Mani Ram Banjade reflects on 10 years of work with local communities, NGOs, networks and government in Nepal, and finds it is possible to make a positive change through critical action research, in a new book chapter on rethinking participation, learning and innovation.
How can action research contribute to equitable governance of community forestry in Nepal? Communities, governments and donors are increasingly concerned that despite the efforts of three decades and some notable contributions to forest conservation, community forestry has made limited contributions to livelihoods, equity and poverty reduction. Despite a third of Nepal’s population being engaged in managing about one-fourth of its forest area, why are the intended returns so disappointing?
A number of reasons are highlighted by several research and policy initiatives in Nepal. First, the existing local social structures are hierarchical in terms of gender, ethnicity and economic class requiring a major overhaul for inclusion, equity and poverty reduction to take place through community forestry. Similarly, though community forest user groups (CFUGs) are legally recognized as autonomous institutions, patron-client relationships with state officials still limit the opportunity to mobilize resources for the benefits of society at large.
Inclusive deliberations to foster change
We also were aware that no one actor could make this change happen. Therefore, we integrated active reflection and learning in our investigation into the community forestry system in Nepal, which involved diverse groups of forest dependent people as well as other stakeholders in the complex and dynamic socio-ecological system. That is, to address these challenges we forged a collaboration with local CFUGs, government forest agencies, NGOs, forest-based entrepreneurs and donors.
Our assumption was that by facilitating inclusive and deliberative processes at CFUG, meso and national levels as well as democratizing the interface of these levels, we could significantly trigger change. For that to materialize, we encouraged the CFUGs to experiment through various institutional arrangements to embolden marginalized members to participate in decision-making. Similarly, we facilitated reflective processes on how they were progressing in terms of inclusion and equity. At the meso and national levels, we promoted multi-stakeholder learning forums, which included mechanisms to include representatives and the voices and lessons from the lower level.
Did it work?
In this chapter, I include the ups and downs that I experienced as an engaged researcher. This retrospective analysis of my journey could be useful to others interested in engaged scholarship. Indeed, change resulting from our presence at all levels – from CFUGs to national policy deliberations – was very impressive. The changes include an increase in representation of, and benefits to, marginalized groups in the CFUGs, increased responsiveness of meso level actors to the CFUGs, and increased space for non-state actors at meso and national level deliberations.
Throughout the participatory action research process, sensitizing for significance of learning and integrating this learning into existing practices, was very challenging. This reminds us of the classic challenges faced by those attempting to embed research within an agenda of change. Similarly, deliberation within a governance process is usually subjected to existing power asymmetries caused by the differential possession of economic, cultural and symbolic resources within a community.
Establishing links between different levels through networked governance or deliberative multi-level forums often proved very useful in improving community forestry governance. Skilled facilitation and coordination functions were central to the success of this process and demanded additional resources and institutional commitment to sustain engaged scholarship at meso and national levels.
Our experience shows that challenges increase in promoting and sustaining deliberative forums at the meso and national levels. Nonetheless, this would help forge effective linkages between communities and these institutions.
The journey was, however, at times very exciting and challenging. We had to encounter enormous resistance and challenges in many institutions, and had to muddle through vested interests and power dynamics at different levels, while also managing frustrations and excitements within the team. The material expectations at local level, an interest in retaining control over forest governance, the limited competency of the researchers and facilitators, and mechanistic expectations of the donors constrained these worthy initiatives. Similarly, there is very limited support from the public sector to promote multi-stakeholder and discursive policy processes.
This chapter describes how we, as a locally-based action research team, tackled the challenges and contributed towards inclusive and equitable forest governance in Nepal.
Banjade, Mani Ram (2013). “Learning to Improve Livelihoods: Applying Adaptive Collaborative Approach to Forest Governance in Nepal.” In: Hemant Ojha, Andy Hall and Rasheed Sulaiman V. Adaptive Collaborative Approaches in Natural Resource Governance: Rethinking Participation, Learning and Innovation. London and New York, Routledge: 216-256.
Contact Mani Ram Banjade at: email@example.com.
Please see our previous blog post in which Hemant Ojha reflects on the book as a whole, which documents on-the-ground struggles of those promoting and facilitating adaptive collaboration, their strategies, tactics, tools and techniques to address various issues impeding learning and innovation.