Can the Research Process Itself Bring About Change in Forest Governance?

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:

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.

How Adaptive and Cooperative are the Stakeholders in Natural Resource Management?

Hemant Ojha reflects on his new book Adaptive Collaborative Approaches in Natural Resource Governance: Rethinking Participation, Learning and Innovation, Edited by Hemant R Ojha, Andy Hall, and Rasheed Sulaiman V.

Why this book?

ImageAre stakeholders in natural resource management sufficiently adaptive and collaborative in addressing the issues of equity, sustainability and productivity? This book attempts to document 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. It also discusses the different types of constraints and challenges affecting this process. Such a reflective and empirically rich account of the actors, we thought, would provide concrete lessons and ideas for how we can do better in the future.

So what exactly is the issue?

Despite three decades of participatory reforms in policies and practices in the developing world, the achievement is limited. More than 1.3 billion people who base their livelihoods on fisheries, forest, and agriculture (FAO 2004) are deprived of basic necessities and ‘freedoms’, in Amartya Sen’s terms. Moreover, the socio-ecological systems that generate these natural capitals are still fragile and are, in many cases, in the process of degradation (as is evident in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report, 2005). The global climate change phenomenon is further adding stress and vulnerabilities to these socio-ecological systems and resource-poor residents, who face added challenges in achieving livelihoods security.

Undoubtedly, Natural Resource Management (NRM) policy reforms, with their participatory turn, have  revealed a nuanced understanding of the problems and the vision for change. Numerous attempts have been made worldwide, and as a result quite a few innovations and transformations have taken place, empowering local communities, and facilitating fairer distribution of benefits from agriculture and NRM.

However, in the book, we argue that innovations and working examples are too small on a global scale to counteract the negative effects of human beings on ecosystems (as revealed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), and untenable strategies for inclusive resource management and fair distribution of benefits in different contexts. In the worst cases, these innovations are likely to revert back once active support systems are withdrawn (as the experiences of contributors in this volume show).

It is therefore clear that the current way of doing participatory natural resource management is not the ‘end of history’[i] of NRM – such that a final policy approach has already been discovered and all that we need to do is to ‘implement’ it in practice.

The continuing challenges

There are at least three problems with the current approach. First, the actors who drive these approaches (be they policy makers, donors or conservation agencies) blame the local actors and institutions for the complex problems of resource degradation, as if the larger policy and institutional regimes are working just fine. This shifts the onus onto communities while absolving the underlying governing structure.

Second, the current approach to change is still guided by a technocratic worldview – which privileges experts and policy makers to make decisions for others, disregarding the agency and capability of the poor and affected local communities. Even the well-accepted participatory approach has legitimized expert-led, Euro-centric, modernist visions and strategies of change, forcing everyone to think through Western lenses (Shiva 1988; Scott 1998) – in effect creating ‘participatory exclusions’ (Agarwal 2001).

Third, most reforms occur only on paper, not in practice.

In this book, we studied existing practices to understand the possibilities of such change.  We did not want to advocate participatory, collaborative and community based approaches. Instead, we wanted to explore how stakeholders can foster, at all levels of governance, more effective learning and cooperative actions – two important elements of Adaptive Collaborative Approach (ACA).

Contributors of the book asked the same question in different contexts of environmental management covering Asia, Africa and South America: what prevents adaptive and collaborative approaches from taking root in the practice of natural resource management? This book is a compilation of stories told by practitioners and action researchers, rather than fresh research done solely by us, the editors.


Although stories captured in the book are complex, the core message is simple: challenges to adaptive learning and collaborative governance are numerous and fundamental, and have roots outside the ‘local’ domain. There is hardly an alternative route to effective natural resource governance other than to explore ways through which actors can engage better with one another, harness cooperation and pool knowledge for more adaptive approaches in the face of increasing uncertainty. But we need radically different ways to apply this principle, for which we need to nurture and support new types of researchers who bridge, broker and facilitate change across diverse institutions, scales, and knowledge communities. The business-as-usual method of developing technical solutions and then using extension systems to put the research into use does not work.

It is also time to reflect upon the limits of our own learning about learning and innovation in natural resource systems – why can’t we first change our own institutions and practices when we ask others to do the same? Spending too much on developing too specific solutions is wastage; it is always better to engage in co-creating knowledge and fostering cooperative actions. More actions are needed to explore how ACA can be better grounded as modus operandi of policy and institutional development as well as management practices.

[i]We draw a metaphor from Francis Fukuyama’s (1992) view that the world has finally discovered a system of governance based on market and liberal political system. We do not see such end of history at least in the context of natural resource governance.

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