New book details best approaches to Adaptive Collaborative Management in forests

For 30 years, CIFOR-ICRAF have led sustainable transformation

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The triskelion is an ancient symbol, often represented by three spirals. Its triadic form holds various meanings for the different cultures it has represented over the years.

For three scientists who have authored a new book titled Adaptive Collaborative Management in Forest Landscapes: Villagers, Bureaucrats and Civil Society (Routledge, 2022), it represents the conjoining of their disparate but likeminded visions and guiding strategic principles for Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) in forest landscapes and resource management.

Carol J. Pierce Colfer, Ravi Prabhu and Anne M. Larson — researchers with the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry — liken ACM to a spiral of improvement and empowerment where people are viewed and treated — and view themselves — as intergenerational stewards of all that the land produces.

“The triskelion represents a spiralling out and up, one of collaborative, structured learning, with improved outcomes for people and their environments,” Prabhu said. “These underlying concepts of ACM have been evolving over three decades and are slowly influencing the apparatuses that govern forest landscapes.”

This vision has not always been a guiding principle for landscape development and management.

Colfer, Prabhu and Larson have developed their methods, refining them over the past 30 years, and now they share some of the principles that make working with forest communities and other stakeholders successful. By reshaping old attitudes, they began to introduce new ways of looking at forest trade-offs leading to a change in overall perceptions and behaviors, often starting with win-win options.

The ideas they spearheaded have been adopted and synthesized into a more mainstream approach, incorporating learning and collaboration with local communities and beyond, while using detailed studies of forest landscapes and communities as key components.

Through anecdotes and evidence, they demonstrate circumstances where communities no longer revert to pre-project practices, illustrating how aims of ensuring lasting and sustainable change can become the norm. Formerly, after researchers introduced projects designed around new agroforestry procedures, communities often abandoned them when the project ended.

Now, clearly reflected in efforts by Larson and her teams, ACM has become more commonplace, and the book provides anecdotes and evidence of circumstances where communities no longer cease their new practices, rather sustaining new ideas and approaches — that they themselves were central in fashioning — to landscape management.

Yet, as they detail in the book, their approach does not offer a band-aid solution, nor does it resolve all issues.

“The book does not lead us to a simple recipe for adaptive collaborative management, and if it had done so it would have failed in its ambition,” writes Jeff Sayer, a professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia who served as CIFOR’s first director general from 1993 to 2001, in the foreword.

“There is rarely any simple recipe that can solve forest conflicts,” he said. “The book allows us to benefit from the long-term learning of accomplished scientists who have studied these issues together with local and global actors.”

Forest management proposals — including such efforts as the million trees initiatives, forest landscape restoration, zero deforestation commitments, nature-based solutions and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) — are often based on top-down strategies, which overlook the needs of local communities — to their detriment.

In these scenarios, local peoples are still considered an afterthought, or a group to be “safeguarded,” or perhaps convinced to change their practices, rather than being seen as equal partners in change, Larson said.

As land managers face increasing threats to food security from climate change and its impact on the natural environment, ACM offers the opportunity to fully engage with a variety of stakeholders to find solutions, the book states.

“Adaptive Collaborative Management is an approach which prioritizes the rights and roles of communities alongside the need to address climate, environmental and justice crises,” Colfer said.

ACM is effective in large measure due to its capacity to incorporate context — including cultural and ecological realities – into the distribution of power and authority at various jurisdictional levels.

From the beginning, it was very focused on equity. Many of the ideas the researchers developed originated from working in rural areas where communities should have had decision-making power over their own lives, but in reality, had very little control over their territories, and particularly their forests — for historical, racial, political and economic reasons.

Pioneering work by Colfer and Prabhu from ACM’s early years was founded on the belief that local people knew their context best, should benefit as much as outsiders, and could render plans and actions more locally appropriate and sustainable. Building social learning into the process would help them learn from their own experience, adapt to change and enhance their power.

The approach redefined notions of “participation” in resource management into “local decision making.”

Larson’s engagement with ACM began with an emphasis on power dynamics, working with Indigenous communities. She worked with CIFOR principal scientist Esther Mwangi (1965-2019) to address gender dynamics in the context of male dominance, drawing on feminist and gender literature and conceiving new ways of addressing gender concerns.

“The clearest indication of successful outcomes reported were shifts in gender roles,” Larson said. “When these shifts occurred in contexts where they were directly linked to resource use outcomes, there were also positive economic outcomes.”

Colfer, who has studied women’s lives for four decades, detailed her most recent work on gender in a book titled Masculinities in Forests: Representations of Diversity (Routledge 2020).

While Prabhu did not specifically address gender concerns in his work, he adopted an interest in equity concerns after several experiences planted seeds of doubt about the extent to which forests were actually the purely masculine places foresters were trained to see.

“In recent years, he’s recognized that [what some have viewed as] a toxic masculine view of the world has much to answer for in terms of emphasizing competition over collaboration, individual over collective action, and maintenance of many of the wicked problems we face today,” Colfer said.

Forestry institutions are now beginning to shift away from the traditional view of forest management with its single-minded focus on production, embracing approaches that increase the possibility of governance systems emerging that will more equitably support and sustain the range of benefits that societies derive from forests.

Applying ACM can reshape government forestry institutions and the international agencies that support them to better cope with changing pressures and opportunities, while supporting the achievement of the partnerships and collaborations that are essential to optimal forest outcomes.

“There is no single ‘right’ answer to forest trade-offs; forest management is always challenged by the need to adapt to changing pressures and demands and by the need to ensure collaboration among a diversity of actors with claims on forest lands,” Colfer said, adding that this volume — the first of two — presents decades of learning and practical experiences from a diverse set of circumstances.

The concepts of ACM are helping to achieve partnerships and collaborations that are essential to achieving optimal forest outcomes and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Specifically, SDG16 is designed to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

The researchers describe in the book how institutions and practitioners are typically constrained by historical models of forest management that may interfere with equitable and effective practices at the local level. An open access publication, it provides practical, hands-on tools to address institutional, bureaucratic and community versions of “traditionalism.”

Global targets to meet climate change, biodiversity, desertification and other goals supported by forests will only be met if forest management is much better adapted to local contexts underscored by collaboration among stakeholders.

The volume details case studies and examples, including and prioritizing the voices of often underrepresented women, scholars and practitioners from the Global South.

“We provide concrete examples of how ACM can function to enhance development sustainably, via its practitioners and far beyond the locale in which they initially worked,” Colfer said.

This work was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at or Carol Colfer at or Ravi Prabhu at
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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Climate change