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As the environment changes around us, finding solutions to benefit the common good has never been more pressing. Enter multi-stakeholder forums (MSFs), a seemingly simple idea of getting everybody in one room. These forums bring together government, communities, civil society organizations and business, to share information and find resolutions to commonly held challenges. Among the academic, donor and practitioner world, they have been held up as a panacea in addressing land-use change and climate mitigation.

Now a new project uses an innovate approach to assess the potential of MSFs, examining their effectiveness and equity from the perspective of its participants, as well as those who do not participate in them. This is more working from within than the old outside looking in approach. Will this new method fair any better? Preliminary results were presented in two panels at the Conference for the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC 2019) in Lima, Peru.

“We need to be careful in measuring effectiveness because there may be important outcomes that are not the ones that were expected,” said Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti, one of the leads on the global comparative project on MSFs developed by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Anne Larson, head of CIFOR’s Equal Opportunites, Gender, Justice and Tenure team and project coordinator, said impact comes in different forms. “The organizers of an MSF might say it was a complete failure, but people may have learned a lot, feel that they made connections or go on and use the information to do something new,” she said.

"everywhere we went, people said that if they could just all sit down together, they could move forward on land-use processes"

Anne Larson

While much has been written about participatory processes, this project tackles MSFs comparatively in an innovative format. By diving down to the subnational level and including interviews with participating and non-participating actors in the interactive process, their equity and effectiveness was scrutinized.

The project included 13 case studies at the subnational level in four countries: Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Peru. An additional case study focused on Brazil’s state-run Action Plan for Deforestation Prevention and Control in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm). Designed under CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+, the project was the successor of a recent study on multi-level governance in 11 different subnational regions in five countries.

According to Larson, a lack of coordination was the leading issue found in the original study: “everywhere we went, people said that if they could just all sit down together, they could move forward on land-use processes.

“We began thinking that if people were not already working together, then it had to be for a reason; so if the big new idea is MSFs, then we should interrogate that,” she said.

The project selected case studies related to sustainable land use and spanned a broad spectrum: from an MSF on remediating a contaminated river in Indonesia, to a process in Peru to protect a forest area for indigenous people in isolation and initial contact.

The takeaways varied from case to case, but opened the possibility of understanding commonalities and nuances of MSF processes.

A key finding across research sites showed that processes do not happen in a vacuum but rather are strongly affected by their specific contexts. The MSFs set up to design Economic and Ecological Zoning Plans in the states of Acre and Mato Grosso in Brazil, offer important lessons.

In Acre, participants across government, NGOs, and indigenous and local communities had aligned development priorities, even though their sectors were diverse, as most were part of an environmental alliance suited to the state’s forest-dependent history and social movements. Afterall, Acre is famous in Brazil and around the world for its commitment to environmental protection and grassroots engagement. It may not come as a surprise then that 85 percent of participants found the process equitable.  Jazmin Gonzales Tovar, a researcher on Larson’s team who examined both processes, said the final product in Acre was named the “dream map.”

Conversely, Gonzales Tovar says a “horror map” had been described by interviewees in Mato Grosso. Participants of the MSF were diverse, but indigenous and local communities were underrepresented. Its resulting map reflects the needs of the agro-business sector, in turn reflecting the politics and development priorities in the state.

“Sometimes MSFs are being applied to cases where they are not likely to succeed because they are just not needed”

Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti

A second case, involving the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve in Peru’s southeastern Amazon, raised the issue of whether there are cases where MSFs might be unnecessary. The Reserve is home to indigenous Harakbut, Matsigenka and Yine peoples, and managed by Peru’s protected areas service (SERNANP). The relationship between indigenous communities and SERNANP was rocky for many years, with SERNANP previously redefining boundaries to permit hydrocarbon exploration.

The relationship changed earlier this decade as SERNANP shifted to the co-management of the reserve with an indigenous organization, ECA-Amarakaeri. This arrangement has been commended globally as an intercultural management model. SERNANP and ECA-Amarakaeri are supported by a multi-stakeholder Management Committee. This MSF is composed of indigenous organizations, community representatives, NGOs and government actors from different levels.

However, Diego Palacios, who carried out the research in Madre de Dios, said that although the Reserve’s co-management is exemplary, stakeholders to the Reserve do not see the MSF as effective as it does not have any real decision-making powers. Most actors preferred to negotiate directly with ECA-Amarakaeri and SERNANP rather than bring up issues during the forums. Also, the MSF excludes the non-indigenous communities that inhabit and extract gold from the area due to their unsustainable land-use practices. Their participation would be vital to ensure the sustainability of any conservation agreements reached at the MSF.

Sarmiento Barletti notes that though there is widespread interest in multi-stakeholder forums, SERNANP and ECA-Amarakaeri’s effective co-management reveals that they may not need the support of a Management Committee: “Sometimes MSFs are being applied to cases where they are not likely to succeed because they are just not needed.”

“There are certain things that should not be negotiable. The rights of indigenous peoples to their land should not be subject to a multi-stakeholder if you are bringing them in, it cannot be to take rights away”

Anne Larson

Larson said a critical point to understand is the distinction between stakeholders and rights holders: “There are certain things that should not be negotiable. The rights of indigenous peoples to their land should not be subject to a multi-stakeholder negotiation. That should not be negotiated, so if you are bringing them in, it cannot be to take rights away,” she said.

The project also interviewed representatives of groups that decided not to participate or were not invited, in order to understand the reasoning behind these decisions. The idea, according to Larson, was to have a variation of a control group to understand why some stakeholders did not participate.

“The idea was that if you are going to study participation in a multi-stakeholder forum, how do you find out what is happening on the edges of that? This led us to consult with groups outside of the process,” said Larson.

Across case studies, some groups did not participate because they thought it would be a waste of time, while others simply did not understand what the MSF process entailed. Other groups opted not to participate out of concern that they could lose rights.

Larson said that some people did not want to be at the table because they feared they would be used to justify decisions that they were not really going to be a part of. In other cases, people feared that if they are too transparent with information, maps and legal documents, others may use that to further their own agendas.

This is key for Sarmiento Barletti. He said MSFs are seen as the way to go to address climate change, with proponents saying it is the best way to include more people in decision-making. “My worry is the repercussions, because there are people who could lose land and people refusing to participate because they feel they will be eaten up by a process that does not represent them,” he said.

This circles back to effectiveness for Larson. “It might look great that a large forested area is going to be saved, but every decision about those forests also affects the people living there,” she said.

The challenge undertaken by the project, which will be developed in a series of forthcoming publications, is to apply the lessons from the case studies to set up a way to design more effective and equitable MSFs.


Download: The role of multi-stakeholder forums in subnational jurisdictions: Methods training manual and tools for in-depth research

Download: Multi-level governance: Some coordination problems cannot be solved through coordination

Download: Inter-sectoral and multilevel coordination alone do not reduce deforestation and advance environmental justice: Why bold contestation works when collaboration fails


This research was supported by This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors, and by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). This research was supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), and the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).
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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Peruvian Amazon