Community forest management and action research: emerging models, emerging paradigms

Anitra Nelson 1


Arguably the most useful emerging models for future forest management are based on community participation because they address key challenges of our time: the needs to reconcile social conflicts over forest use and management and to prioritize ecological sustainability. Action research complements community forest management: both stress democratic values and participatory processes. This symbiotic relationship and its interdisciplinary dimension are explored with brief reference to experiences of community forest models in Victoria (Australia) and select international literature. It is concluded that, given their action-oriented and inclusive approach, action researchers are likely to attract the attention of the main stakeholders in forest management in the twenty-first century: local communities, international agencies and government policy makers and regulators. The ascendance of community forest managers and action researchers would significantly alter the theory, discipline and practice of `forestry'.


At present, two pressures create conditions that make community forest management and action research appear the most appropriate emergent institutions and methods for organization and research. One is an ecological pressure: the need to ensure the sustainability of forested landscapes. The other is a political pressure to extend democratic processes into environmental management in general and forestry in particular. If these developments continue, they will impact on all forest stakeholders and forestry practices and theories are likely to be revolutionised. Therefore it is critical to focus on community forest management and action research at the XII World Forestry Conference 2003 where stakeholders from the world over gather to discuss their futures in forested landscapes and forest communities.

The focus in this paper is research methodology, specifically action research. The discussion draws on experiences in South East Australia and refers to some key international developments. To begin with, `community forest management' and `action research' are defined. Their symbiotic relationship is analysed and an interdisciplinary direction identified. The conclusion is that the ascendance of community forest managers and action researchers would alter significantly the theory, discipline and practice of `forestry'. The purpose of this strident proposition is to provoke, not close, discussion.

Defining `action research' and `community forest management'

Action researchers are relatively conventional in that they identify hypotheses that lead to fieldwork and analyses that involve conclusions. Action researchers employ the same skills and processes that characterise most research. They: reflect; identify and define a problem; suggest an ideal solution; monitor the effectiveness of applying that `solution' and then start the whole process all over again. However in each of these processes they act as fully social actors, conscious of the social pressures and impacts that impinge on their research and its methodology.

Action research (Wadsworth 1998) is remarkable for its social content and context and for valuing community. Action research focuses on interaction between communities and researchers both in the process of designing and implementing research and in drawing conclusions from the findings of that research. Action researchers employ inclusive methodologies, therefore conflicts and contradictions are central to their enterprise.

Action researchers foster intellectual distance in those they work with, encouraging a sense of participant observation, of conscientious reflection at the same time as making or doing. In as much as action research involves creativity, imagination and commitment, it is an art. In as much as it requires disinterested scrutiny and evaluations, thorough analyses and clear methodologies, action research is a social science.

Action researchers seek to integrate experts as well as general community members into their research processes. There is little time for personal reflection in an `ivory tower' or isolated laboratory or field exercise as action researchers brainstorm, discuss, question and speculate in open community forums. The action researcher is accountable to an identified community of interest, not just specialist peers. This brings us to our central concern: the community of interest comprised of forest stakeholders.

There are many models of community forest management or `community forestry' that highlight local cultural as well as biological diversity and specificity. Indian and Nepalese examples are traditional in contrast to experiments from a `permaculture' perspective (www.spacountry.net.au/holmgren). Models of community forest management are defined by their cooperative organisation and valuation of forests as holistic ecosystems requiring conservation and restoration. Ideally community forest management is distinguished by:

Action research is a natural complement to community forestry because community forest managers and action researchers share democratic values and holistic perspectives. Democratic values translate into affirming community management of local natural resources and demand that researchers are actively involved and accountable to a broad range of stakeholders while exhibiting intellectual honesty and rigor. Frequently practicing conservationists and forest activists have employed action research approaches and skills unconsciously while scholars analysing community forestry have recognised quickly the utility of action research methodologies and theories too.

Historically, theories and methods of action research started in work places, social services, community activities and schools. Today social equity is recognised as integral to establishing and maintaining ecological sustainability. Sustainable living and industrial practices acknowledge both the need to meet all people's basic needs and the sustainable limits of forest resources and complex requirements of forest ecosystems as crucial habitats for numerous species and vegetation communities. Therefore sustainable practices focus on social and industrial changes, from prioritising conservation to ensuring effective processes for identifying and resolving social and ecological conflicts, including altering patterns of production and consumption. Also some threatening processes involved with diminishing and fragmenting forests are instigated and must be addressed outside the forest and forest communities and towns.

Just as community management is an ideal model for organising sustainable forestry, action research is an ideal method for furthering our knowledge and skills base related to sustainable ecosystem based forestry. Especially in countries where community forestry has a long tradition, action research has been encouraged because it assists in decision-making and participatory development that involves choices between well-established traditional practices and opportunities associated with modern technologies. It is heralded as appropriate for countries like Canada and Australia, too.

One of the most advanced examples of community forest management in Australia illustrates these points. When they were interviewed in 1999 (Nelson 2002), state industry and union leaders nominated only one environmental group with whom they had had constructive dialogue-the Wombat Forest Society, established in the mid 1990s in Central Victoria. Indeed forest activists were suspicious of the Society's reluctance to blockade workers, a strategic stand supported by principles of mutual respect and social justice. While they have conducted spectacular and successful direct actions on occasions, Society members have concentrated on reasoned discussion, rigorous analysis and monitoring of the activities of both the timber industry and officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. They have made strident attacks on certain forest polices and lobbied politicians hard over issues relating to forest sustainability and social accountability. Without forestry degrees, they developed sophisticated computer software to analyse departmental statistics and nurtured informative, open and transparent public debates. Their pressure and focus on sustainability partly accounts for the Victorian government's forestry reforms announced in February 2002 that included a massive 79% reduction in sustainable yield figures set for their area (Nelson 2002). This example demonstrates that action research and participatory processes of conflict resolution make community forest managers an effective and significant force in the use and treatment of local resources.

Interdisciplinary approaches

Action research conducted alongside community forest management implies an interdisciplinary approach. Both community based and ecosystem based perspectives require input from distinctly different experts and solutions from across disciplines. The Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative (Nelson 2001), a residential land settlement co-operative established to conserve hundreds of acres of endangered landscape of Box-Ironbark woodlands on the outskirts of Victoria's capital (Melbourne), illustrates this point.

This co-operative was established over thirty years ago and spawned an Environmental Living Zone regulating private landholders covering an area three times its size. The co-operative was established in an era when many conservationists recommended that the only way to conserve forests was to fence them off and leave them as wilderness. Consequently, co-operative members were eager to show by example that, by following low impact practices, humans could live in a forest yet conserve it too. Therefore the co-operative developed interdisciplinary perspectives on conservation, seeking solutions that were sound from many aspects: ecological, social, cultural, economic and political.

Action research was employed by the co-operative and in the wider Environmental Living Zone constantly as members developed their own research data base of local ecological and political information. They called in experts for advice about conservation of their Box-Ironbark woodlands. They were required to learn about planning regulations. They sought information from other community groups to enable better outcomes in negotiating with Council, state governments, private developers and local farmers whose activities threatened their forest and community based interests.

In as much as substantive democracy and ecologically sustainable practices expand in tandem in the future, community forestry seems likely to lead action researchers in an interdisciplinary direction that seeks to integrate natural and social science skills and knowledge for application in natural resource management. Consequently forestry is likely shift from scientific and industrial frameworks to community and ecosystem based perspectives. This is an enormous leap. In universities like RMIT University (Melbourne, Victoria) where I work, we are joining together in cross faculty teams to address problems that are being perceived and defined in more complex and holistic ways. This alters our ways of researching and problem solving.

In as much as forest communities develop processes to explore and resolve conflicts between various stakeholders in forest management and use, this same process is mirrored in the academies where, for instance, geo-spatial and social scientists are sharing their distinct knowledge bases and skills to better inform policy making in government and activities by private entrepreneurs. In turn, this is affecting ways we educate students and act as educators in the general community. For instance, I work with a colleague who is tailoring interactive software specifically to enhance environmental governance at a grass roots community level. Multimedia tools have the capacity to present information about natural systems, and explore and predict the impacts and outcomes of specific decisions made about resources, as well as map the common and disputed aspects of decision-making over resource management and use. Restoration options can be canvassed in 3D style imagery and co-operative decision-making can be enhanced by the use of electronic discussion forums and electronic voting.

Thus interdisciplinary developments in education and research are assisted by e-communication as a means to bridge social and geographic distances. E-communication is a novel tool for rigorous and successful action research and enhances opportunities for communities to make more fully informed decisions to address local and global problems. Both forest communities and action researchers are linked by international websites and e-groups that offer powerful opportunities for defining and solving local issues related to forest management and use.

Community forestry and action research as emergent models

In the last State of the Forests Report (1998) it was noted that most of Australia's forest based research focuses on wood and wood fibre industries and is sourced from the governmental Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation. This Report (1998: 150) admitted to a lack of `nationally collated data available for research on non-wood forest products and services such as water, honey, tourism, carbon sequestration or wildflowers' and a skew in studies towards the minority of forests that are commercially productive and publicly owned. Clearly, applied and strategic timber-related research dominates to the detriment of basic research in ecology and conservation.

For those working in conventional industrial forms of forestry and forest research, community forest management and action research present some startling developments. A new kind of forester and researcher is required to replace the unassailable expert with a narrow knowledge base who offers advice or makes decisions related to just one aspect of government policy, or one field project or one private enterprise. The closed laboratories and journals that only specialists understand are likely to have less support in the future.

Community forestry and action research combine to offer a model that addresses current crises related to ecological sustainability and friction over forest management and use. Internet searches reveal that interdisciplinary, community and ecosystem based research organisations are surfacing in many parts of the forested world. Urban environmentalists in Australia are particularly concerned about forest landscapes. Action researchers make sense because: they focus on change; they speak simply to communities and politicians, they take their direction from social concerns; and they recognise that forest management involves people and social cohesion as well as natural functions in complex ecosystems.

Just as `forestry' is undergoing a challenge and change, action research theories and methodologies will be extended and developed by their application to areas of environmental management like forestry too. Indeed the conceptualisation of the Community Ecosystem Trust model by researchers at the University of Victoria (BC)-M'Gonigle, Egan and Ambus (2001)-heralds this direction. These researchers have supported the International Network of Forests and Communities (www.forestsandcommunities.org). Based on case studies the world over, the Community Ecosystem Trust model was developed as an enabling mechanism to address the institutional changes necessary to achieve sustainability in this coming century.

In Australia, community forestry is an emergent model and action researchers are working very much `on their feet'. Many of us are appearing out of the `closet' of social science, environment and planning programs rather than conventional forestry backgrounds. Meanwhile departments in universities that train foresters for government and private companies are beginning to offer electives that explore participatory decision-making and management of forests. Although it is a marginal development at present, foresters are being drawn from laboratories and plantations to explore community, and not just timber industry, concerns. At the same time, social scientists are encouraging natural and physical scientists to address ways of achieving sustainable forests by altering political and economic structures.

In Australia, few indigenous practices impacted on forestry management post settlement. Instead forest use was regulated by government and managed primarily as a resource for timber and paper industries. However in the last few decades strong conservation and environmental movements have focussed attention on saving forests as ecosystems. Consistent with a recent concerted national effort for reconciliation, it is being recognised that community forest management offers the potential to address the concerns of indigenous peoples for social justice and to `care for country'.

One case of community forest management involves the indigenous Yorta Yorta peoples. Their traditional land covers the Barmah-Millewa forest that is the largest river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) forest in the world and that supports a range of species dependent on wetland habitats. Wetland forests are rarely found in semi-arid areas and exist here because of an unusual combination of natural flows and flooding associated with the Murray/Dhungalla River and the effects of a geological fault line. The Barmah forest was listed as a Ramsar Convention wetland site of international significance in 1982 but aspects of its management have contravened conditions of the convention (Orthia 2002).

In 2001 a collective based within the environmental organization, Friends of the Earth (Melbourne branch), started to negotiate formally with the Yorta Yorta to create processes for furthering their joint concerns for social justice and ecological sustainability. Trust and cooperation were given precedence over concrete outcomes. Yet, within eighteen months, these negotiations resulted in an impressive draft document, a National Park proposal (FoE 2002) for joint management that is radical in that it privileges the indigenous partners.

Action research is most appropriate when working with indigenous peoples. It stresses respect for traditional knowledge and cultural difference and embraces a political aspect that centres on social change. Action researchers stretch interdisciplinary frameworks in a transdisciplinary direction parallel with problem solving challenges associated with ecological sustainability.


As community forestry and ecologically sustainable practices expand, action research will become a more appropriate and legitimate methodology. The emerging paradigm is interdisciplinary because it involves ecosystems and community participation is necessary to create sustainable practices. Especially because of its action-oriented and inclusive approach, action research is likely to attract increasing attention from local communities, international agencies, government policy makers and regulators and private stakeholders in forest management this century.


Friends of the Earth Barmah-Millewa Collective (2002) Barmah-Millewa National Park: a proposal for a new conservation reserve jointly managed by the Yorta Yorta Nation. Melbourne. 16pp.

International Network of Forests and Communities (INFC): www.forestsandcommunities.org

M'Gonigle, M., Egan, B. and Ambus, L. (2001) When There's a Way, There's a Will, Report 1: developing sustainability through the Community Ecosystem Trust. Eco-Research Chair of Environmental Law and Policy, University of Victoria (B.C.) 75pp.

National Forest Inventory. (1998) Australia State of the Forests Report 1998. Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra. 189pp.

Nelson, A. (2001) 'Two Models of Residential Conservation; Communal Life in an Australian Box Ironbark Forest', International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7 (3): pp. 249-272.

Nelson, A. (2002) `The Wombat Forest Society: Tactics, Talks and Audits' (forthcoming) Dargavel, J. and Libbis, B. (eds), Australia's Ever-changing Forests V, Canberra, ANU (CRES).

Orthia, Lindy (2001). Evidence from the scientific literature supporting the environmental component of the Yorta Yorta Management Plan for the Barmah-Millewa forest ecosystem. Published on the Barmah-Millewa page of the FoE Melbourne website-www.melbourne.foe.org.au

Permaculture (David Holmgren) website: www.spacountry.net.au/holmgren

Wadsworth, Y. 1998. What is Participatory Action Research? Action Research International, Paper 2. Available on-line: http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/ari/p-ywadsworth98.html

1 Research Fellow, Social Science and Planning, RMIT University, GPO Box 2476V, Melbourne, 3001, Victoria, Australia. [email protected]; Website: www.ecoforestry.info