Multistakeholder platforms (MSPs) are the subject of increasing attention and investment in the domain of natural resource governance. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, for example, promotes multiactor partnerships under SDG 17 (United Nations 2015). The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (Food and Agriculture Organization 2012) give national MSPs an implementation and monitoring role. Many regional policy frameworks give similar emphasis; for example, the Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa (African Union 2010) “promotes the need for a shared vision among all stakeholders of a comprehensive and coordinated land policy as a major factor in national development.” Responding in part to these global and regional agendas, MSPs are increasingly being incorporated into subnational resource governance by both governments and civil society (Franco and Monsalve Suárez 2017, Boyd et al. 2018, Ros-Tonen et al. 2018, Stickler et al. 2018).
However, evidence-based guidance on policy and investment priorities to leverage the MSP approach is slim (Bodin 2017, Sarmiento Barletti et al. 2020b). We aim to shed light on the potential and challenges of MSPs to support inclusive natural resource governance while contributing to restoration of the commons. We view MSPs as sustained, intentionally created, long-term spaces to promote dialogue, deliberation, and collaborative action among social groups and organizations (“stakeholders”) who stand to be meaningfully affected, either positively or negatively, by decisions of public importance within a defined domain. Our overarching hypothesis is that MSPs, appropriately and effectively designed and implemented in the frame of adaptive learning, have the potential to contribute to transformative change in landscape governance and management. Our focus of analysis concerns both the appropriateness of the MSP in its context (good design or “fit”) and the factors contributing to effectiveness (good implementation). What makes an MSP “appropriate” and “effective” depends strongly on the ways the MSP and organizers account for and address these power dynamics.
In our analysis, we focus on landscape-level MSPs that bridge civil society, government, and private sector actors and aim to improve landscape governance. Specifically, the cases are aimed at strengthening the governance of renewable natural resources for resilient rural livelihoods and enhanced food security and for ecosystem services provision for society as a whole. We provide a comparative analysis of eight landscape-level MSPs spanning seven countries (Peru, Brazil, India, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and a cross-border case from Kenya and Somalia) and covering forests, rangelands, and multiuse agricultural landscapes. We apply an adapted institutional analysis and development framework that was developed with the expectation that it could be applied to assess diverse MSPs to substantiate and validate lessons for practice. We provide a first empirical application of the framework, demonstrating its practical value as an analysis tool and an aid to critical practice.
The framework allows us to explore questions of equity, power, and stakeholder dynamics in a comparative analysis of the cases, focusing on designing for context, designing and implementing processes for inclusion, and using adaptive learning to support improvements in dialogue processes and ultimately in longer term outcomes. From the cases, we distill lessons addressing: (1) how to design an MSP in relation to the governance context, including the fit between institutional and ecological dimensions of the system, and with attention to cross-scale linkages; (2) how to design and implement inclusive processes that address power inequities, including through capacity building and procedural rules; and (3) how to support adaptive learning to expand the MSP’s influence over time, including monitoring outcomes, adapting the scope of stakeholder engagement, and investing in MSP durability.
Governance concerns the institutional framework, both formal and informal, in which power is exercised over matters of public importance. Natural resource governance, therefore, focuses on the exercise of power as it relates to the control, use, and management of natural resources (Larson and Soto 2008). Governance fundamentally shapes the relations among actors in social-ecological systems, which means that it can be a powerful enabler of, or obstacle to, system transformation.
Recent research on natural resource governance (Andrachuk and Armitage 2015) has looked at transformation both as process and outcome. Systems transformation typically entails processes of disruption and confrontation as well as collaboration and co-creation between actors (Dentoni et al. 2017). Amid this diversity of change processes, MSPs are particularly suited to facilitate collaborative action and co-creation, complementing other strategies (e.g., social movements, protest politics, advocacy campaigns) that explicitly aim to disrupt and confront established power relationships, however inequitable. Co-creation increases shared ownership and acceptance of solutions identified together, which makes it more likely that subsequent behavior changes (Schut et al. 2013). Bringing different actors together in structured dialogue also reveals power asymmetry and sources of vulnerability to participants (Pelling 2011, O’Brien 2012); that awareness can yield more inclusive and accountable natural resource governance. These effects create an environment in which transformative system change becomes more likely, in ways that favor both equity and sustainability (Frantzeskaki et al. 2012).
Our focus is on the role and potential of MSPs to contribute to transformative change as a deliberate, inclusive, and accountable response to deficiencies in natural resource governance, positioning actors and institutions as key forces both responding to the governance context and capable of instigating change within it (Giddens 1984, Olsson et al. 2008). This is not to imply that MSPs necessarily yield such results (Warner 2007, Sartas 2018, Sarmiento Barletti et al. 2021). Rather, it sharpens the focus on comparative analysis to understand the ways in which MSPs in practice affect stakeholder relationships and behaviors.
We present a comparative case study application of a conceptual framework developed for analyzing MSPs that address natural resource governance (Fig. 1). The framework takes a relational systems perspective (Lerner and Schmid 2013), asking that we consider not only the characteristics of the MSP but also the context in which it operates. In this respect, the landscape framing (i.e., a geographically defined social-ecological system) is a critical feature of that context and distinguishes MSPs focused on landscape governance from those that take a national or issue-based focus. It also brings into sharp relief the practical consequences of diverse resource uses and user groups operating in close proximity (Kusters et al. 2020). Drawing from the institutional analysis and development framework (Ostrom 2005), the context includes the attributes of the resource system and history of resource use, characteristics of resource users, and current governance arrangements, which influence the scope for MSP design and functioning (Fig. 1, arrow a). We refer to designing an MSP with attention to these contextual factors as “designing for context”.
Within an MSP, seen as a purposefully designed action arena, the patterns of stakeholder interaction, and thus the outcomes, are influenced by actors’ characteristics, the action resources available to each actor, and the formal and informal rules at play (Di Gregorio et al. 2008). In assessing the role of the MSP in shaping patterns of stakeholder interaction (Fig. 1, arrow b), we give particular attention to inclusivity in representation and equity in decision-making to address power inequities, which have been demonstrated to influence stakeholder commitment and institutional durability (Faysse 2006, Brouwer et al. 2013). This aspect we term “designing for inclusion”.
We recognize MSPs as dynamic by nature, incorporating feedback loops (McGinnis and Ostrom 2014), with outcomes of stakeholder interaction within an MSP influencing future stakeholder interactions. The way that competing interests, rights, and power constellations of diverse actors are managed is of special importance at this outcome level. Strengthening the adaptive learning capacity of stakeholders is critical for creating lasting impact. The learning process creates trust, helps to find balanced solutions, and empowers actors to manage future change (Hage et al. 2010, Reed et al. 2010, Scholz and Steiner 2015). These aspects concern the potential for adaptive learning to improve multistakeholder dialogue in future interactions (Fig. 1, arrow c).
Though it is not our focus in this comparative analysis, the framework also encourages consideration of how, over time, MSP processes can contribute to: outcomes that shift resource status and trends; attributes of actors such as livelihood assets, wealth, and vulnerability; and governance arrangements that are enduring (Bodin 2017). This process occurs as a feedback loop (Fig. 1, arrow d). Assessing such factors typically requires a longer time frame than most of the case studies included here, as well as robust baseline data. Nevertheless, where there are preliminary indications of such dynamics of systems change according to independent monitoring or observations of the actors involved, we do note them.
While the framework visualizes an abstract set of relationships among context, action arena, and outcomes, in practice, these elements are characterized by real tensions and power dynamics (Bodin 2017, Denney et al. 2018). Power distribution and politico-economic interests play important roles in the design of institutions and the rules that emerge to manage stakeholder interaction, a factor that the original institutional analysis and development framework does not adequately consider (Clement 2010). Rather than viewing MSPs as technical, managerial, neutral, or apolitical spaces, therefore, we argue that the potential of such arenas can only be understood and realized through better understanding of such MSPs as socio-political constructs (Lefebvre 1991) that evolve in relation to their context (Warner and Verhallen 2007). Thus, we seek to understand the spatial context in which power operates (Brenner et al. 2003) and how MSPs are (re)shaped by existing power structures and relationships. Viewing the action arena as an arena of power struggle, we look at an MSP as a potential means to promote deliberative decision-making and as an organizational tool to open and create political spaces fostering inclusive institutional innovation (Cleaver and Whaley 2018).
The study methods entailed purposive case study selection (Patton 1990) and qualitative, theoretically informed comparative case analysis (Mangen 1999). Each of the eight cases represents a focus of analysis or engagement within the flagship program on governance of natural resources within the broader CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets 2021). In contrast to a comparative review based on prior published literature, our analysis benefits from the in-depth engagement of coauthors and their research teams in the various cases. This engagement provides a window into often unpublished practitioner experiences facilitating MSPs at the landscape scale. This involvement offers the potential for more nuanced insight into multiyear stakeholder engagement processes and identification of emergent lessons that can contribute to strengthening those and other efforts.
Before undertaking the individual case studies, the research team developed a joint comparative framework (as summarized above) drawing upon a review of the literature, and a template with a guiding set of questions to structure each case study (see Appendix 1). Individual case study researchers developed the case study write-ups, drawing upon existing research engagement, supplemented by additional interviews to capture insight on emerging outcomes and lessons. Sources of evidence thus include documentation from available reports in each case, workshop notes, focus-group discussions, and key-informant interviews. To validate outcomes, including observations of challenges and success, researchers aimed to triangulate the perspectives of multiple actors engaged in these processes whenever feasible. Where judgments of different actors within a particular case differed in assessing the MSP’s value or outcomes, interviews probed the reason for the divergence as a route to drawing further lessons, and these differences are noted. In the analysis that follows, our aim is to highlight findings from each case that are most salient in relation to the key dimensions of the comparative framework. In particular, we focus on the first three elements of the framework: designing for context, designing for inclusion, and adaptive learning.
Each case study has its own context, characteristics, challenges, and corresponding purpose for the MSP (Table 1; additional case details in Appendix 2). We hereafter refer to the cases by site name. All cases concern an ongoing, multiyear MSP initiative that functions in convening dialogue and has a role in resource management. In three cases (Madre de Dios, Acre, and Pará), the MSP is a formal mandate of government through official decree or law, reflecting policy toward decentralization or greater involvement of historically marginalized stakeholders in resource governance, in which government plays the role of convener. In other cases (Gujarat, Odisha, Chemba, and Oromia), the MSP is a result of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) initiative, gaining legitimacy through engagement and commitment of government bodies. One case (Tana-Kipini) concerns a binational initiative supported by an external funding agency, which entails both local and national actors under a trans-boundary framework.
None of the case study MSPs have official decision-making authority, though the proximity to official decision-making varies considerably. At one end of the spectrum is Chemba: Because the MSP has no formal legal status, it has no power to enforce decisions, so it relies on engagement with and influence on local authorities, building social norms to support compliance with agreed action plans and links to civil society policy networks at the national level. The Gujarat and Odisha MSPs play a coordination and advisory role to raise priorities in local planning for issues that are high on the communities’ agenda. Although the outcomes are nonbinding for local government, through continuous engagement, the MSP can often influence the larger development agenda, have recommendations adopted in official block-level plans, and launch efforts that require collective action among local communities.
The three government-mandated MSPs have a more direct advisory function. In Acre, MSP products, including territorial zoning plans, need further approval from other official decision-making bodies (three state councils and the state legislative assembly). MSP organizers and most participants identify the zoning plan as a policy-guiding tool to recommend and orient subsequent investment projects and actions (Gonzales Tovar et al. 2021a,b). In Pará, the MSP results typically take the form of recommendations, but these have significant weight, mainly because of the presence and participation of the Public Ministry in the proceedings (Londres et al. 2021). In Madre de Dios, the MSP convenes dialogue sessions to reach agreements and raise awareness among stakeholders of the deforestation and degradation challenges faced by the Communal Reserve, a type of protected area (Palacios Llaque and Sarmiento Barletti 2021). Agreements may be implemented as recommendations toward reserve management and may subsequently become legally binding agreements between all stakeholders participating in the management committee or may inform national policy on the topic (e.g., the intercultural co-governance of the reserve). As part of its mandatory tasks, the management committee also approves the master plan for the reserve.
A comparative analysis of the eight cases identified three common areas of influence on patterns of stakeholder interaction (in the action arena, following the categories of the comparative framework): inclusion, collaboration, and trust; conflict management; and collective action for conservation. These areas are considered proximate changes for which causal connections to the MSP process are readily established (Table 2; additional details in Appendix 3).
Inclusion, collaboration and trust: All of the MSP cases show at least some improvements in communication, collaboration, and trust between different stakeholders. In many cases, this improvement involved strengthened links between different community groups, between local communities and government, and across different sectors. In many of the same cases, however, various forms and degrees of exclusion remained because of existing power asymmetries and conflicting livelihood priorities.
Conflict management: Although some forums did not include conflict management as an explicit aim, they all reported measures that served to reduce at least some aspects of conflict. In several cases, conflict resolution was cited as an important outcome. Various rules and mechanisms that reduce tensions were defined through dialogue among stakeholders, ranging from zoning rules to forest fire management and cross-border trade. However, the success is mitigated by the failure to include stakeholders involved in some important conflicts, including small-scale resource users such as informal miners (Madre de Dios) or larger commercial actors such as mining companies (Odisha).
Collective action for conservation: Participants in all cases noted increases in collective action to address conservation priorities, often connected to targeted livelihood improvements, though not always involving all essential stakeholders. There were reported improvements in landscape restoration and related incentives for ongoing action to maintain and protect ecosystem functions in six of the cases (Pará, Acre, Oromia, Gujarat, Odisha, and Tana-Kipini). Although much of this influence was positive in terms of resilience goals, significant shortcomings were also identified.
Recognizing this diversity of outcomes, each of the case experiences was examined individually and in comparative perspective to draw implications for the design and organization of MSPs that are both appropriate and effective. In relating the lessons from the cases to the conceptual framework, we examine the first three causal relationships of the framework in turn: designing in relation to the broader governance context (Fig. 1, arrow a), designing (and implementing) processes for inclusion (Fig. 1, arrow b), and using adaptive learning to strengthen multistakeholder dialogue (Fig. 1, arrow c).
In reviewing the way in which context affects the action arena of the MSP in the case studies, or how the MSP organizers addressed context, we identified three lessons addressing: the geographic scope of the MSP, linking across scales, and filling governance gaps.
Multiple authors have argued that the concept of a landscape defined by biophysical features is problematic for governance and management (e.g., Görg 2007, McCall 2016), or that “naturalizing” the basin or watershed scale may disempower certain actors (Warner et al. 2014). Some of the MSP cases were formed around landscapes boundaries, whereas others coincided with administrative or jurisdictional boundaries. The case results suggest that operating at a landscape scale is not a problem, as long as the relevant government authorities are involved. The jurisdictional scale is more likely to guarantee state involvement and a connection to relevant processes, but landscape approaches do not preclude similar connections.
In Acre, the Ecological-Economic Zoning process is, by definition, a jurisdiction-wide effort; it is a legal requirement of Brazil’s states. The Green Municipalities Program in Pará also operated at the jurisdictional level as a state-led process to bring the region’s 144 municipalities into compliance with Brazilian law on deforestation. The program was scaled across the state after the municipality of Paragominas implemented a successful MSP process that resulted in its removal from the “blacklist” of high-deforesting municipalities that was put together as part of Brazil’s Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (Londres et al. 2021). In this case, the upscaling from municipal jurisdictions to a coordinated state-level approach facilitated the response to central government policies.
Other MSPs were initiated to address a particular resource challenge rather than a jurisdictional mandate. Such was the case in Chemba, where the MSP aimed to provide a platform for resolving conflicts that were increasing in number and degree of violence. The district administration provides the forum for addressing these disputes, though it is influenced by decisions in neighboring districts and by national policy and legislation. The MSP cut across divisions between government sectors and different actors in land governance. As one village leader said, it “is a bridge that connects villagers at the grassroots level with high decision makers. It helps the village authority to understand their responsibilities on land issues better.”
The Oromia MSP aims to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services in the Bale ecoregion and, as such, is not based within a single jurisdictional boundary (Yami et al. 2021). Similarly, in Madre de Dios, a multistakeholder management committee was set up to support co-management of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve and to bring a wider set of stakeholders into dialogue with the reserve’s co-management partners. Following legal regulations for Communal Reserves, co-management is shared by the Peruvian natural protected areas authority (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado, or SERNANP) and ECA-Amarakaeri, an indigenous organization representing the ten indigenous communities inhabiting collectively titled territories within the Reserve’s buffer zone.
Effective MSPs sometimes generate substantial momentum that builds across the larger landscape, contributing to cross-scale linkages that are pivotal in promoting transformational change (Robinson et al. 2017). MSPs at the same scale promote mutual learning across similar groups, whereas multiscalar approaches allow targeted planning and differential impacts based on the potential of each different arena. Scaling up is seen as a way to promote greater policy impact. Three of the cases demonstrate this kind of momentum.
In Gujarat and Odisha, MSPs were initially very local in scale and gradually developed links to higher levels of governance. Initiated by the NGO Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), the Odisha MSP encompasses all the villages within a hill range, bringing together different village federations. Similarly, the Gujarat MSP brings together village federations from three watersheds and a hill range. Both MSPs evolved over time to address the higher scale of planning at the block (subdistrict) level, bringing federations together with various government agencies, NGOs, and the private sector. Working at the block level encourages mutual learning and knowledge exchange between different stakeholders, especially different village communities, on best agricultural practices and resource governance. Bringing federations together has also revived intercommunity cooperation in resource governance through development of intervillage conservation action plans; this scale is local enough to allow for regular interaction and large enough to achieve conservation outcomes for the landscape.
The Chemba MSP was conceived explicitly as a pilot effort to validate the potential for dialogue to resolve resource conflicts in Tanzania, and an MSP in nearby Iringa district was established with similar objectives. Building on the success of these two pilot projects, MSPs are being established in additional districts. The NGO Tanzanian Natural Resource Forum (TNRF) provides a link between these MSPs, for example, by facilitating exchange visits among the districts to share experiences and good practices. It also fosters links to higher level processes and forums such as the National Engagement Strategy coordinated by the Tanzanian Land Alliance and supported by the International Land Coalition. The aim is to influence national policy and legislation to address, for example, conflicting regulations that contribute to the root causes of local problems.
In the Tana-Kipini case, the MSP invested heavily in capacity building and training on environmental management and biodiversity conservation, which enabled a nested approach to coalition-building. Village-level partnerships linking diverse stakeholders were aggregated at community, cluster, county, and regional levels, working from the bottom up to build coalitions to then work on broader landscape issues within the MSP. This process was complemented by efforts to establish links between agencies at county and national levels within Kenya and Somalia. The progress has been especially notable in view of the history of conflict in the border region in recent decades.
MSPs are often intended to solve coordination problems in a variety of ways. Most commonly, this process involves actors in a landscape, including different government offices, who have no other effective space for coordination to address land use and related resource governance challenges (Ros-Tonen et al. 2018). The Oromia MSP succeeded in addressing the lack of integration among different sectors operating in the ecoregion, with an emphasis on getting different NGO projects to coordinate efforts. Interviewees also cited previous top-down approaches used in land-use planning, and the “isolated” nature of interventions in the past, as key constraints to sustainable land use in the ecoregion. By providing a platform for stakeholders to negotiate their interests and priorities, the initiative succeeded in reducing conflicts. The same is true for the Tana-Kipini landscape at the international level. The MSP, supported by the European Commission, served the function of an interim governance mechanism in the absence of a formal governance system in the cross-border area.
In the Chemba case, addressing the governance gap entailed the creation of important new governance bodies. Compared to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania has reasonably robust land policy and legislation based on the principles of: recognizing existing rights, including customary rights; decentralization of land administration and dispute settlement to the local level; and facilitating registration of land and titling of land rights to enhance tenure security and promote land markets (Luhula 2017). However, implementation is beset with challenges. District authorities maintain a dominant role over village authorities and their decisions, frustrating decentralized decision-making. There is also generally poor understanding of power and the role that the village council could and should be playing under the formal policy framework. Indeed, many villages have not yet established the village governance structures (including land governance structures) required by law. In 2017, for example, only 30% of villages in Chemba district had village executive officers, and few had land committees. MSP support for coordination among responsible land governance and administration institutions in the district, combined with the establishment of village land councils, have helped to realize the intent of decentralization in land and natural resource administration.
In the Madre de Dios case, the gap addressed concerns about the past exclusion of indigenous peoples from protected area management arrangements. The case is connected both to Peru’s policy transition toward more equitably managed protected areas in indigenous territories and to the wider political demands for a greater say by indigenous Amazonian organizations over the management of protected areas, which also helped to advance Peru’s Law of Prior Consultation, passed in 2011. The introduction of the co-management model, which includes indigenous organizations and communities in the management of Communal Reserves, was not initially considered as part of the law that introduced those reserves. It was tested in Madre de Dios, following demands by local indigenous peoples, and was later introduced more widely in the Peruvian Amazon.
Lessons in this section address the ways in which the MSP is structured to enable inclusive dialogue and yield more equitable patterns of stakeholder interaction, with the aim of promoting outcomes that favor social-ecological resilience (Fig. 1, arrow b).
Criticism of the participatory paradigm that preceded the current interest in MSPs notes that some of the main power imbalances challenging MSP-like processes are at the level of technical knowledge held by different participants and in the ability of more powerful participants to decide what kind of knowledge is more important than others (Cooke and Kothari 2001, Edmunds and Wollenberg 2001). Across the cases, differences in knowledge as an action resource were identified as a critical source of power imbalances.
In the Acre case, research revealed clear efforts to mitigate the effects of differences in access to technical knowledge. The state environment agency (Secretaria de Estado de Meio Ambiente, or SEMA) and the private sector (who hired experts to give them technical support in the process) were identified as the actors with the highest technical knowledge and, thus, with the highest ability to influence the zoning commission. Their situation was in stark contrast to representatives from indigenous organizations, traditional populations, and smallholder farmers. Nevertheless, participants valued the way that SEMA guided discussions and acted as a mediator, making the technical knowledge available in a more neutral way and ensuring that traditional knowledge was also valued in the commission. Organizers made efforts to present technical information using nontechnical language to facilitate the participation of indigenous and rural worker representatives as well as to explain technical concepts clearly. Additionally, smaller and more frequent meetings were organized by thematic groups and chambers, enabling more focused discussions and negotiations. These meetings included spaces with more homogeneous participants (actors working on similar issues or sectors), where it was easier to solve conflicts and reach agreements.
The Gujarat case illustrates how investing in locally led systems for data collection and analysis can provide a basis for more democratic decision-making. Training community resource persons to collect and interpret data enabled them to tap knowledge as an action resource. Village federations were concerned by the provision of government services such as healthcare, schooling, and irrigation infrastructure. Official government data did not seem accurate from the communities’ point of view. Youth from various villages were appointed as resource persons to collect local data using simple tablet-based applications, which enabled real-time data aggregation and analysis. This process revealed, for example, locales where more teachers were needed or where remote villages were disadvantaged and lacked the necessary services such as healthcare centers. Drawing on these community-generated data, the facilitating NGO then helped in data visualization and presentation, increasing the credibility and impact of the information. The supported local communities were able to gather data to back up their claims regarding priority challenges, including lack of infrastructure and access to services. These data boosted the communities’ credibility and helped build support from other stakeholders, prompting government to recognize and respond to inequalities between villages as part of block planning.
Several cases also show an important link between women’s empowerment and capacity building in MSP processes. In Oromia, there has been special emphasis on including women because of their dependence on forests for firewood as an energy and income-generating resource. Indigenous women, in particular, are seldom represented at the MSP, which is a reflection of the unequal access to governance spaces for women in indigenous communities and women’s disparate opportunities to build capacities for effective participation (e.g., schooling and public leadership roles). Similarly, in Gujarat, MSP participants related inadequate levels of women’s participation to gender norms, women’s time constraints due to domestic work, and distance to travel to meeting sites. It is noteworthy, however, that members of women’s self-help groups have higher rates of participation and express feeling empowered to speak out at these events. This situation points to the importance of capacity-building and collective action efforts outside of the MSP that may build a foundation for effective participation.
Several of the cases illustrate explicit mechanisms within the MSP to ensure attention to the priorities of groups that are frequently disadvantaged in other forums. In Acre, for example, during the second phase of the zoning commission, organizers established a parallel “ethno-zoning process” in response to a demand from indigenous peoples for respect for their right to self-determination. The process was run for indigenous peoples by indigenous representatives as a space to discuss their own priorities with regard to the key issues being addressed by the MSP. Indigenous participants emphasized the importance of the MSP as a purposeful space for them to hold discussions with the government, address differences in technical knowledge, and ensure that their voices were heard and that the zoning decisions benefited indigenous peoples. Even with these measures and the decentralized workshops held in municipalities, other indigenous representatives considered the representation of indigenous peoples incomplete.
Other rules aim to preclude hijacking of the process by the most publicly vocal actors. In the case of Gujarat, an explicit rule bans political agendas and rhetoric from the MSP in an area with polarized party politics. To reduce power imbalances between different stakeholders, including different castes and tribes, women and men, and government officials and village members, there are no chairs at meetings so that everyone is seated on the floor, and participants note that this measure is quite effective in reducing power asymmetries.
Finally, there are rules aimed at ensuring balanced engagement and participation. To address power imbalances in the Pará MSP, the organizers acted as mediators, ensuring that all participants had the right to speak and to vote. Every meeting’s agenda was discussed beforehand, and a quorum rule was adopted requiring that attendance in meetings include 50% civil society and 30% government representation. Nevertheless, important actors, including indigenous peoples and local communities, were left out of the MSP and the programs it supported. The Green Municipalities Program initially failed to differentiate its approach to the different municipalities, but adaptations were made over time, including preparatory workshops, for example, to understand locally relevant drivers of deforestation and build local capacity to articulate and address these distinct challenges. Rules were also adopted to enable difficult issues to be deliberated in smaller working groups that would provide recommendations during the MSP’s plenary. This process enabled more intensive deliberation and consideration of a broader range of perspectives to feed back into the process.
Several cases also highlight the importance of effective facilitation to create conditions for inclusive dialogue, with attention to the formal and informal relations between participants, including cultural and gendered power dynamics. In the Chemba MSP, organizers purposefully invited the District Commissioner to chair the MSP sessions, and government and community leaders decided on who should participate from their constituencies. There was also a separate role for a facilitator to focus on opening spaces for all actors to contribute and to influence decisions. Preparatory meetings were key for certain groups to share knowledge on the issues to be discussed and to strategize joint courses of action. In addition, targeted training (for example, on women’s land rights) and support for community-based land monitors also helped to build deeper participation.
Frank recognition of conflicts among participants, and structured dialogue to address them, can also help to establish the value of the MSP. In Madre de Dios, for example, roundtables were organized around divisive issues such as the construction of a road across the reserve’s buffer zone. Participants appreciated the MSP’s success in addressing divergent points of view and eventually reaching agreements.
We considered government engagement to be key to MSP legitimacy in all of the cases. Such engagement includes providing a connection to broader and parallel plans and processes, bringing attention to the MSP’s concerns, and providing support for or enforcement of agreements reached in negotiations. Whereas most MSP organizers clearly want government engagement, they do not want government control. Also, even if the government brings legitimacy to the MSP, the process may not be equitable. A variety of cases illustrate these tensions.
The driving force behind the Chemba MSP was TNRF, a domestic NGO respected for its knowledge of land issues and considered a relatively neutral actor in the highly politicized land arena in Tanzania. However, TNRF recognized that for the MSP to be both effective and sustainable, it was vital that the government play a central role to assist in enforcing decisions. Because the MSP was not a legal entity, it had no power to enforce compliance with the agreed action plan. Recognizing that the District Commissioner was the key official with power to enforce decisions made in the MSP, organizers invited the commissioner to chair the MSP. Having assumed this responsibility, the commissioner was more likely to attend the meetings, thus providing an opportunity for participants to provide full briefs on the different issues in a balanced way and secure the commissioner’s buy-in and commitment to take forward and, where appropriate, enforce agreed action points.
Similarly, in both cases in India, NGO leadership helped bring government to the table. In Odisha, after the MSP was jointly organized by the village federations and FES for several years, the government became interested in adopting the annual event, taking on the role of convener. FES and the federations remained as key participants, assisting with planning and follow-up. Importantly, the government has initiated similar MSPs at the block level in other blocks of Odisha state, as well as at the higher district level. Participants viewed this development positively because it increased legitimacy and recognition from the state for the MSP, its members, and the co-management process, especially given that the village federations still have ownership of the process and are able to influence the MSP agenda. Nevertheless, organizers were concerned that government agencies might not refrain from controlling the process when convening MSPs, which poses risks for power imbalances in the future.
The two cases in Brazil represent MSPs that were, by contrast, initiated by government. The role of the government in the Acre MSP was central to its legitimacy because the state government needs to approve the zoning plan. Government commitment to both the inclusive, deliberative process and its goals were key factors leading to the vast majority of participants reporting that the MSP was both equitable and effective. This situation is based on the political history of the state: the Workers’ Party won on a political platform supporting social justice and consolidated a socio-environmental alliance with NGOs and the Catholic Church. The MSP, although organized following Brazilian law, followed a process purposefully designed to promote sustainability, forest conservation, and the participation and empowerment of historically underrepresented groups. Acre’s zoning commission was implemented within a national and regional political environment that enabled the participation of civil society and multisector collaboration while supporting sustainable development in territorial planning.
Similarly, the Pará MSP was organized and led by the state government as a response to a national government program. This leadership and fit to national policy gave the effort substantial legitimacy among those involved. The program was effective in bringing together different sectors of society that do not normally dialogue, negotiate, and generate joint solutions, such as large producers’ organizations, the Public Ministry, and large NGOs. In fact, as one of the largest environmental platforms in Brazil, the program placed Pará in the international spotlight and is commonly perceived as having sophisticated and integrated mechanisms to combat deforestation. Nevertheless, smaller NGOs, subsistence farmers, indigenous peoples, and black communities were largely excluded, and interviews identified profound historical animosity between those who participated and those who were excluded.
Lessons in this section focus on the learning feedback, i.e., the ways in which structured reflection on the MSP outcomes can contribute to improved management of the MSP and its longer-term durability and impact (Fig. 1, arrow c).
Monitoring results of MSP implementation as part of adaptive learning processes is important for MSP development and strengthening (Kusters et al. 2018). Many MSPs have wide-reaching goals to influence governance beyond the MSP. Taking a step back to review the big picture and wider context, including any changes in the political and social landscape, stakeholders, and their interests, provides an opportunity to realign the MSP and strengthen its impact pathways. Giving time for reflection and ensuring that there is flexibility in the structure, design, ambitions, and goals of an MSP are vital for achieving governance transformation.
Among the cases we compared, explicit monitoring and evaluation of outcomes and formal, structured reflection on lessons were inconsistent and often missing altogether. However, there was broad evidence of learning and adaptation across the cases, signaling that informal learning processes were engaged. Most case study MSPs relied on informal processes of self-reflection (and occasionally protest and hot debate) as the main way of monitoring the quality of the process. An exception was the MSP in Madre de Dios, which must undergo an annual monitoring exercise carried out by a SERNANP employee. Even this measure, however, seems to be secondary to the main learning process. Some participants noted that the official tool monitors issues that they did not find important and produced results that they were unable to use to support their annual planning processes. This gap took MSP participants to collaborate with Center for International Forestry Research researchers in developing a participatory monitoring tool to support reflexive learning about their MSP’s process, priorities, and progress, which was implemented for the first time in 2020 (Sarmiento Barletti et al. 2020a).
In both cases in India, village federations typically discussed the MSP’s outcomes to gather lessons and improve the MSP for the next year. As part of systematizing its support to these MSPs and similar block-level platforms in other states, FES is refining indicators to track different levels of achievement, encourage more regular reflection, and share experiences on obstacles and strategies across the different MSPs. The aim is to strengthen formal monitoring and evaluation to aid in comparison across multiple sites while retaining the open reflection and participatory planning that are strengths of the current practice.
Participants in a range of other MSPs noted the need for more structured processes for monitoring and evaluation when they were lacking. In Chemba, although TNRF had no structured plan for monitoring the results of the MSP, the cycles and reporting requirements of projects financing the MSP and the cycle of seeking new funding highlight the need for monitoring (and reporting) of impacts and reflection on these together with how the MSP could be improved. In this case, the local MSP being nested within a wider network provides opportunities for annual reporting and contributing insights into planning of the wider network, such as the national engagement strategy on land governance in Tanzania.
With or without structured, regular, and deliberate monitoring and reflection, many of the MSPs have adapted the scope of the MSPs and the stakeholders engaged in them. For example, the MSP in Gujarat was initially conceived more modestly as a platform for information exchange and awareness building on issues of ecology and livelihoods, but it evolved to target block-level development planning and lasting improvements in local democratic governance more broadly. This transformation required incorporating additional issues such as health and education that were high priorities among local actors. It also meant that the practices of participatory governance became more institutionalized.
In the case of Chemba, membership has been quite fluid depending on the issues being discussed or the agenda for the year. At the start, meetings tended to focus on a particular case or conflict, so the participants would be those directly involved. Over time, however, new stakeholders were included, and more regular membership was established, with representation of key stakeholders across the district and communities. This change provided a distinctive opportunity for village representatives to meet and engage with district officials and directly address their problems in a swift manner. This process not only saved community members time and resources (avoiding numerous trips to district offices), but also gave a higher profile to the problems, encouraging the district or other officials to find solutions more quickly.
In the Tana-Kipini case, we considered that expanding membership in response to emerging priorities is an important aspect of adaptive learning. Initially, only agencies working with community members were included in local and regional cluster coalitions. Later, however, realizing the importance of integrating peace and security issues in the region, organizers decided to invite the internal security agency into the MSP at the subnational level in both countries. The MSP agenda continues to evolve in response to issues at hand. Currently, a key area of focus is the development of protocols and agreements on the management of biodiversity hotspots. By working jointly on conservation, livelihoods, and environmental security, the MSP is expanding the range of agencies that take part and increasing its influence.
The limits of membership in the MSP can become the focus of considerable debate, especially when it concerns powerful private sector actors. In Madre de Dios, while the MSP focused on co-management of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, both government and the indigenous communities eventually agreed on the importance of engaging representatives of the informal mining sector, which represents a key threat to the implementation of management plans. Notably, however, some nonparticipants felt the MSP was overlapping with other management bodies and said that they chose not to join for that reason. While expanding the scope of an MSP may enable greater influence, sometimes the priority lies in negotiating and clarifying the relationship to other forums for resource governance.
Time is required to realize meaningful change, particularly in highly politicized environments. However, the cases reveal that neither a mandate from government, the initial enthusiasm of participants, nor the support of a capable external organization ensures the institutional durability required over time to ultimately identify and seize upon opportunities for transformation. Also important are continual investment in the MSP and in the action resources of its participants, including mutual trust and relationships, to sustain commitment through times of difficulty.
Consistent funding was frequently cited as critical to durability and long-term impact. In Oromia and Chemba, uncertainty in future funding and dependence on external donors were noted as key risks. To date, the MSP in Chemba has been funded entirely by its supporting NGO, TNRF, and the district has not provided any funds. Because funding is scarce, it now convenes only once per year, undermining its ability to respond to issues as they emerge. Project funding is likely to conclude within a year, and efforts are underway to build up the capacity of the district officials to coordinate the MSP in the future. A similar situation exists in Oromia, where government relies on donor project funding channeled through NGOs to support agreed actions.
Where government has committed substantial time and resources, it offers a chance for institutionalizing new practices, but exclusive reliance on government financing can also raise concerns about the character of the MSP. In Acre, the state government’s resources for the zoning commission have supported an inclusive forum, as well as important parallel processes of engagement. Noting that indigenous peoples and smallholder farmers were unable to cover the costs of travel to MSP meetings, decentralized sessions were held in all of the state’s municipalities. In Pará, however, NGO interviewees noted that only those municipalities with funds to invest in effective technical teams and capacity building were able to benefit from the program. Also, funding constraints have meant that not all participants who wanted to engage could be accommodated, particularly to the detriment of nonindigenous actors who cannot cover their own costs, including travel to the state capital.
The India cases illustrate the value of an organization that provides long-term support to local MSPs and simultaneously invests in building the relationships to influence state and national policies. Apart from the particular substantive issues of debate, much of the work centers on building mutual trust. In the case of Gujarat, as the MSP’s negotiation and influencing capacity increased, village federations were able to bring relevant government officials to the table. The benefits of this connectivity were confirmed from the other side of the table as well: one government participant described an important value of the MSP as making “communication with villages in border areas and interior regions easy.”
Lastly, members’ commitment toward and ownership of the MSP were frequently cited as critical factors in determining durability and impact, and these qualities are often seen as consequences of trust, relationships, and achievement. In Oromia, for example, participants described seeing the influence on natural resource management decision-making as motivation to stay engaged. In the Tana-Kipini case, long-term commitment of MSP participants was cited as a key enabler of impact. Organizers need to pay attention, however, to the depth of that commitment beyond direct participants in the MSP. In the case of Madre de Dios, indigenous organizations are mandated by law to participate in co-management of the Communal Reserve. However, focus groups in two communities in the reserve’s buffer zone revealed that inhabitants knew very little about the MSP, its functioning, or how they were represented in it. This situation underlines the importance of understanding the value of an MSP, the challenges it faces, and, in turn, its potential for impact, from the multiple perspectives of actors at different levels.
The modified institutional analysis and development framework employed in this analysis enabled a structured comparison of cases, distinguishing findings and lessons that relate to each element of the framework. These elements are, namely, the relation between the design of MSPs, conceived as structured action arenas, and the broader governance context; how processes for inclusion are designed and implemented; and the degree to which adaptive learning is fostered to improve the MSP’s performance. Here, we draw out further cross-cutting insights from this analysis, illustrating how the conceptual categories of the framework and our emphasis on the dynamics of power within (and beyond) these MSPs can be applied to support reflective practice.
Our analysis shows the importance of assessing the context, including attributes of the resources, actors, and governance arrangements, in the design of MSPs. These attributes should influence decisions on the appropriate role for the MSP as a purposefully designed action arena, and its potential objectives in establishing new patterns of stakeholder interaction and resultant decisions regarding resource use and allocation. This insight accords with the conclusions of a systematic review by Sarmiento Barletti et al. (2020b), who argue that trying to address a resource-related challenge by implementing a new way of doing things without taking into account existing ones (both formal and informal) may hinder an MSP’s ability to reach its goals. In a study of land-use planning in Laos, Suhardiman et al. (2019) similarly found that when local land-use planning processes apply a strict approach to land categorization without taking into account existing knowledge of overlapping boundaries between forest and agricultural land, there is a high probability that the defined land-use plan will not be implemented. The cases in our analysis include MSPs that were established by government mandate as well as those that grew from NGO initiatives, some that were entirely financed by state budgets and others that primarily relied on external funding. With appropriate attention to the particularities of the context, each of these arrangements can deliver positive outcomes.
The cases also illustrate how building action resources of knowledge and social capital may lead to successful outcomes. Social network analysis in multistakeholder governance systems has demonstrated the importance of social capital as an action resource that contributes to influence (Schiffer et al. 2010). The two cases in India illustrate the gradual, bottom-up approach to weaving relationships of trust within a context of strong social hierarchies and gaps in effective local governance. Village federations first established by FES with a narrow, local focus provided a foundation for later engagement with multiple stakeholders in MSPs enabling knowledge exchange, negotiation, and landscape governance. Long-term and repeated engagement between FES, local federations, and various government agencies both before and after the initiation of the MSP allowed enough time for building trust and capacity of different stakeholders. In Chemba, a number of projects undertaken in the district, including training on land issues, best practice exchange visits, and help with forming village land councils were able to build the capacity of village governance institutions to take up responsibilities in the MSP and influence its direction.
Whether conceived with such explicit aims or not, MSPs have the potential to challenge or reinforce existing power relationships. This aspect concerns both the immediate dynamics within the scope of the MSP’s activities and possibly in interactions that go beyond individual MSPs, within the broader realm of the systems they seek to address. Thus, the work of designing and strengthening MSPs cannot be divorced from the values and objectives of those who facilitate and support these processes (Dewulf et al. 2019). In some instances, this aspect can lead to strikingly different assessments of failure and success. It helps to make these criteria explicit. The Pará case was a top-down organizing process that addressed the contextual factors that its organizers thought were important to the MSP goals, which were in turn based on a national program to prevent deforestation. However, in doing so, they missed other key factors surrounding conflicts over land in Pará, including the land tenure priorities of subsistence farmers.
The cases further illustrate how shifts in the overall governance context can markedly influence the effectiveness of an MSP and the equity of its outcomes. The most striking case is Acre, where more equitable zoning was favored by political conditions in Brazil over the past two decades with the growth of participation mechanisms and indigenous rights and environmental movements, including a strong multiactor environmental alliance within Acre. The initiative now faces a much more difficult scenario with the Workers’ Party election loss, both in Acre and at the national level, to the far-right party of Jair Bolsonaro.
Similarly, rules and characteristics of the MSP influence the patterns of interaction and hence the chances in inclusive dialogue and equitable decision-making. This effect is illustrated, for example, by efforts to address imbalances in access and deployment of technical knowledge (Acre, Gujarat) and to build the capacity of typically marginalized groups to participate effectively in dialogue activities, including preliminary efforts to address barriers to women’s participation (Oromia, Chemba). In some instances, the aim of addressing historical inequities has been built into the formal mandate and procedural rules of the MSP, as seen in the “ethno-zoning” process in Acre, the requirements for strong civil society representation in Pará, and the roundtables focused on conflict management in Madre de Dios.
Thus, differences in outcomes cannot be assigned simply to either the context or the characteristics of the MSP alone; it is a complex interplay. In recognizing this dynamic, MSP organizers must address multiple tensions, working simultaneously to “fit within” the prevailing governance context to ensure relevance and influence on key decision-making processes and also to “purposefully disrupt” existing patterns of stakeholder interaction in support of more equitable and sustainable forms of resource use and benefit sharing. Legitimacy of the process may be judged on very different grounds from the perspectives of indigenous resource users, private sector associations, or government bodies at state or local levels. Adaptive learning processes should aim to integrate these multiple perspectives, addressing both the institutional design questions (the “fit” of the MSP in relation to its context) and the dialogue process questions (the way the MSP’s rules and principles are implemented in practice).
Much of the enthusiasm fueling the promotion of MSPs in land and natural resource governance stems from their perceived value in reaching agreement on sustainable resource use and enabling new forms of collaboration to support effective policy implementation amid many competing goals (Ros-Tonen et al. 2018). Whether or not conveners ascribe an explicitly political agenda to these efforts, they function in political environments. This milieu presents challenges to evidence-based analysis of MSPs because the context and actors’ motivations are rarely well documented and vary widely. Most of the documentation comprises project or “grey” literature, often with a promotional bent, rather than independent analysis. Even less common is comparative evidence with reference to a common framework.
An advantage of our comparative analysis is that researchers have drawn upon their detailed familiarity with the cases and the actors involved to tease out divergent perspectives on the history, challenges, and achievements of each MSP. We drew additional lessons from discussion among the authors familiar with each case study and iterative reference to the framework. Our approach complements the findings of a systematic review of the published literature (Sarmiento Barletti et al. 2020b). An important contribution is the ability to trace the evolution of these efforts and characterize differential outcomes based on actors’ own perspectives, particularly for a domain of social action in which the contextual complexities make it exceedingly difficult to define robust natural experiments (e.g., different approaches in ‘comparable’ states). Our study also complements a multicase comparison of organizers’ own perspectives on landscape MSPs in the forestry domain, which concluded that the transformation potential of such MSPs depends on explicit strategies to identify and address power differentials, ensure meaningful participation of under-represented groups, and plan for longer term engagement (Sarmiento Barletti et al. 2021).
We have sought to draw lessons from this comparative analysis that can help to guide future efforts to design MSPs at landscape scale and to aid organizers of existing MSPs to reflect, improve, and adapt their efforts for increased success. We structured these lessons to reflect this practical intent: addressing MSP design in relation to the governance context (“designing for context”), designing inclusive processes to address power inequities (“designing for inclusion”), and supporting adaptive learning to improve and expand influence over time. The structure also mirrors the approach of Kusters et al. (2018), whose framework for monitoring and evaluating MSPs is structured to enable “looking ahead” (to define appropriate goals), “looking inward” (to assess equity and effectiveness of the process), and “looking back” (to draw insights on successes, failures, and requirements for future adaptation).
Our study also shows that the modified institutional analysis and development framework we applied can flexibly capture a wide range of contextual factors, MSP attributes, and outcomes as a basis for comparative analysis. The cases clearly illustrate how MSPs at landscape level are able to influence the patterns of stakeholder interaction, as measured by shifts in collaboration and trust, conflict management, and collective action for conservation. The limitations of a retrospective analysis, as well as the limited duration of a number of the cases, means that we did not attempt to assess MSP contributions toward longer term shifts in resource status, attributes of resource users such as poverty and assets, or enduring characteristics of the governance context. Evaluating these causal connections, illustrated by the longer term feedback loop in our analytical framework, would require a longitudinal research design with baseline measures and detailed process tracing (Befani and Mayne 2014), likely at multiple intervals.
Future research should examine such longer term causal relationships among the quality of MSP design, implementation, and outcomes related to transformational change. It should explore, in additional cases, the interplay between context and MSP characteristics in influencing variable outcomes, including through mixed quantitative and qualitative assessment tools. It should also seek to probe the conditions that allow for MSPs to achieve impact beyond the scope of the directly engaged actors, either through horizontal replication of governance innovations (as is beginning to happen in the case of block-level planning in Odisha) or cross-scale linkages (as is emerging between the Chemba case and national policy processes in Tanzania, as well as local and cross-border collaboration in the case of Tana-Kipini). Analyzing such scaling processes will help develop current understanding of the potential ways in which MSPs at landscape level may catalyze enduring governance transformation to support social-ecological resilience, and the ways in which they may fail. Building such a robust body of research is critical to continue to validate and refine evidence-based lessons for practice.
This work was undertaken as part of, and funded by, the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). PIM is in turn supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the Belgian Development Cooperation, the Government of Canada, Irish Aid, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the UK Department for International Development, and the United States Agency for International Development. Additional funding was provided by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The opinions expressed here belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of PIM, IFPRI, CGIAR, or any funder. We thank the following colleagues who contributed to the case studies, which form the basis of this synthesis: Zakaria Faustin, Tanzania Natural Resource Forum (TNRF), Masalu Luhula (TNRF), Mkami Amos (ILRI), Jazmin Gonzales Tovar (CIFOR), Marina Londres (CIFOR), Diego Palacios Llaque (CIFOR), and Mastewal Yami (CIFOR). We also thank Samuel Stalls and Usmaan Farooqui for research assistance, and Dennis Schüpf for editorial support. We thank two anonymous reviewers for thoughtful feedback and suggestions for improvement on an earlier version of this manuscript.
This article is a synthesis study based on case study material prepared following the guidelines of the coauthors’ respective research institutions. Case study material not separately published and cited is available online as open access in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Institutional Repository at https://ebrary.ifpri.org/digital/, reference number 134894. Direct URL: https://ebrary.ifpri.org/digital/collection/p15738coll2/id/134894/rec/1.
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