Considering context in participatory forest landscape initiatives

In participatory processes, engaging people to engage context is key to success
Participants attend a workshop in Rioja, Peru. CIFOR/Marlon del Águila

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Why do some participatory processes help level the playing field in conservation and development projects while others reinforce unequal power relationships among participants?

Complex problems, such as those related to land use and climate change, involve many people —government officials, non-profit conservation groups, private enterprises, local communities and funders.

At first glance, bringing those stakeholders together to make decisions may seem like the most democratic and equitable way to reach agreements and work toward common goals.

But it’s not that easy, say two scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The key to understanding those processes — and making them work better in the future — lies in lessons from the past, according to a new report.

Their review of articles about sub-national, multi-stakeholder forums established to address challenges related to land-use change found that the success of participatory processes depends on how well they are adapted to local circumstances.

“We all know that ‘context matters’,” said Anne Larson, CIFOR principal scientist and leader of the Equity, Gender and Tenure team. “The question that remains is how to address it. Context is often seen as an obstacle or a problem for project implementation because it ‘interferes’ with planning, and yet everything happens in a specific context,” Larson says. “We wanted to know from the review how initiatives can be designed to account for, and adapt to, the specific contexts in which they are implemented.”

Larson and CIFOR researcher Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti, working in collaboration with Christopher Hewlett of the University of Maryland and Deborah Delgado of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, found that the standard systematic review method would only indicate whether an initiative was successful, and not provide information about the local context that could explain why a process succeeded or failed.

The team opted instead for the realist synthesis review method, which examines in greater depth not only how a given process worked, but why it produced the results it did.

Following a strict research protocol, the researchers narrowed down 984 articles to 124, which involved sub-national multi-stakeholder forums with at least one governmental and one non-governmental actor. They winnowed that group down further to 16 articles describing 19 case studies that fit strict criteria regarding the depth of the information they provided about the context of the cases.

The in-depth study analyzed common characteristics in those 19 cases, which corresponded to a dozen countries as diverse as India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Brazil, Cameroon, Mexico, the United States and Canada.

   Participants attend a workshop in Rioja, Peru. CIFOR/Marlon del Águila

Winning local support

Multi-stakeholder groups, like the projects or processes they are embedded in, are aimed at gaining local support for initiatives that promote sustainable land use, Larson said. In other words, they seek to promote “local buy-in,” she added.

In examining these groups, the review identified four main models:

The “sustainability model” holds that including local people in decision-making processes and management bodies will increase both social inclusion and the sustainability of forest conservation and development initiatives.

Participation alone is not enough, however. If the group allows gender inequalities to persist, for example, or ignores informal or traditional forest management arrangements, it is unlikely to achieve its goals.

Some multi-stakeholder groups focus on finding ways to create new income to offset what local forest communities lose by changing their practices. The authors call this the “development model.”

If new economic activities do not generate enough income to offset the loss of people’s forest-based income, as when a conservation area is established, those affected may be unable to support their families. This can happen in places where land tenure or land rights are weak, or where elites hijack the process, the researchers found.

A third model, which the researchers call the “participation model,” involves cases in which local communities are granted control over their forest resources as co-managers and receive training and assistance to make their land use more sustainable.

When some stakeholders are more powerful than others, or when there is inadequate funding and not enough attention is paid to including the most vulnerable participants, this approach can fall short. This is a particular risk in places where local smallholders or indigenous communities distrust government officials and outside organizations, the study found.

Some cases in the review reflected a “multilevel model,” in which collaboration among different sectors at the local, regional and national levels was expected to spur local participation and a sense of ownership of the project among local communities.

But stakeholders at different levels may have very different ideas about conservation and development as well as different perceptions of land use, priorities and the trade-offs involved in managing land-use change. In addition, while decentralization can provide opportunities for local community participation, it can also allow local elites to hijack the process, the study found.

Designing for success

The most successful cases, the researchers say, were those in which planners understood the local context and saw it not as an obstacle to be overcome, but as a central factor that must be addressed, through the engagement of multiple actors, from the beginning of project design.

“Successful design is based on successful engagement,” Larson said

These findings point to the importance of understanding both the stakeholders and local circumstances before planning an initiative, Sarmiento Barletti said. It also implies knowing which issues should be addressed by a multi-stakeholder group and which should be handled differently.

“Participation for its own sake serves no purpose,” he said.

In some cases, a participatory process may not be necessary, or even advisable. If a company is not respecting communal land rights, for example, it is the government’s job to intervene to protect the community.

“That is not a matter for a stakeholder forum,” Sarmiento Barletti said. “Rights are not negotiable.”

The authors identified four interrelated factors that help promote more meaningful participation by the most marginalized people or groups and help reduce inequality.

First, they say, there must be a commitment to the people, the process and the goals. This is demonstrated by project investments in time and resources, as well as follow-through that ensures government policy and laws supporting participation are enforced.

Second, must also make a concerted effort to actively engage stakeholders at all levels, especially mid-level government and managers at non-governmental organizations who are responsible for implementing projects and plans. This helps to build political will and trust between communities and government, and it promotes continuity of the work, the researchers said.

Third, willingness to learn from one another, especially from members of local communities, is crucial for multi-stakeholder processes. Women, especially, must play an active role, Larson said. Too often, projects count women’s attendance at events as proof of their participation without ensuring that they truly take part in forest management decisions.

Finally, learning requires more than just listening. It means “stepping out of your own experience into another person’s shoes,” Sarmiento Barletti said. “Such learning demands humility on the part of organizers and implementers and sees local people as partners in finding solutions, rather than as project beneficiaries.”

   Participants attend a workshop in Rioja, Peru. CIFOR/Marlon del Águila
   Participants attend a workshop in Rioja, Peru. CIFOR/Marlon del Águila
   Participants attend a workshop in Rioja, Peru. CIFOR/Marlon del Águila
   Participants attend a workshop in Rioja, Peru. CIFOR/Marlon del Águila

Those recommendations alone are not enough to resolve the inequalities that often affect land-use decisions, the researchers say, but the case studies suggest they can make important progress.

One potential stumbling block, however, is that these findings run counter to donors’ funding practices, Larson said.

Funding cycles that are much shorter than these participatory processes undermine the required long-term commitment and trust-building that are necessary for success, she says. Donors also often demand simple, quantifiable results that do not reflect the complex nature of multi-stakeholder decision making and meaningful change.

“Challenging the institutions that uphold discrimination and inequality may take more than long-term engagement and willingness to learn,” Larson says, “but understanding the playing field and building more equitable processes would be a large step in the right direction.”

This review was carried out in advance of a field study of sub-national multi-stakeholder forums, part of the Center for International Forestry Research’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+. Field research was subsequently carried out with 14 multi-stakeholder forums in Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Peru.

This research was funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation; the European Commission; the International Climate Initiative of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety; and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. The research was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), led by CIFOR. 

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at
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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Climate change Peruvian Amazon