Community Forestry

Community forestry is a method of participatory governance of forests, described by Bina Agarwal, Elizabeth Anderson, and several other scholars.

Problems and Purpose

Community forestry is a method of participatory governance of forests, in which members of a community have a role in deciding issues such as the rules for accessing the forest and the use of forest products, and often in the day-to-day management of the forest (Agarwal, 2000, 2001; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009). Community forestry is often referred to by other names, such as "community forestry groups" (Agarwal, 2000, p. 284 ; Anderson, 2006, p. 17), “participatory forest management”, “community-based forestry”, “community-based forest management”, “adaptive collaborative management”, and “joint forest management” (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 158, note 2). Community forestry is at times characterized as a forest-specific instance of a broader method called community-based ecosystem management (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005; Gray, Enzer, & Kusel, 2001; Gray, Fisher, & Jungwirth, 2001) or Ecosystem-based Management

Researchers have identified at least two main problems that community forestry aims to address: the degradation of forests, and the perception that members of local forest communities lacked a meaningful role in the governance of those forests (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009). The main goals of community forestry include involving members of local communities in the management of local forests, in order to improve the sustainability of the forests (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005). Additional goals include enabling members of local communities to meet their basic needs, reducing social conflict, facilitating "community learning," fostering "public dialogue about ... natural resources" more generally ( Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005, pp. 62-63), and spurring local economic growth (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009). 

Origins and Development

The most recent wave of community-forestry projects seems to have begun in the 1980s, and was spurred partly by grassroots efforts, partly by governments, and partly by national or global foundations or nonprofit organizations. In parts of Asia and Africa, community forestry was initiated by government policies, such as joint forest management programs in Tanzania and India (Agarwal, 2001; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009), and "Nepal's community forestry program" which encouraged the formation of "forest user groups" (Agarwal, 2001, p. 1625). In Asia, Africa, and the United States, national or international nonprofit organizations and foundations -- such as the Ford Foundation, CARE, and Farm Africa -- initiated a number of community forestry projects. These included Ford's "Community-Based Forestry Demonstration Program (CBFDP)" in the U.S., the "Action Research into Poverty Impacts of Participatory Forest Management (ARPIP) project," in which Ford cooperated with "CARE .... and national partners ... in Kenya, Tanzania and Nepal" (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 159; Maharjan et al., 2009), and the Participatory Forest Management program in Ethiopia organized by Farm Africa and a local nonprofit organization (Lemenih, Allan, & Biot, 2015). Further, some community-forestry projects in several nations arose from grassroots efforts of citizens and local nonprofits (Agarwal, 2001; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009). In addition, in some nations, recent community-forestry efforts have built on pre-existing forms of participatory forestry, such as van panchayats introduced in parts of India during the colonial period (Agarwal, 2001, p. 1625). 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Methods of participant selection seem to vary among community forestry projects. Although in many projects the method seems to be self-selection with all community members welcome, some programs restrict membership in various ways. For example, in parts of India laws or policies restrict participation in some community-forestry groups to one or two household members, which substantially limits participation by women (Agarwal, 2000, 2001). In addition, some community-forestry groups are organized in two tiers, with a lower tier featuring more open participant selection and an upper tier or "executive committee" chosen by a more restrictive method, such as election (Agarwal, 2000, pp. 285-286).

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

Patterns of deliberation, decision making, and public interaction also vary considerably among community-forestry projects. In some groups facilitators aim to enable inclusive discussion that seeks to integrate multiple perspectives on issues, both in policy making and in monitoring of implemented policies (Bliss et al., 2001; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009; Moote et al., 2001). In the monitoring activities of some projects, local community members are encouraged to participate in the evaluation of implemented policies, and their contributions inform reforms to policies in a cycle of adaptive decision making and management (Bliss et al., 2001; Hartanto, Lorenzo, & Frio, 2002; Lawrence et al., 2006; Lawrence, 2007). Reports indicate that local norms play a substantial role in patterns of deliberation and decision making in some community-forestry groups. For example, in India and Nepal women are often marginalized from discussions and decision making in community-forestry groups, by means of sex-segregated seating, hostility toward women participants, and denigration or disregard of women's comments (Agarwal, 2000, 2001).

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The consequences of community-forestry have been mixed. Positive effects identified by McDermott and Schreckenberg (2009, p. 166 unless otherwise noted) include:

  • “restoration of forest health” (also noted by Agarwal, 2001, p. 1636)
  • Improved “ecosystem services” of forests
  • “inclusive new social fora" (also noted by Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005, p. 63)
  • “the representation of marginalised groups"
  • “improved local governance”
  • “improved … community capacity", including voice and “decision-making power or influence" (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 160)
  •  improvements in participants’ “skills, knowledge and health” and “social capital” (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 164) 
  • “reduction of conflict”
  • “collaborative relationships with government agencies and other external groups” 
  • improved “community infrastructure and government services”
  • greater economic development (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 163)
  •  desirable regional or national policy reforms (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 168). 

The following additional desirable consequences of community forestry have been reported:

  • greater access to forest resources (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005, p. 63) 
  •  better forest management due to consideration of citizens’ local knowledge in policy development and implementation (Agarwal, 2000, 2001; Anderson, 2006) 
  • job creation, and, in some instances, higher incomes (Agarwal, 2001, p. 1636; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 164) 
  • reduced outmigration from forest areas (Agarwal, 2001, p. 1636; Chopra & Gulati, 1997).

Researchers have also noted the following qualifications or deleterious effects of community forestry:

  • Measuring the effects of community forestry is often difficult because many effects take the form of “non-market exchange interactions", at times multiple community forestry efforts operate in a single community and interact with each other, many projects have quite long time-frames, most studies of community forestry use only qualitative methods, and reports of quantitative data often concern inputs only, and no outputs (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005, pp. 64-65)
  • Validating reported results of many community-forestry projects is difficult because of "[in]sufficient reporting practices and the lack of replicability of project designs" (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005, p. 65)  
  • Low-income members of forest communities "may be made worse off" by community-forestry projects (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 161), but those members' likelihood of benefiting from community-forest projects increases to the extent that they have proportional membership in the project’s decision-making groups (Maharjan et al., 2009; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 162)
  • Community-forestry projects may increase inequality (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005, p. 66; McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 163)
  • “Community forestry is often better at improving conditions for poor communities as a whole than for the poorest within communities” (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 158) 
  • Community-forestry projects often create "positive change at community and higher levels, rather than by delivering benefits directly to poor and marginalised households” (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 157) 
  • Many community-forestry projects show little or no direct economic benefits to the local community (Glasmeier & Farrigan, 2005, p. 64)
  • Many community-forestry groups "fail[] to take off" or are "unable to sustain their gains" (Agarwal, 2001, p. 1636)
  • Violations of forest rules and ineffective rule enforcement are common (Agarwal, 2000, 2001)
  • Some community-forestry rules have been criticized for being unfair, illegitimate, inefficient, or too restrictive (Agarwal, 2000, 2001)
  • Women and individuals from marginalized groups are often excluded from community-forestry projects ( Agarwal, 2000, 2001), although the formation of informal and formal women-only groups has helped to increase the inclusion of women in some areas (Agarwal, 2000, p. 289; Agarwal, 2001, p. 1644). 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Community-forestry projects seem more likely to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality in a community when improving the conditions of poor and marginalized community members is an explicit project goal from the outset (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, pp. 162, 168), and when those members have substantial representation in the project’s decision-making groups (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 168).

Desirable outcomes of community-forestry projects are more likely to materialize when the project is facilitated by an effective external project-management organization (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 165) or an equivalent entity (such as “a knowledgeable and politically astute internal champion …and/or collaborative learning group”), in part because community-forestry projects often involve considerable institutional and social complexity (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 168).

The success of community-forestry projects generally requires “the commitment of adequate [government] resources” (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 166), and often requires other actions or policy changes by government agencies that vary from setting to setting (McDermott & Schreckenberg, 2009, p. 166). 

See Also


Agarwal, B. (2000). Conceptualising environmental collective action: Why gender matters. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 24, 283-310. doi:10.1093/cje/24.3.283 

Agarwal, B. (2001). Participatory exclusions, community forestry, and gender: An analysis for South Asia and a conceptual framework. World Development, 29, 1623-1648. doi:10.1016/S0305-750X(01)00066-3 

Agarwal, B. (2015). The power of numbers in gender dynamics: Illustrations from community forestry groups. Journal of Peasant Studies, 42, 1-20. doi:10.1080/03066150.2014.936007 

Anderson, E. (2006). The epistemology of democracy. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, 3(1-2), 8-22. doi:10.1353/epi.0.0000 

Chopra, K., & Gulati, S. C. (1997). Environmental degradation and population movements: The role of property rights. Environmental and Resource Economics, 9, 383-408. doi:10.1023/A:1026455024293 

Glasmeier, A. K., & Farrigan, T. (2005). Understanding community forestry: A qualitative meta-study of the concept, the process, and its potential for poverty alleviation in the United States case. Geographical Journal, 171, 56-69. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4959.2005.00149.x 

Gray, G. J., Enzer, M. J., & Kusel, J. (2001). Understanding community-based forest ecosystem management: An editorial synthesis. Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 12(3/4), 1-23. doi:10.1300/J091v12n03_01 

Gray, G. J., Fisher, L., & Jungwirth, L. (2001). An introduction to community-based ecosystem management. Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 12(3/4), 25-34. doi:10.1300/J091v12n03_02 

Hartanto, H., Lorenzo, M. C. B., & Frio, A. L. (2002). Collective action and learning in developing a local monitoring system. International Forestry Review, 4, 184-195. doi:10.1505/IFOR. 

Lawrence, A. (2007). Beyond the second generation: Towards adaptiveness in participatory forest management. CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2(028), 1-15. doi:10.1079/PAVSNNR20072028 

Lawrence, A., Paudel, K., Barnes, R., & Malla, Y. (2006). Adaptive value of participatory biodiversity monitoring in community forestry. Environmental Conservation, 33, 325-334. doi:10.1017/S0376892906003432 

Lemenih, M., Allan, C., & Biot, Y. (2015). Making forest conservation benefit local communities: Participatory forest management in Ethiopia. London, UK: Farm Africa. Retrieved from 

Maharjan, M. R., Dhakal, T. R., Thapa, S. K., Schreckenberg, K., & Luttrell, C. (2009). Improving the benefits of the poor from community forestry in the Churia region of Nepal. International Forestry Review, 11, 254-267.doi:10.1505/ifor.11.2.254 

McDermott, M. H., & Schreckenberg, K. (2009). Equity in community forestry: Insights from north and south. International Forestry Review, 11, 157-170. doi:10.1505/ifor.11.2.157 

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