She who makes the rules wins!

In a paper just out in the journal Ecology and Society, a new unified theory of empowerment reveals what is needed for local communities to become the future forest managers in Kenya.

The key is to devolve the power to make rules and benefit from them as assiduously as transferring responsibilities for policing them.

Susan Chomba, who conducted the research, said ‘decentralised governance is an exciting development in Kenya, and we were interested in the extent to which people are being empowered to manage their local forest resources. First, we needed a framework to analyse how well decentralisation of forest governance was working. A key breakthrough was to see empowerment as the intersection of institutional devolution of power, and local people’s agency to influence the institutions charged with managing the forest. This brought together previously separate strands of thinking about empowerment. A key issue is that local communities comprise people with very different levels of wealth, education and access to resources – which in practice means very different opportunities to influence forest management. Large landowners are a world apart from the smallholders and landless people who live at the forest margins’

Smallholders discussing forest management issues in Ngare Ndare – women like this might become the future managers of Kenya’s forests but only if sufficient powers are devolved to the local level. Photo credit: Maria Amrani

Smallholders discussing forest management issues in Ngare Ndare – women like this might become the future managers of Kenya’s forests but only if sufficient powers are devolved to the local level. Photo credit: Maria Amrani

This new theory of empowerment was used to look at how community-based forest management was panning out for local people in Ngare Ndare in Central Kenya. The research looked both at what powers were transferred from national to local levels, and then how the local organisations responsible for managing forests operated. Who influenced how these institutions worked and who benefited from forest resources and the revenue derived from them.

‘What we found’, said Susan, ‘is that contrary to the rhetoric around devolution of authority, powers to make rules and benefit from the majority of forest revenue were retained centrally, while responsibility for policing the rules and protecting the forest were transferred to the local community forest association (CFA). So, local people became responsible for the forest without having much authority over it. This unbalanced transfer of power limits both the effectiveness of local management of the forest and the extent to which local people benefit from better forest management.’

Two cheers for democracy

Echoing E.M. Forster’s haunting title – Two Cheers for Democracy, Susan went on to say that ‘the working of the forest association was inevitably skewed in favour of local elites, who were better able to articulate their needs and wants and exercise influence within the association.’

‘This goes beyond numerical representation of different groups of people in the association’ explained Peter Minang, Global Co-ordinator of the ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins that hosted the research in Kenya, ‘what matters is substantive representation – how effectively different people’s interests are articulated and affect decisions made by the association’. ‘You need to make specific provisions in designing institutions if all sections of a community, particularly those who are socially and economically marginalized, are to be heard,’ points out Iben Nathan, of the University of Copenhagen, where Susan obtained her PhD, of which this research forms a part.

‘So, the upshot of this research’, said Fergus Sinclair, Systems Science Domain leader at ICRAF, ‘is that things need to change if decentralized forest governance is to work effectively’.

Firstly, powers to make rules and benefit from forest revenue need to be locally devolved as well as the responsibility for their enforcement. Secondly, as more powers are transferred, it then becomes increasingly important to take measures to ensure equitable representation in the local institutions exercising these powers. That requires specific measures to prevent elite capture and make the voices of disadvantaged groups heard. While a community forest association can not change the overarching socioeconomic structures that create and sustain elites, governments can address inequity and poverty, created by heavily skewed distributions of land ownership and wealth.


Susan Chomba.

‘Community based forest management can contribute to addressing these issues’ explained Susan, ‘if formalized rules are drawn up regarding equity in distribution of forest benefits. It would also help if values were locally realized for a broader range of ecosystem services derived from forest, including clean water, wildlife habitat and ecotourism’.This is the second article to appear from Susan Chomba’s PhD research, complementing her analysis of how community based forest management increased rather than reduced vulnerability of smallholders at the forest margin, recently published in Forest Policy and Economics. Two further papers exploring how REDD+ impacts local communities are in press.

The research was funded by the University of Copenhagen and the CGIAR research programme on Forest, Trees and Agroforestry at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

The full article is freely available:

Chomba, S. W., Nathan, I., Minang, P.A. and Sinclair, F. (2015). Illusions of empowerment? Questioning policy and practice of community forestry in Kenya. Ecology and Society 20(3): 2.

And is complemented by another paper that analyses impacts of community based forest management on vulnerability:

Chomba, SW, Treue, T and Sinclair, FL (in press). The political economy of forest entitlements: can community based forest management reduce vulnerability at the forest margin? Forest Policy and Economics (available on line).


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