From sustainable forest management to restoration

How Adaptive Collaborative Management has evolved over two and a half decades
Research using Adaptive Collaborative Management in Uganda led to more women taking up leadership roles in forestry circles. Neil Palmer/CIAT

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Two years ago, COVID was keeping us all in our houses, and I had time to think. Perhaps that’s what prompted my curiosity about how it all came about.

The ‘it’ I’m referring to is ‘adaptive collaborative management’ (ACM), an approach to local forest management developed 25 years ago by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), where I was a researcher. Building on what others had done before, my colleague Ravi Prabhu and I had, with increasing help from other team members, developed a cohesive approach to local forest management that involved iterative cycles of visioning, planning, acting, monitoring that action, and revising as needed, in concert with forest communities and others.

We initially implemented this approach in 11 tropical and semi-tropical countries in the early 2000s. ACM ideas were later taken up by Anne Larson and Esther Mwangi’s teams in Nicaragua and Uganda, respectively, and adapted specifically to empower women; Micah Fisher and his team used the ideas to help local bureaucrats and other stakeholders address governance issues in Sulawesi, and Heru Komaruddin and his team looked at land tenure and equity in Sumatra, Indonesia, through an ACM lens.

But in 2020, I began to wonder what had happened with these earlier attempts to encourage more sustainable forest management, in a form that recognized both the health of forests and the well-being of people. One of our aims had been to develop a system that would have longevity, that could continue after our financially supported facilitation teams had left. Did this happen? I knew that many of our initial 90+ team members, many very junior at the time, had gotten further education and gone on to responsible positions in their own countries and elsewhere. What kinds of conclusions had they drawn from the ACM experience? Did they continue using ACM ideas? Did they decide the whole idea was nonsense?

So in June of that year, I sent a message to as many of them as I could locate, asking what they had learned and whether they’d like to contribute a book chapter on their experience. My request was very open-ended – it could involve revisits to the original sites, new or adapted techniques they’d found useful, new findings based on newer ACM research, or something else that would enlighten us about the approach. To my amazement, 22 sent back abstracts of what they’d like to write!

I quickly invited Ravi Prabhu and soon after, Anne Larson, to join me in developing at least one collection of these offerings. Getting back in touch with researchers I’d known well in the early 2000s was a real pleasure. We had all contributed to the development of our ideas; and we had shared an exhausting but exciting time, with high hopes for the utility of our efforts. The initial CIFOR programme had spanned Latin America, Africa and Asia, with 2–4-year projects in Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, Ghana, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Malawi, Nepal, Philippines, and Zimbabwe.

This first volume, affectionately referred to as ACMR1 (the R being ‘revisited’), went beyond our initial sites, with authors clearly building on what they had learned in the earlier work. There were dual accounts of what happened in the gender-focused Uganda sites that Esther Mwangi (now sadly deceased) had led, one quantitative in nature, one qualitative. Some chapters dealt with new methods that improved ACM processes (e.g., Cronkleton, Evans, and Larson 2022, on capacity building in ACM; or (Sarmiento Barletti 2022) whose team developed a more equitable tool for multistakeholder forums). Others were more theoretical: e.g., McDougall and Ojha (2022) addressed the issue of power differences among collaborators and with other stakeholders.

As these chapters and others were coming to fruition, we realized there would be enough for a second volume, ACMR2. We began simultaneously collecting its chapters. Where the first volume had been global in scope, this second one focuses on three islands in Indonesia and five countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Ravi and I were pleased that four chapters involved revisits to assess what had persevered and what had dropped away: two chapters on Baru Pelepat in Jambi, Sumatra focusing on tenure rights and trust building; one on Bulukumba in Sulawesi, Indonesia; and a fourth on Gokwe in Zimbabwe.

The second volume also takes on the issue of institutionalization of the approach – something that will have to happen if its benefits truly outweigh its shortcomings. The two chapters that focus on this issue Malawi and Uganda) prompted a third story that needs telling.

During this exciting ACM ride (round two), I was also involved in co-editing a book on forest landscape restoration with IUFRO’s WFSE (Special Project on World Forests, Society and Environment) – coming out later this year (Katila et al. 2023 (forthcoming)). In the course of learning more about forests and restoration, I was intrigued by the number of restoration specialists who expressed the need for greater attention to the impacts of such projects on the people living in and near forests targeted for restoration; and also by the lack of much in the way of experience actually attending to such needs. It struck me that ACM could provide just such experience and methods.

Although initially developed to encourage sustainable forest management (SFM) rather than restoration, I knew that ACM had also been used to develop restoration actions per se in some cases. My own sense was that SFM automatically included a restoration component, in that maintaining and/or improving a forest, as SFM attempted to do, would provide forest results at least as good as explicit restoration. I was sure that an ACM approach could easily and effectively be used to encourage restoration.

One restoration book particularly intrigued me. Edited by William Butler and Courtney Schultz (2019), it compiled research on the North American Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP). This United States Forest Service (USFS) programme began funding projects in 2010, for 10 years or more, to collaboratively restore large areas (minimum 50,000 acres, with one as large as 2.4 million acres), in 15 locations covering a total of 17 million acres by 2022. In addition, numerous independent groups have been independently copying this approach, with such collaborative efforts referred to informally as ‘collaboratives’.

My initial intrigue derived from the apparent similarities between the approaches used by this CFLRP and CIFOR’s own ACM. Both approaches were intended to collaborate with local communities and other stakeholders; both strove to improve management of forest areas, with benefits intended for local users as well; both involved ongoing monitoring, with the intention to feed such findings back into improving results.

Although there were a number of differences between the two programmes, a couple seemed to hold the potential for important lessons for ACM. The CFLRP had been able to maintain its funding for over a decade, with some sites into their second decade – something ACM had been unable to do. CFLRP had a solid institutional base in the USFS. CFLRP sites were also considerably bigger than the landscapes ACM had influenced.

Ravi Prabhu and I decided to examine the two approaches systematically – described in a CIFOR-ICRAF Occasional Paper. We found six explicit similarities: collaboration, future scenarios, monitoring and social learning, adaptiveness, third party facilitation, and the centrality of trust. The different contexts in which they were implemented resulted in interesting differences in how they played out in practice. We also identified seven explicit differences: purpose, funding, project timelines, data availability, decision-making authority, prior collaborative action, and inclusivity.

Our experience and goals led us to conclude that some ‘differences make a difference’. The real strength of the North American example is its longevity, in terms both of funding and institutionalization of the approach. Certainty of funding over a significant length of time allows for the iterative approach – learning is central to both approaches – to play out more fully. Such certainty allows time for the vital trust to develop among stakeholders and theoretically better follow-through on plans.

Delving into CFLRP literature more fully, though, we concluded that the central strength of the ACM approach, in comparison, has been its inclusivity. Great efforts were made in ACM sites to involve marginalized groups in a way that was not attempted in CFLRP. These ACM efforts resulted in new skills for marginalized groups (women, despised ethnic groups, lower castes, youth, etc.); these included speaking up publicly, analysing their own situations, managing conflict, networking, and other abilities previously (and variably) in short supply among such groups. This inclusiveness allowed us to mobilize local people more effectively and thereby access local knowledge, energy and skills.

Both CFLRP and ACM, we concluded, would benefit from more effective vertical integration. By that we mean, CFLRP needs to strengthen interaction with ‘lower level’ groups (communities, including representation of their internal divisions like gender, age, occupational grouping); and ACM needs to improve its links up scale, with broader scale actors.

CFLRP analysts complain that attempts to improve the socioeconomic conditions of local communities, also written into the legislation, have had less attention and less success than efforts to restore the forests. Descriptions of stakeholders reveal the dominance of older white men and stakeholders whose formal jobs grant them time to participate in planning and implementation of the projects. The strong voice of USFS personnel is also evident in many of the descriptions, an unwillingness or inability to let go of the reins so others can lead.

ACM’s local orientation has also been criticized, brought home viscerally in the revisits to communities where ACM had been successfully conducted in Indonesia and Africa in the early 2000s. Although the community of Baru Pelepat, for instance, has managed to maintain and gain legal rights to manage a part of their territory, in the intervening years the surrounding forest has been taken over by oil palm – stimulated and encouraged by government. And in Gokwe, many of the successful attempts to manage local areas more sustainably were dismantled through the economic, health and political chaos that has marked Zimbabwean life in recent years. Stronger links between communities and broader scale actors, and simultaneous implementation of ACM-like processes at broader scales, could have both contributed to better longevity of impacts and broader positive influence.

As we consider next moves for ACM practitioners, we believe we must move beyond the local context – not abandoning it, but expanding to link the local more directly with broader scale actors. We also urge the development of the iterative, ACM style processes – third party facilitation, a learning and collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders, the development of trust, etc. – among those operating at higher levels. Kusumanto et al. (2023) use a thought experiment to consider how that might be accomplished in the context of Jakarta’s recurrent and worsening flooding. A number of the authors represented in ACMR1 and 2 describe strengthened vertical linking efforts. But more still needs to be done. Finally, as we conclude in our second ACM book, we need to shift to valuing and rewarding a culture of care, towards a stewardship economy in fact.

We hope that the lessons revealed in this body of ACM work can persuade the many researchers and practitioners involved in restoration attempts to involve local communities more effectively in their efforts; and to learn from our analyses of both ACM and CFLRP shortcomings and strengths, as they adopt the collaborative, equitable, and iterative, learning-based elements of both.

There was plenty of tragedy connected with the COVID pandemic; but in this case we managed to bring together the longitudinal insights and analyses of 67 authors, most from developing countries – an accomplishment we can be proud of!



Katila, Pia, Carol J. Pierce Colfer, Wil Dejong, Glenn Galloway, Pablo Pacheco, and Georg Winkel, eds. 2023 (forthcoming). Restoring forests and trees for sustainable development – Policies, practices, impacts and ways forward (draft). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


For more information, please contact Carol J. Pierce Colfer ( or Ravi Prabhu (

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