida/millet farming system, common in the Fifth Region

Fuelwood gathered in the common pool area and sold at the roadside

The passage of through private and common property was governed under a management system covering the entire Inner delta of the Niger

Local institutional arrangements reflect the separation of land and tree tenure, a fairly common system in Africa (Fortmann and Riddell, 1985). Fifth Region forests are often governed and managed as common property resources. By contrast, trees on farmers' fields may belong to those who own the land or someone else (not necessarily the farmers). However, they may just as well be considered common property resources or resources owned or administered by an informal local authority (a chief, for example) (Diallo, 1994; Dennison, Miller and Thomson, 1992). These institutional arrangements are generally relatively simple and easily understood by both local people and those who frequently traverse or work in local areas, such as transhumant herders and commercial woodcutters. However, tree tenure rules do vary from community to community and, for historical reasons, are not easily amenable to standardization.

Although most common property systems were village-oriented, an important exception was the system of management including transhumance cattle tracks created under the reign of Sékou Amadou, the Fulbe conqueror who established a land-use management system for the inner delta of the Niger and surrounding areas in the early 1 800s. Part of this system involved demarcating livestock corridors through the countryside to allow the easy passage of Fulbe herds into and out of the Niger Delta according to the changing seasons and availability of grass. Many of these transhumance routes still exist and are respected by farmers.

Monitoring and enforcement mechanisms

All communities that had a tradition of governing their own forest resources also had local monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Typically, young men, under the control of senior villagers, mounted periodic patrols of village lands. Infractions were sanctioned in the light of their seriousness as well as the willingness of the accused to admit guilt and submit to penalties. For example, herders judged guilty of lopping limbs from live trees to provide browse for their animals were often fined the biggest animal in their herd. The animal was butchered and the meat shared out among community members or sold and the proceeds added to the village fund. While this system seems to have originated with the Dogon, it is now found in some Fulbe and Rimaïbe communities also (Thomson and Sylla, 1985; Dennison, Miller and Thomson, 1992).

Most communities also had appeal processes in cases where an accused refused to accept the decision of local authorities. In what is now the Douentza district, until the end of the colonial era appeals of village-level decisions were brought before canton chiefs whose decisions were usually final. In the Bankass region, the Dogon multi village alamodiou associations (charged with maintaining social peace and furnishing social security as well as managing renewable resources) provided for an internal form of appeal, from the decisions of community alamodiou leaders (soraman) to the paramount head (seri) (Diallo, 1993). In the Koro area, the Dogon ogokaana units - likewise involved in social matters as well as renewable natural resources - village elders seem to have exercised final authority.

Most of these community and intercommunity resource governance institutions were carefully structured to ensure that their officials would be buttressed against temptations and pressures in making rules and deciding conflicts (Coulibaly, Magassa and Thomson, 1994; Thomson, 1994; Diallo, 1993). To become leader (serf) of an alamodiou association, for instance, the candidate had to appear naked at seven successive markets in the local area (Diallo, 1993). Submitting to this test was considered proof of the selflessness and high moral quality of the candidate; he was named to the post for life and his decisions were considered just. Moreover, cases were tried and decisions made publicly, assuring total transparency.

Conflicts between local forest management institutions and the forest service

During the colonial period, land and forests officially became the property of the state. The colonial Decree of 4 July 1935 asserted state control over most renewable resources. However, in most areas, including the Fifth Region, the actual imposition of state control was limited and local institutions continued to exist and to exert control over and manage woodstock resources. Yet, after independence in 1960, forestry officials of Mali's First and Second Republics gradually extended their control over renewable natural resources in most parts of the Fifth Region. This process took some years, beginning in earnest in about 1970, but the most recent Malian Forestry Code but one (Law 8643 of 30 January 1986), officially reaffirmed state control. Regulations took the form of national restrictions on the cutting of trees in state forests and protected areas. Additional code provisions authorized forester to regulate many species of trees growing on farmers' fields (Elbow and Rochegude, 1990).

To cut wood legally, users had to obtain authorization from foresters, a procedure involving several steps that were costly in teens of both time and money. Instead of having to walk only a short distance to the village chief's compound for verbal permission, users who wanted to cut in compliance with formal regulations had to travel to foresters' offices. Foresters, being few in number and frequently in the field, were often difficult to contact for cutting permits. Some foresters also demanded that those who wanted permits provide fuel for service vehicles so that agents could travel to the field to check the trees proposed for harvest (Thomson and Sylla, 1985). The system effectively made legal cutting prohibitively expensive except for those involved in commercial harvesting. Local people saw no reason to support the official system if they could avoid it, especially when these regulations were applied to trees that they had protected as natural regeneration or even planted (McLain, 1990).

On the other hand, those who complied with official harvesting regulations, in practice - if not in principle - cut wood where they chose. This often led to commercial harvesters cutting trees in common property forests without local authorization (Dennison, Miller and Thomson, 1992). They sometimes even cut trees on agricultural land that belonged either to individuals or to the community (Diallo, 1993).

Experimental demonstration plantings at a community nursery near Mopti

Violations were punishable by fines or even imprisonment and, in accordance with code provisions, 25 percent of the fine levied was awarded to those involved in identifying and processing the violation (Malian Forestry Code - Law 86-43 of 30 January 1986; Thomson and Sylla, 1985). This system of commissions on fines, designed to encourage foresters to enforce (unpopular and locally contested) code provisions, created instead the basis for abuse: "bribes and even worse, the automatic conversion of every act of pruning a tree into 'abusive exploitation' of resources meriting a fine" (Thomson and Sylla, 1985). Several observers provide accounts of abuses of the forestry code system of fines during the Second Republic (Dennison, Millerand Thomson, 1992) and popular evaluations of the practice (McLain, 1990). The most detailed is that analysing code implementation operations in the Koro district during the mid-1980s (Campbell, 1990).

The assertion of state control set the stage for a long contest, pitting local users against foresters. Foresters, responsible for applying code regulations on nationalized forest resources overrode local forest governance systems, many of which had strong common property characteristics and had proved themselves to be effective in practice. Sometimes, overzealous foresters forced appropriate village-level decisions against individuals charged with illegal cutting to be overturned (Dennison, Miller and Thomson, 1992), and local officials who sought to settle disputes about forest resources using indigenous rules were sometimes fined. Foresters, however, lacked both the human resources and the incentives to mount a credible monitoring system. The upshot was that the formerly well-managed community common property forest resources were converted into open access resources. When these commodities gained value, the predictable rush to harvest occurred. As supplies of deadwood dwindled, commercial woodcutters began to harvest live trees. During the transition period between the Second and Third Republics, foresters who had been the targets of popular outrage in the period immediately following the fall of the Traor‚ regime rarely ventured into the field. Transhumant herders, finding that the state monitoring and enforcement system had collapsed, began to lop limbs and cut small trees throughout the area to provide forage for their animals.

Resurgence of common property management, persistent policy conflicts and uncertainty for the future

Since the end of the Second Republic in March 1991, local initiatives in forest management have bloomed again, bolstered by at least limited official encouragement. One observer notes five reasons for official interest in these initiatives: "the inefficacy of the state and its laws; degradation of the resources; conflicts among users; availability and capacity of local users; and the security of both resources and producers" (Diallo, 1993).

Local administrative systems (as discussed above) had better systems of checks and balances that precluded or at least limited abuses of power. Moreover, communities are simply able to provide greater levels of surveillance of local forest resources than can the forest service. Five or six foresters are often responsible for patrolling an entire district. Villagers, responsible only for their own lands and perhaps some adjacent "shared" forest areas, can put far more people in the field far more often, especially if their local governance structures are solid (Thomson, 1994).

Once resource users are authorized to function as comanagers of resources, with a say in when and how they are harvested and by whom, strong incentives immediately exist for local communities to participate in controlling access to and the harvesting of these resources. In all three districts (Douentza, Bankass and Koro) community efforts are under way (with support from non-governmental organizations) to develop forest management plans, the implementation of which is based on devolving authority to local authorities to govern and manage forests and their products once again as local common property resources (Touré, Kanouté‚ and Sangaré, 1993).

One of the most interesting tests of this approach has been organized by representatives of CARE International in Koro, in close collaboration with the then head of the district's forestry service. A contract was drafted in 1992 between the local head of the forestry service and the district head as signatories for the administration, on the one hand, and representatives from two villages and CARE International on the other (Mounkoro, 1993). This highly controversial contract in effect confers legal authority on the signatory villages to control their own forest resources in apparent contradiction with existing national legislation. Similar efforts to obtain official recognition of the alamodiou in the Bankass district, and of Walde Kelka, an association of villages in the Douentza district, have been undertaken.

However, these new efforts are plagued with difficulties. Most derive from the restrictions imposed by formal rules, especially the forestry code and judicial regulations. For example, according to these rules, only duly sworn state can judge code violations and impose fines. Sanctioning violations of indigenous common property forest management rules is illegal under existing official titles. In other words, community members can identify violators, but can only turn them over to foresters for judgment and sanctioning. This runs counter to the values of most villages in the area, where the goal of sanctioning is to reestablish a situation of peace and reintegrate resident violators into the local community (Diallo, 1993).

It should be noted that, under existing Malian legislation, devolving authority to villages to control their own resources would not overcome this problem (Touré, Kanouté‚ and Sangaré, 1993). Villages would be recognized only as private associations, without the authority to sanction nonmembers; outsiders, commercial woodcutters, transhumant pastoralists and so forth, who refused to abide by common property regulations governing the use of forest resources, would not be liable to local sanctions.

The overall decentralization policy of the Third Republic, yet to be finalized, will also have an important impact on the long-se m potential for common property management of forestry resources. Decentralization might offer some benefits, but it is unclear whether villages will in fact be recognized as autonomous political units when the decentralization policy is finally determined. The current proposal is for their incorporation into rural communes composed of 15 to 30 communities. In this case, the problem of legal inability to apply community resource management rules would persist.

In spite of these difficulties and uncertainties, the recent resurgence of forestry common property systems demonstrates the continuing local interest in and commitment to this form of resource the opportunity that exists for the government to foster sustainable management and use of forest resources through the application of supportive legal and administrative mechanisms. On the other hand, policies and legislation that undermine local resource management would almost certainly have negative short-and long-term effects on the state of Mali's forests and woodlands.


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