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Copyright © 2001 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Davis-Case, D. A. 2001. The reflective practitioner: learning and teaching in community-based forest management. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 15. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art15/

Synthesis, part of Special Feature on Interactive Science Education

The Reflective Practitioner: Learning and Teaching in Community-based Forest Management

D'Arcy Davis-Case

Tlell Community Forestry


The world's natural forests, whose rich ecosystems support wildlife and human populations, are declining. In my 17 years as an international community forester, observing this decline has hardened my resolve to look for answers "outside the box." This paper is a reflection of some of the important lessons I am learning: to keep an open mind at all times, to remember that I can never be certain of the outcome of any given effort, to control my biases, to listen carefully, and to find common ground.

KEY WORDS: action research, collaborative forest management, community forestry, community-based forest management, development theory, education, joint forest management, participatory forest management, uncertainty.

Published: December 20, 2001


Intrigued by the fact that I get paid to travel to exotic countries around the world, people often ask me to explain exactly what I do in my professional life. I find this question almost impossible to answer. What I do is precious to me, but I am so busy doing it that I don't often get a chance to reflect on what exactly I do. This paper is such a reflection.

What I do expresses who I am, and, conversely, who I am expresses what I do. While I define myself as an international community forestry consultant, I am also a "renegade," "feminist," "environmentalist," "risk taker," and "agent of change." I am a contradiction: a conservative scientist and forest manager who yearns for information that has gone through rigorous testing, but also a dreamer in search of a world that honors nature. Between these contradictions, I must learn as I go. There are few "certainties." Often I am confused. Sometimes I am impatient. Always I am humbled.

As an international forestry consultant, I am contracted to give advice. However, my advice can be effective only if it embraces not only what I thought I knew before but also what I am learning on that particular job. Because what I learn seems so often to be so obvious after I learn it, it is embarrassing sometimes to admit, even to myself, that I didn't realize it before. It would be easier and safer to rest on my laurels and rely on general principles and specific solutions that I have read or heard about, or that have worked for me in other situations. It would be easier, at least in the short term, not to attend to the many small differences that make each situation unique, recognititon of which, hopefully, contributes to the effectiveness of international aid projects in the developing world. It would be easier to accept an illusion of "certainty."

For illusion it is. I believe that the biggest challenges in forestry today are not in the domain of "forest science," where we actually have some measure of "certainty." The challenges are in the much larger domain of relationships between forests and human cultures. I mean human cultures in the broadest sense, including politics, religion, economics, and normative perceptions of the forest. We must understand these relationships deeply and with integrity. To understand these complex and ever changing relationships, we must be knowledgeable and careful, but also willing to take the risks associated with new, untried ideas. To even begin to understand the relationships between forests and human cultures, we have to leave our assumptions, our judgments, and our ideas of certainty at home in our own countries. We have to learn to embrace our ignorance, yet concomitantly accept our important role in international development assistance.

To show you the blend of social, educational, and technical roles I must fulfill, I will describe for you my current consultancy contract. This particular contract, in Tanzania, is similar to the five or six contracts I have done each year for the past 17 years, in 26 countries. These contracts have been with United Nations agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and The World Bank; with donor country agencies such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA); and with nongovernmental organizations such as CARE, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, and SOS Sahel.

Before describing the contract on which I am currently working, some background is required. This background includes a brief history of development, a definition of community forestry, and some details about this particular project in Tanzania. All this information provides the context within which I operate.


Three successive models of development are generally associated with post-World War II development (Brohman and Brohman 1996). Each dominated a period of history. These periods overlap, because sometimes the models operated simultaneously, but generally they developed sequentially.

The aims of the first model, Keynesian Developmentalism (1940–1960), were growth and modernization. It focused on a set of macroeconomic problems on a global scale, particularly those involving inequities between rich and poor countries. The prevailing mythology during that period was that, if poor countries could increase their economic stability through modernization, agro-exports, and primary exports of raw resources, the gap between rich and poor would narrow. The main tools were increasingly sophisticated economic growth models. People were viewed as labor units (skilled or unskilled). Forestry was seen to be, and increasingly consisted of, industrial plantations and wood production infrastructures such as sawmills and pulp mills.

The second model, Neoliberalism (1950–1970), was a reaction to the widely acknowledged shortcomings of the Keynesian economic growth model, but did not deviate fundamentally from it. It has been argued (Brohman and Brohman 1996) that the Keynesian and Neoliberalism models both tended toward universalism and eurocentricism, and that they were both ideologically biased in their concept of development. In this argument, one consequence of these biases was that many unconventional or theoretically challenging ideas were ignored. Ideas based on indigenous, popular knowledge were given no credence at all. Neoliberalism was particularly characterized by a belief and trust in economic theories. The tools of planning, implementation, evaluation, and inquiry were all in the hands of the "developers," as opposed to local people who lived on the land. The era in which this model operated generated large quantitative socioeconomic questionnaires that provided data for the export-driven growth models that guided development. People were viewed either as labor units or as factors constraining development. In the era of Neoliberalism, large industrial plantations continued to spread across the developing world. Increasingly, these plantations replaced natural plant, animal, and human communities with fast-growing exotic monocultures. However, the idea of small local woodlots, either privately owned or on property with common access, was also put into practice during this time.

The third model, Popular Development (1970–present), began with an admission of the complexity of development. It takes for granted that societies are by their very nature complex and multifaceted, and so are ecosystems. Popular Development addresses many of the central issues and questions that plagued Keynesian Developmentalism and Neoliberalism. It uses new concepts and methodologies designed to overcome the common shortcomings of development frameworks. Two important shortcomings are inflexibility and a strong tendency to emphasize specific targets determined far in advance. Typical targets are quantitative variables such as numbers of people trained or trees planted. We still use targets in Popular Development, but they tend to be increasingly less rigid and more negotiable than they were before, and they are more likely to include qualitative elements.

Popular Development attempts to create developmental processes appropriate to the real needs and interests of the local communities living in or near a particular forest that is usually threatened in some way. It rejects formalistic models and preconceived theories in favor of a more flexible approach that emphasizes that development efforts must be suited to the cultural and ecological contexts in which they are taking place; this approach also embraces differences among situations as well as similarities. Popular Development envisions a complex, ever-changing interplay between subjective concerns and objective conditions, mediated by both cultural and ecological processes. It sometimes, but not always, acknowledges uncertainty about all of this.

Human individuals and communities are no longer conceived as passive recipients of development, but active partners in all of its stages. Methodologies now originate in the field, in the developing countries where development occurs, rather than in offices and meeting rooms in developed donor countries, as they did before. Community forestry, community-based forest management, participatory forestry, forestry co-management, joint forest management, and collaborative forest management all have their roots in the Popular Development model.

Although Popular Development is now recognized as "mainstream" within development agencies and nongovernment organizations, in many instances it has been subverted to go along with prevailing western ideology. Institutionalized remnants of Keynesian Developmentalism and Neoliberalism persist, especially in large, old, well-endowed organizations. Within the model of Popular Development, many complexities are still not fully understood, and debate about the issues is vigorous and healthy. Popular Development is the domain in which I operate.


People argue about the numbers, but there is no doubt that the world's natural forest resources are dwindling at an alarming rate. Those who say that things are improving nearly always speak from the perspective of volume of wood fiber planted or harvested rather than either the biodiversity that natural forests offer or the well-being of the human communities that make their living in the forest.

Nevertheless, human populations continue to increase, and globalization continues to disrupt local communities everywhere. In spite of these strong forces, forest management must consider the myriad needs of local populations over long time horizons: for land, building materials, wood products, medicines, forest foods, soil and water protection, and spiritual oases. We do not know much about how to sustainably manage forests as ecosystems used by people. One response to global deforestation is community-based forest management (CBFM). Although these initiatives sound wonderful in theory, it is no easy task to get them to work effectively. This could be because of an innate rejection of the idea that local people can manage land as well as governments can.

In many nations, common-access forests are the norm. Nomadic herders, villagers, and even urban dwellers have free access and use rights to much of the forest land. Often, government policy states that this type of access is illegal, but it is tolerated because either policing is impossible or there is implicit approval. Sometimes access comes in the form of a land base, such as tribal lands, that is "owned" communally and to which usufruct rights are granted to local populations by traditional authorities such as chiefs or mullahs. Land is distributed according to need and use, and what remains is common-access land. Although colonial land reform and modern land "rationalization" have diminished the importance of traditional rules and allocations in some countries, rules and taboos concerning forest collection and use have managed to persist. An example of a traditional rule is when the local authority dictates that thatch grass can be collected only during prescribed dates. These dates are set after the local authority has determined that the optimal propagation period for the grasses has safely passed. Social acceptance is often the main method of enforcing this type of local dictate.

Development researchers Gadgil and Berkes (1991) suggested that traditional conservation practices are probably not just incidental artifacts of particular cultures, but the inevitable result of long series of reciprocal evolutionary interactions between ecologically intimate organisms over long spans of time. I interpret this co-evolution in my work as human groups learning to live well in their environments without seriously deteriorating them. By adapting in this way, societies increase the chance that they will survive, thrive, and persist in the same landscape for generations. This implies that the kind of co-evolution we should be thinking about is beneficial, directly or indirectly, to many species other than humans.

Recognizing that the rights and responsibilities of local people are critical to effective forest management, forest policies and practices have started taking them into account. There are many names for current CBFM strategies, including forestry co-management, collaborative forest management, participatory forest management, and community-based forest management. Being theoretically promiscuous, I have entertained all of them in the last 20 years! Nevertheless, in this paper I will refer to all these forest management options as community-based forest management. I use this term because I believe that management options should eventually lead to communities that embrace both rights and responsibilities. The role of the forestry departments and donor agencies is to encourage, advocate, and support community efforts, and to provide technical backup when necessary.

I am not naive. I know that within many communities, especially fractured communities that have been relocated and exposed to the desires of overdeveloped countries, some, even many, community leaders would log the forests tomorrow, move to the city, and put their children in good schools. However, in my experience, they are not the norm: local leaders are generally responsible, and trying desperately to balance the community's present and future needs.

CBFM can take place on many types of forest land. The land can be intact or degraded, moist or dry, montane, lowland, tropical, woodland, windbreak, or mangrove. The forest can be a high closed canopy or low, open, and bushy. It can be planted or unplanted, and contain indigenous or exotic species. It can be large or small in area, have high or low use, and be important or unimportant in terms of biodiversity or catchment area. It can be reserved forest or fall into any of the prevailing land management classifications. What makes CBFM of interest to local people is the use of the forest for basic sustenance or economic purposes.

Although CBFM is difficult and takes time, it has many positive attributes. These include the fact that:

  • local people have a vested interest in maintaining an intact forest because it provides services such as water and food supplies, pharmaceuticals, shade, and protection from wind and erosion for their communities.

  • local people must ensure their access to important wood products such as fuelwood, charcoal, timber, and poles and to nonwood forest products such as medicinal plants, fruits, mushrooms, wild vegetables, ritual space, honey, and wild game.

  • the forest is often easier to manage locally and communally than from a distance, partly because the people who decide what do with the land have lived and worked there all their lives. Respect for this kind of knowledge promotes a broad base of community support for management, a sense of customary ownership of the forest, and a traditional system of social disapproval for breaking agreed-upon rules. In contrast, forestry departments in many countries have been finding it expensive, difficult, dangerous, and often impossible to "police" forests.

When local people are responsible for managing their own forest, they enjoy many advantages. They can restrict access to members of their own community, for example, thus reducing random incursions by outsiders. They can welcome outsiders who can help them achieve their goals. They can limit the encroachment of agriculture into forest areas, encouraging farmers to explore possibilities for achieving higher productivity from smaller plots. As wood and nonwood products become scarcer and more difficult to obtain, both in their own forest and in the region, the value of having them immediately available on a regulated but sustained basis proves more and more appealing. Concomitantly, the incentives to manage wisely increase.

Although CBFM is still relatively new in development assistance circles, several of its components have been identified as essential. It is a prerequisite that there be broad-based, informed support for the idea in the local community. This requires awareness, which implies effective means of communication and education. Community members must have the desire and capacity to organize themselves and be free to do that. Legal and policy support must either be in place or be anticipated in the near future. Of course, there must also be a forest area nearby that is somewhat productive, and usually perceived as threatened.

When a community decides that it wishes to manage its forest, it enters a planning stage. Planning can involve one or many communities. After asking a series of questions, a locally elected planning team carefully makes decisions. The resulting provisional forest management plan is taken to the larger community for further discussion, modification, and approval. The plan is tried for a while, perhaps a year. This trial either creates further awareness and increased support or signals the need to change or negotiate some of the plan's provisions. Often, this provisional management plan includes several "microplans" within it, to provide for special interventions or management techniques. Once the provisional management plan has been tested in this way, it can be finalized and formalized by a binding legal agreement signed by local authorities, the forestry department, and the district, regional, and/or national governments.

The forest management plans created by communities do not look at all like the plans done by forestry departments. On the contrary, they cover access, use, sanctions, and responsibility as well as silviculture treatments and inventory, but in unique and diverse ways. Some of the sanctions that I have seen imposed on those who break the rules governing local forests include the donation of a goat to a community festivity, banishment from the community unless the fine is paid, extended service to the community (e.g., patrolling the forest), and 10 betel nuts (Areca catcecu).

Many aspects of CBFM concern me. I worry that it is too bureaucratic and often carried out at a pace that is faster than appropriate for local situations. A related concern is with the involvement of government forestry departments. In many instances, the individuals involved as participants in forest management in collaboration with local communities are the same technocrats who are most responsible for resource degradation in the same areas (Barraclough and Ghimire 1996). This really raises the question of whether or not forestry departments are the best possible "partners" for communities. Nevertheless, CBFM is on the agenda of most forestry development programs and projects. This is definitely a time of change for forests and foresters, and for forest communities.


Tanzania is a gentle country despite its difficulties. It experienced major land reform in the past century (Barraclough and Ghimire 1996). Before European colonization, the land belonged primarily to ethnic groups or clans. It was the duty of clan members to observe customary rules for using forest land and distributing forest products. German colonization in the late 1800s and British colonization in the 1920s resulted in the development of export crops, but many clan lands were left untouched. Following independence in 1961, land became national property, and in the early 1970s a major resettlement program was imposed. This moved rural people to villages for services, often disrupting traditional production and social systems. It was a coercive violation of customary tenure rights, even though its stated aim was to strengthen and modernize traditional systems. As a consequence, the land that many people occupy today is not their original clan land, and for that reason they have lost some of the knowledge of traditional management.

My contract is with a pilot project in four forest remnant areas: two dry-savannah woodland forests and two mountain forests. The project has three related objectives: 1) to develop CBFM agreements based on forest management plans, 2) to develop better markets for selected forest products, and 3) to increase pressure from the Forestry Department against illegal forest activity in transport corridors. The Forestry Department of the Forestry and Beekeeping Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism of the Government of Tanzania initiated and implemented the project and continues to administer it. The project, which is funded by Denmark, employs two full-time expatriates and a number of international advisors who provide technical assistance from time to time. I am one of the international advisors in the field of CBFM.

I have been contracted to provide six months of advice over three years. For this portion of the contract, I will work with the Forest Department to organize an information workshop for nine field foresters, four elected local government officials, and selected members from 23 village forestry committees (VFCs). The workshop will present and discuss the many studies in areas such as nonwood forest products, inventory, biodiversity, forest policy, markets, and socioeconomic baselines that have been done in the past six months by international consultants. This information will provide the foundation for the decisions that the VFCs have to make concerning community-based forest management.


On most contracts, what I "do" seems to fall into five distinct categories. First, I prepare myself for the job. Second, I gather groups of people to work together over the period of the contract. Third, I take the responsibility for presenting new information and filtering it through the team. Fourth, I observe the team in action and engage with them as a loyal reviewer of their learning and teaching. Finally, I facilitate a forward-looking review of what we have accomplished. The actions in these categories are not in any particular order, and most of the time they are performed simultaneously. They are described in more detail below.

I prepare myself for the assignment

The first thing I do is to gather and digest as much information as I can. I read, discuss the situation with other professionals, and fill pages in my field notebook with notes, questions, ideas, and diagrams. On the plane to the project in Tanzania, I read the project documents and some of the land tenure studies available on sub-Saharan Africa. I also read a research paper by Barraclough and Ghimire (1996), whom I trust to tell all sides of any situation. I usually spend about two days preparing for a contract in this way, then forget what I can of what I know and "go in innocent." That's the ideal, in my view. The more humble I am, the more aware I am when I arrive that I am there to learn, and the better things work for me. Best of all, this also works for my international colleagues, who, when I am "innocent," function as full and active partners in the learning and teaching process.

However, I am not completely innocent! On this particular contract I have three serious biases. Because these biases involve such strong suppositions on my part, each requires validation in actual experience before I dare act on it. My biases express principles that I believe in so strongly that I will not compromise them, even though I often adjust how I interpret them in practice. My biases seem to come from the ways in which I generate and hold knowledge and understanding. I generate knowledge through empirical observation governed by technical scientific rules that constrain what I can know in this mode and how well I can know it. I believe that human social interaction is governed by consensual norms that are often subtle and vary greatly, both within and among cultures. My biases also express a continual process of self-reflection. Habermas (1971) referred to this as a way of coming to emancipatory knowledge, or interest in the way one's history and biography have expressed themselves in the way one sees oneself, one's roles, and social expectations.

My first bias is that distinct forest areas must be managed as whole forests. Each forest is surrounded by two to eight villages that have been using the forest either legally or illegally. For management to work in this situation, I believe that all the villages involved must agree on the forest management strategies chosen, the rules that express them, and the methods of evaluation and enforcement put in place. In my experience, although dividing up forests between villages may be easier, it weakens overall forest management and increases pressure on nearby "unmanaged" areas. Admittedly, it would be much quicker to get one selected village to agree on a plan during a typical 3-yr donor project than half a dozen or more, especially because each village may comprise up to 12 subvillages!

This project encompasses four distinct remnant forests, none so large that effective management by the surrounding villages should be problematic. The prevailing thinking in Tanzania is that each village should claim part of the forest and manage it under a separate agreement. There are arguments for and against this view, but I believe in achieving the broadest-based local management scheme possible. My bias is supported by Barraclough and Ghimire (1996), who concluded that the greatest threats to forests are not from local people, but from state policies and their bureaucracies and from world markets. A strong, broad base should help to protect against these threats. Other things to think about are potential conflicts between the management policies of neighboring villages, which are bound to be exacerbated if each village operates under a different set of rules. In this case, for example, an important movement corridor for elephants and buffalo straddles two potential areas of control. I am biased toward achieving one agreement for the whole forest, signed by each cooperating village. I believe that this will produce the best results for these villages in the long run.

My second bias is that the field-level foresters and the communities around the forests must begin on a level playing field. If the participants are to work together effectively in developing good forest management plans and agreements, the first steps cannot be "top down." Prevailing training methods and systems give foresters information, which they then deliver to communities in a process known as extension. Most conventional extension programs involve little listening by foresters and encourage little discussion, either between villagers and foresters or among villagers. In contrast, participatory extension methodologies emphasize two-way communication, strong listening on both sides, and a melding of strengths.

My third bias concerns the importance of putting community needs first. In this I accept no half measures. My focus and my bias are with the community. I believe that our only role as outsiders is to provide them with the required space, perhaps a process, sometimes tools for their analysis, the time, and clear technical information, so that community members can determine for themselves how best to do forest management. By listening and understanding, we learn how to support them in their decisions. I am up front with my biases at all times and willing to discuss them with my colleagues.

I gather and work with a team

The second thing I do is to gather a team of people to work with throughout the contract. One of my policies is never to work alone on a job, because I believe that better results are obtained when local people are invited and involved. In this instance, the team's task is to design and conduct a workshop to share information. In my experience, most local workshops in international development are a waste of precious time, energy, and money. There is seldom any follow-up, little worthwhile evaluation, and no sense of working together. Still, I welcome the opportunity workshops provide to throw stones into still waters, i.e., to invite people to shift their perceptions, conceptions, and manner of interacting with their peers and engage each other fully.

The education system in most of the countries where I work presents two significant obstacles to effective interactive engagement in workshops. The first is that critical thinking is a foreign concept. The other is that rote learning (memorizing) is all that most workshop participants have experienced in schools. When only a week is available and some shifts in thinking are probably going to be necessary, this is definitely a challenge.

I am ultimately responsible for these workshops, but, in actual fact, they seem to take on a life of their own. The team, which includes me, can control only a few of the factors that will determine the success of a given workshop. We can somewhat influence the types of people who will attend, such as farmers, field foresters, management foresters, and local government officials. I can definitely influence the agenda, and how each session will be conducted by, for example, imposing participatory exercises in each session. Admittedly, this sounds like an oxymoron, but it means that I place illiterate farmers and educated foresters in the same working group, with a task that requires both their realms of knowledge. In almost every case, the workshop takes place in a language I neither speak nor understand, and I can comprehend no details at all. I work closely with a national facilitator, and, although it is possible, I don't ask for translation during workshops because it interferes with the proceedings and with my attention. Consequently, I understand only obvious messages expressed by body language, vocal quality, and signs of interest. I can tell when people are engaging well with each other and when they are paying attention. There is a special rhythm and music to this engagement.

This particular workshop is to include local people, divisional secretaries (local government), district-level managerial foresters, and field-level foresters. This group of 57 people exhibits wide variations in educational level, conceptual understanding, experience, and social and economic power. It can be expected that the participants will also reveal a deep schism and distrust on both sides, generated over decades of forest "policing" by the government. This is typical.

For CBFM to work, I believe that these diverse players must emerge from the workshop sharing certain ideas in common. They must understand similar things about their situation, take similar lessons from the often relatively complex baseline studies, and share a common vision of CBFM. They must also develop a common direction for management, or they will never be able to agree on policy or policing. Although it would be extremely unusual for these barriers to suddenly disappear, the first meeting must go some way toward achieving that or it will never happen. Participants who may often have been antagonists in the past must now become partners.

The tendency in most workshops is for experts (i.e., educated persons) to lecture. Speakers often do this in the most complicated way possible, just as students in western universities claim their professors do. This increases their own status but contributes little to understanding. Whether listeners understand the information or whether it is even relevant or important to them tends not to be an issue. There is little attempt to communicate the purpose of the talk, no overt analysis of the audience, and no invitation to participate actively. Evaluations of the quality of instruction, if they are made at all, tend to be superficial.

For this particular workshop, I invited the seven local foresters who had been interpreters and travel guides for the outside researchers who did the studies to join the team and serve as resource persons for the workshop. I normally try to involve local villagers in core workshop teams, but, in this case, it didn't work out. We decided that each of them should give a 60-min presentation on the studies on which they had worked, and they all agreed. We also decided that I would work on the two morning sessions for the final day, which were intended to introduce options for CBFM. A few days after their acceptance, we had a team meeting, although at this point we were not operating as a team in any way. I asked them to list the three messages from the studies they had helped to conduct that would most directly affect local people in their pursuit of CBFM. Each forester was also asked to develop an interactive exercise that would encourage discussion of important issues; this exercise should also be designed to allow them to facilitate the discussion based on the way the workshop participants interpreted and perceived the messages, rather than on their own preconceptions. I told them that I would be available at all times to help them with this task. Most of them did ask for some kind of help.

In workshops over the years, I have learned to judge the quality of an action by the intensity of the reaction to it. In this instance, some of the foresters reacted intensely to my requests. One solid triad decided that they would lecture anyway (because I failed to understand how things were done in their country!). The other four resource persons struggled with the idea of two-way communication, i.e., "main messages" as opposed to lists of facts. The consequences of these decisions became clear to everyone in the end. Not surprisingly, the intensity and quality of interaction varied markedly among the sessions, as a direct consequence of the "teaching method" used. In the more interactive sessions, participants spontaneously applied things that they had learned to their own situations and were fully engaged. In the lecture-type sessions, there was little engagement. One of the original "lecturers" remarked at the end of the week that he had always felt that people didn't listen to him, but he hadn't known that there was any other way to do it!

The team goes through various stages and processes itself. It is not always neat and wonderful! However, because we begin with a common objective and a set task, we are usually able to work out our problems and operate together.

I prepare and present new information

The third thing I do is to generate new information, simplify complex concepts, and present them to the members of the team, who then present them to the workshop participants. I worked most of the night before the final day to prepare a new strategy. First, I reviewed my original notes, then stared at the ceiling, remembering various conversations that I had taken part in over the past three weeks. Gradually, I became aware of a reasonable, logical direction to take: seven simple steps to community-based forest management. I left some deliberate gaps or flaws in the information, so that the workshop participants could "discover" certain things for themselves. I have found that these strategic gaps give people a chance to enter the discussion and take ownership of the information.

The seven steps are as follows:

Step One: Gather. Before any activity begins, there is a need to collect information on what the participants assume is going to happen. The people who initiate the intervention are the ones who should take this step. This type of information can cover topics such as inventories, studies on nontimber forest products, forest use and wildlife, the economic value of forest areas, and the social and cultural background of the local communities. This step can include training in CBFM and help to prepare those who will be working on the project.

Step Two: Share. Once those who will be initiating the intervention are prepared, it is important for them to share what they have learned with their potential partners. This sharing puts everyone on an equal footing, serves to validate or refute the information and/or the approach being taken, and sets the stage for informed decision making.

Step Three: Assess. In this step, the idea of CBFM is taken to the broader community (the village assemblies) which, together with the village councils (the local government), assess the idea and decide whether or not they want to take the next step. If the village assembly and village council decide to accept the responsibility for managing the forest, then a planning team must be selected. The planning team is generally elected, but can also be appointed. A time and place for the planning team to meet, plan, and report is determined during this step.

Step Four: Decide. The planning team carries out this step, which can take from one to four months, depending on the size of the forest, the number of communities, and the complexity of the issues. The first task is to take a walk around the forest. During this walk, the team will observe and discuss the condition of the forest. Then they begin systematically to make decisions on broad questions that fall into the areas of:

  • boundaries. How will the boundaries be defined? Where are the boundaries of the forest? Will there be internal boundaries or zones? How will the boundaries be marked? What is inside the boundaries?

  • management. Who should be the manager? Who has the responsibility to manage? Who has the authority to manage? Who can most effectively manage the forest? How can the forest be protected? Will there be guards? Village patrols? Which areas need special protection? How will the authority to protect be recognized? Do we have a legal right to protect the forest? What other action should be taken to secure the forest and make it useful?

  • use. How should the forest be used and not used? Given what we understand about the forest, how can we best use it? Should nonmembers have access? What uses should be allowed to continue freely? What uses are reasonable? What will not be allowed?

  • violations. How should those who break the rules be dealt with? What should be the penalties? What are the fines for different offences? Are they enforceable?

  • silviculture. Are there areas of the forest that should be planted? Are there areas that need complete protection to regenerate?

  • measuring success. How will we know if we are succeeding? What will tell us that the forest is well managed? How will we know if we are doing a good job or not?

Step Five: Plan. The decisions made in the fourth step are written down in the order in which they are presented. After much discussion, this becomes a provisional forest management plan. Each village involved should have a member on the planning team who will keep the people in his or her community informed about what is happening. Broad-based support for the plan should be obtained at a village assembly.

Step Six: Test. The provisional plan should be tested for up to a year. This allows those affected by it to learn the rules and become aware of the sanctions.

Step Seven: Finalize. In this step, the plan is finalized and formalized with signatures. The signatures are generally from the forestry department, which usually holds the legal authority to manage. By signing, the department formally recognizes the authority of the community. The local government may also be a signatory, indicating its recognition of this transfer of authority.

The final session that I organized was presented by the national facilitator. We decided to introduce the seven steps to CBFM by literally having someone "walk" through them. I traced a participant's foot and made numbered steps across the room. This participant then "walked" the steps as they were being explained. The discussion was lively, as workshop participants quickly found the gaps in the incomplete presentation. One of these gaps was the fact that the role of the village development committees had not been factored into the decision making process. Another gap was that the last step should take longer, and the participants were much more comfortable with the idea of trying the provisional plan for a longer period.

I left these gaps on purpose. Several years earlier, I noticed that, when there are obvious holes or flaws in thinking or execution, people tend to "jump in" to fix them. This gets them involved and thinking critically, and leads to a better process, a better product, and a sense of ownership that comes from successful cooperation. Now, I never present anything in complete form, even when I can. So far, people have always filled in the gaps. The only cost is that it leaves me looking slightly stupid: a small price to pay for the results.

I fade away from the team and support them

During the workshop, I do my best to fade into the background. This is the fourth, and probably the most important, part of what I do. My role at this time is to observe the team members in action, provide feedback on their facilitation skills, and help them explore changes we might make for a more effective workshop. Even without understanding the language, I find that it is increasingly easy to "read" whether participants are alert and interested from eye movements, vocal quality, the number of people who are out of the room at any time, and body language. My role is to observe and report at the end of the day, but not to intervene directly. If things do not go well, I encourage resource persons, first through humor and common sense, to take a different approach; if that doesn't work, a pep talk on the role of the "new forester" may suffice. If all else fails, I apply shock tactics such as tearing up their lecture notes and telling them I'm doing this as a last resort, to shock them into change! More than anything else, I want foresters to try things that are a little different, and experience the difference.

Each day of the workshop, the small group discussions, held under trees with gallons of tea and kilos of peanuts to "grease" them, went very well. Our team planning of the workshop was flexible, and each day we went over what had worked and how the participants were responding, and revised our plans for the next day. Someone once told me that a workshop was "careful planning and brilliant improvisation." I have found this to be true. Most times, I have each minute carefully planned, and then give it all up in the end to go with a gut feeling. But the careful planning has helped me to understand the material and the presentation options. This approach also seems to work for other people.

I review the assignment and write a report

The final part of what I do is to hold discussions with the team, the project coordinators, and the external donors about what happened during the period I was in the country. For me, the most critical part of the cleanup is to meet with the workshop team for an informal debriefing. After the accolades, I push them into considering how we could have done better and identifying our most wonderful mistakes. At this debriefing, we realize that we have actually operated as a team, and that this teamwork was responsible for much of the success of the workshop. Some things we can know only in hindsight. One of the lessons we learned after this particular workshop was that we should have presented the seven steps on the first day of the workshop and had the participants use them as a base during the week.

For many good reasons, it is necessary to write a report. Reports provide baselines for measuring progress, and can be used as a record for similar projects elsewhere. With the kind of work I do, this is challenging! Reports are usually formal regurgitations of elements such as agendas, participants, and objectives, but many of the most important things are missing. For example, five of every nine foresters attending the Tanzania workshop described in this paper had major epiphanies about their work. To augment the report, there is always the final debriefing with project management. On this contract, I was lucky to have a Chief Conservator of Forests and project managers who were open to hearing about what had worked and what had not worked. We spent a whole day in the debriefing session and spoke honestly about both the highs and the lows. My report captured the essence of that meeting.


The forests of the world are in decline. There is little argument about this, although there is lively discussion about the intensity of the decline. I believe that learning and teaching provide an opportunity and a means to reverse this decline. Assuming that an important role of community forestry practitioners is to teach, how can teachers learn from this kind of work? Just as important is how learners can teach. How can we best communicate in both directions across cultural and language barriers? How can we, as outsiders, add value to local developmental processes?

Development theorists will certainly play an important role in meeting these challenges, especially in providing metaphors and articulating models. However, field workers cannot rely on the comfort that any one theory affords in the short term, and must move fluidly and flexibly among different theories. Sometimes a single theory, such as adaptive management (Holling 1978), is useful, but only if the donor organization and recipient country allow the freedom from rigidly specified targets that a learning period requires.

In this complex world, even the science of forestry is uncertain. There may be no relevant research on important issues we encounter in the field, and, even if it exists, it may not be available locally. How can a particular forest be managed for a variety of products such as grass, honey, fish, medicinal plants, food plants, meat, and timber while preserving its ecological and social integrity? What must foresters know about wildlife to be most effective as foresters? How can we account for human factors such as the illegal harvesting that takes place but is not acknowledged or the fires deliberately set by hunters? In my view, we must learn to think more laterally, both as individuals and as a discipline, and seek and develop conceptual models that consider the relationships between all the potential effects on the forests.

When local people and the foresters who work with them all have critical components to contribute to the solution of a puzzle, they must learn new skills to make their collaboration work. For example, foresters typically speak "with authority," i.e., as experts, but they must also learn to listen. To be most effective, they must be curious and aware of their own biases, and they must respect those who speak to them. Local people, i.e., the men and women who live in the communities assisted by development programs, must learn to speak clearly, honestly, openly, and with all their knowledge and intelligence. Everyone must make an effort to be creative in public, even if he or she would prefer to remain silent. People must be willing to suggest things and to think carefully about other people's suggestions. They must be optimistic enough to risk visualizing a better world for themselves and their descendents, and realistic enough not to dream the truly impossible. In the end, they must trust each other enough to agree on a course of action and carry it through. Even then, they and their governments must trust aid organizations to tell the truth, later, about what happened.

Communities are unique, and so are forests. What people decide to do in one project may not work, or it may work only in that one area. We cannot expect any one project to provide a template for a whole region, country, or continent, although we can certainly learn from our experience. Because times and situations change, processes that work well at one time in a village's history may not work so well at another time. The conceptual models and the procedures must encompass flexible processes.

How can we possibly be content to teach just "facts" in this kind of environment? For example, it is a fact that leaving maize stalks in place after the harvest contributes to soil nutrition. One possible action that could be taken based on this fact would be to encourage farmers not to burn maize stalks after harvest. However, this fact does not incorporate another fact that farmers know: leaving the maize stalks in the field drastically increases ant populations. Any soil nutrient advantages that are passed on to the maize crops provide a banquet for the ants! We are often on dangerous ground when we make decisions alone and based on isolated facts.

How can we avoid making the same mistakes we made in the past, and what can we learn from those mistakes to help us make better decisions in the future? I believe it is in stretching the domain of scientific teaching and learning that these answers can be found, in that uncomfortable place where we don't know for certain what will work, and where everything we do is an experiment. I mean science in the broadest sense of what is already known, but also, and more importantly, the sense of science that is wonder, persistent curiosity, and careful observation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge all of us face in the next century of forestry is within ourselves. Maybe we have to give up the belief that we can know with any great certainty the effect that the little we do know for certain will have on the system into which it is inserted. The change will be in how we see ourselves as development workers. If we continue to advise as experts, we have removed ourselves from the richness and the excitement of discovery. I know that it has been this way for me. Each contract exposes me to ever greater complexities, and encourages greater willingness to listen.

I don't know what I'm doing. But I'm doing it, one precious day at a time.


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Barraclough, S., and K. B. Ghimire. 1996. Deforestation in Tanzania: beyond simplistic generalizations. Ecologist 26(3):126-135

Brohman, John, and James Brohman. 1996. Popular development: rethinking the theory and practice of development. Blackwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Gadgil, M., and F. Berkes. 1991. Traditional resource management systems. Resource Management and Optimization 8:127-141.

Habermas, J. 1971. Knowledge and human interests. Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Holling, C. S. 1978. Adaptive environmental assessment and management. Wiley, London, UK.

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