Local democracy in forest governance? Why not!

In this blog, Mawa Karambiri (PhD) discusses her dissertation work on democracy in local forest governance

If  I were to ask when was the last time you heard or employed the terms Participation, Equity, Justice, Fairness or Democracy? Probably it would be more than once for today only!  Yes, these notions are re-claimed worldwide from citizens/activists fighting against global warming, local communities thriving to protect their lands, cultural heritage and livelihoods to businesses, governments and international agencies around the world. However, do these ideals of participation and democracy make it to the realities on the ground? If so, how are these translated into national and local levels?


Based on my doctoral dissertation entitled “Where is local democracy? In the shadows of global forest policy in Burkina Faso", I elaborate on the example of how global participatory forest policy was translated into sub-Sahara African context, specifically in Burkina Faso and how local democracy unfold within the implementation processes. Through case studies of 6 forestry projects in Africa and using qualitative research methods, I examine the dynamic of local democracy particularly three main components: i) representation i.e. how the interests and needs of the local people are being taken into account in forestry projects. ii) Citizenship i.e. how forestry projects enable local people to engage in forest management and express their opinions. iii) The public domain i.e. what means and material resources exist in the public sphere that the citizens have and can use to express their opinions and make their claims.

The results showed that:

  1. Project choices matter: the choices of local actors invited to participate in forestry project influence the inclusive participation of local people, the accurate representation of their interests/needs and the success and sustainability of forest management and restoration in Africa;
  2. Environmental conflict is not only about material benefit but also often about political belonging and citizenship: environmental projects can induce conflict in the local arena, the resolution of which produces winners and losers. Consequently, the winners’ sense of belonging and citizenship can increase, while reducing the losers to “denizen” (i.e. those whose citizenship was revoked);
  3. Public domain is plural, complex and contested between traditional (customary) system and the post-colonial state framework: the means and public resources available for the citizens to use and influence the public decision making derive from these two realms. The state’s laws and regulations exist at national level however; the traditional rules and norms embedded in gender considerations, ethnicity and status of residence determine the daily access, control and management of forest resources at the local level. To exercise their agency, citizens and communities sway between these two logics switching from one to the other for example when more convenient for their cause. Forestry projects often ignore these complexities; hence resulting in project failures and unsustainable forest investments. 


Now, someone may ask, why study democracy and not simply participation? Well, the response is straightforward! The implementation of participatory forest policy is taking place in a wider context of democratisation (for example political decentralisation), making the question of democracy in natural resources management legitimate and almost unavoidable. The responsiveness of local people’s representatives to their constituency and the constituency’s ability to hold their representatives accountable for their mandate is key to any democratic process; a simplistic participation lens would miss out those dynamic interactions between the citizens and the governing authority. Hence, limiting the potential of global forest policy for transformative change.

To conclude, the concept of democracy, beyond its liberal understanding can also be a useful lens to analyse forest governance and ensure that forestry interventions are meaningful for those who bear more often the burdens of environmental reforms. As recommendations:

  • Researchers need to be case-sensitive – their choice  of theoretical frameworks and research methods can help (or not) uncover local processes and agencies that more often remain in the shadows of global forest policy.
  • Policy makers and project leaders need to enable (and budget for) a structure that enables local people to hold them accountable to the promises they made in project planning and implementation. This requires appropriate and accessible project reporting

Acknowledgments: My heartfelt gratitude goes to my informants for their hospitality and participation in the research, my supervisor and co-authors for their fruitful collaboration and the institutions (below) for their financial support: University of HelsinkiVITRIICRAF, CIFOR, Finnish Society of Forest ScienceMikko Kaloinen Foundation, CODESRIA, IUCNUniversity of Illinois, BioversityINERA Burkina Faso