Posts Tagged ‘CBNRM’

The importance of choosing the right tool for the job

Duh! I mean obvious or what? Except, as is well known, people equipped with only hammers often see too many problems as solvable purely by use of a hammer. International donor engagement with Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) has long struck me a case in point.

The international donors come armed with their hammer, which is money to support the government in the recipient country. This is primarily what big international donors do. They work often through diplomatic or pseudo-diplomatic channels. Aid should be channelled to the host government; anything else could be construed as meddling in someone else’s country. This is a pretty good hammer for things that the host country government is already good at, e.g. building new schools all over the country: the more money you pour in, the more new schools get built.

CBNRM has been just one of the sexiest concepts in conservation for about 30 years now. Even Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), including REDD, hasn’t fully displaced it, just been added to the mix, since rich folk much prefer to pay those poster children of poverty porn – poor rural communities of farmers – for protecting their local environment than a bunch of shapeless bureaucrats. So plenty of donor investment in conservation in recent decades has focused on CBNRM. Except that, as I pointed out previously, the same government officials who are charged with enforcing local environmental laws do not really make the most sensible agents of change when it comes to facilitating the development of CBNRM projects.

Now along comes a World Bank report critiquing participatory approaches to development. It includes a substantial section on CBNRM, which is certainly pleasing to see. The main conclusion is that the majority of CBNRM projects do not appear very successful; depending on how they interact with existing policies and laws they may even be counter-productive, helping the rich at the expense of the poor. Now I am familiar to some extent with some of the CBNRM projects they are talking about (or citing others talking about), and I noticed one thing in common: they were all classic international donor funded efforts, working through local government.

So yeah, I’m not particularly surprised by Messrs Mansuri and Rao’s findings, but I’m not convinced that it greatly undermines the theory of CBNRM so much as the practice in the context of international development aid. (Which one presumes was very much Mansuri and Rao’s starting point, given their employer, and is supported by their associated blog post. All of which is not to say the report is not worth a read.) Major donors, of course, employ some very bright people, some of whom have come to realise the same thing. Alas, while they would choose to fund us – a small NGO – if they could, the only thing their employer ever gives them is a metaphorical hammer.


Standing on your head

The pioneers of community-based natural resources management framed it firmly within the bottom up approach to development paradigm, and yet donors, recipient governments and the big multi-laterals (and some BINGOs) often find it really difficult to shake the top-down mentality.

“[Community-based fire management] training workshops designed to increase the expertise of practitioners should be conducted at the national and sub-national levels and should be followed up with an adequate level of technical support.”

That is the second practical recommendation made in the Executive Summary (not an obscure bullet point buried in an appendix) of a relatively new guide to community-based fire management (CBFiM) issued by FAO. A whole five pages are devoted later on to a dreary recitation of four such workshops FAO held around the world between 2004 and 2009.

If you wanted to design a big new national programme of CBFiM, which I wouldn’t, then I suppose something along those lines might be an early step, but I would recommend starting with one small workshop and a trial project, before expanding on a province by province basis. More to the point, to assume that is what all readers of that manual want to do strikes me as a spectacular lack of imagination on FAO’s part.

A gem of an oxymoron that appears in the background section declares (my emphasis added):

“Sources of ignition and fuels are local; thus, the systems and frameworks of fire management are often best established at the provincial level, while monitoring and analysis are usually best dealt with at the national level. Yet discussion and debate often take place without reference to the appropriate scale of intervention.”

Quite! It continues:

“To ensure that suppression occurs effectively at the local level, that is, that unwanted and undesirable fires are kept small, everything else in the fire management equation must occur at higher levels, including effective coordination and cooperation of all fire management agencies.”

Putting out the fire in my backyard requires coordination and cooperation of ministry or sub-ministry agencies? I could maybe just about live with this tosh if the report was not supposed to be specifically about community-based fire management. Alas!

Some people, unfortunately, really just do not get bottom up. That’s all right; I don’t really get ballet. Thankfully, this need not greatly concern the world of ballet. If only we could say the same for community-based conservation and development.

Impossible odds?

So opium production in Afghanistan has gone up by 61% in under a year. Development bloggers frequently remind us that Aid cannot solve every problem in development, and that often other factors, such as international trade policies, have effects that massively outweigh the impact of Aid donations, and Western governments’ policy on trade in opiates is particularly strict!

I know next to nothing about the situation in Afghanistan, but the simple economics tells me that Western aid agencies and their law enforcement buddies must have faced the mother of all uphill battles on that front. Maybe here and there they had some small successes – I assume some bright minds got to work and original approaches were adopted – but when farmers stand to make several times as much growing poppies as other crops, you really need some fantastically good ideas and uniformly fantastic implementation in order to succeed on a large scale.

More useful analysis would be better found amongst those with at least a passing familiarity to the situation on the ground. I choose to blog about it, however, because I see smaller echoes of this challenge on a fairly regular basis, and especially in tropical conservation. So much environmental destruction is caused by people who, as a result of poverty, have very little choice. Deforestation is a particular case in point, driven by a remorseless logic of jam today and the tragedy of the commons, people clear the trees today only to die in a landslide tomorrow.

The case for intervention often seems compelling. And yet, to my mind, so often does the case for not intervening. In long-settled, remote rural communities problems can be contained; it’s not easy, but you can at least in theory work out which communities own what or have what stake in different natural resources, and thus devise some system for managing the resources under threat. (So long as the national laws do not hamstring you.) But in frontier ‘pioneer’ communities, or densely populated or peri-urban areas CBNRM just won’t cut it; today’s community simply isn’t the same as tomorrow’s and with massive economic forces right on the doorstep we face near impossible odds to offer better returns than imminent environmental destruction.

In such cases I have a simple rule of thumb: pick only those battles for which you have a good plan of action and a decent chance of winning.

Conservationists have wised up to this fact: hence the stiff opposition to new roads through ‘virgin’ rainforest (or precious savannah). We know that once the road has been built there is very little we can do to prevent expanding deforestation and forest fragmentation along the road’s route, so better to fight the road-building in the first place; the economic forces are more easily countered when they take the form of a few lobbyists than several thousand desperate migrants.

Still, too many other battles, like that against opium production in Afghanistan, seem to be fought in the wrong place or at the wrong time. We don’t necessarily have to resort to hand-wringing, but if the origin of a problem lies outside the capacities of the aid system then we shouldn’t try to fix it with an aid project.

Certification: all things to all men?

IIED’s Sian Lewis has an intriguing piece on Fair Trade over at the Due South blog. My eye was particularly taken by this section:

Other participants shared Justice’s concerns over the infrastructure for fair trade certification. Jorge Chavez-Tafur, from the Centre for learning on sustainable agriculture (ILEIA), asked “Is it true that fair trade standards are so complicated that companies can’t cope?”

It seems the answer is yes. Even from within the movement itself, there were calls to address standards. Merlin Preza, coordinator of Fairtrade Small Producers in Latin America and the Caribbean, said “the problem lies not in meeting standards — of course producers can meet them — the problem is verification”. She explained that poor farmers, who are often illiterate and live in isolated rural areas, often find it very difficult to navigate all the ‘red tape’ involved in registering products and proving where and how products are grown.

“We are asking for simpler — not lower — standards,” said Preza. “They need to be regionally specific because local contexts and cultures can be very different,” she added.

The same problem pertains to forest certification by FSC et al, and I see similar dangers in the emerging standards and safe-guards for REDD+ schemes, especially in the voluntary market. (I’m not familiar with MSC certification of fisheries, but suppose there is likely to be similar issues.)

The dilemma for certifying agencies, I suppose, is that some investigative journalist comes along and exposes some, perhaps relatively small element of a certification supply chain for, say, having dodgy labour practices. The resulting negative publicity could tarnish the entire brand, so the certification standards bodies put in a rule about that.

Unfortunately this is a slippery slope to massive complexity. I’ve seen FSC certification checklists which extend to more than 200 items. Each criterion or sub-criterion on its own is reasonable and generally not too difficult to deliver, but put all together and it becomes immensely challenging. FSC-certified forest managers nearly always have several Corrective Action Requests on the go; failure to improve by the next inspection could see their certificate suspended.

All of this drives up costs. Sian’s post continues:

A bigger problem for fair trade — especially as it goes ‘mainstream’ — is competitiveness. Being able to compete with big business has always been a major challenge for small-scale farmers, who have fewer resources, less bargaining power and limited access to the latest technologies.

Big businesses are taking advantage of a scheme that was originally designed for small-scale producers and now compete with those producers, creating a major problem, said Preza.

This issue is magnified many times over for FSC certification, which was originally devised to reward sustainable management of tropical forests by or involving local communities, but most holders of FSC certificates are big companies, most either based in temperate zones and/or managing plantations not natural forest. Why? Because they have the resources to meet the myriad demands that forest certification makes, and secondly because if you’re running a pine plantation in Europe, you probably already meet 90% of the requirements as otherwise you’d be breaking the law. Conversely, even for big companies managing forest concessions in the tropics I hear that it is marginal as to whether it is profitable to get FSC certification. One could argue that is a market failure, but nonetheless it illustrates the size of the challenge.

So for anyone working on certification type issues, I have one big plea: keep it simple! Decide what are the most important criteria, and focus on them. If you want to add further criteria, then do it on a Bronze, Silver, Gold or similar type ranking (credit therefore to CCBA who’ve taken this approach), with ascending degrees of complexity. I’m all for setting the bar high, but don’t make it ridiculously high (otherwise you’ll limit take up), and don’t go for so many different bars that we lose track of what it is that we basically stand for.

Decentralisation Doubled Over

Community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) is often positioned within the broader development theme of decentralisation, although I think it is as much a marriage of convenience in which two separate strands of thinking (one bottom up, one more top down) were unified. Decentralisation seems mostly to have played out within the development sector – I don’t see much mention of it any more – whereas community-led initiatives are still alive and kicking: testimony to the greater staying power of bottom up thinking.

However, CBNRM is by no means a universal success story. Governments are loathe to give up control of important sources of patronage which includes many natural resources. There is a lot of superficial community engagement which gets official blessing – always good to keep the mob on side – but less genuine negotiation. A particular trap which can be hard to avoid is that the government will make apparently quite reasonable statements about the need to retain some oversight / governmental control, to which it seems unreasonable to object … Until one remembers that one of the main reasons for having this discussion in the first place is the failure of the government hitherto to carry out its responsibilities in a fair, efficient and incorrupt way.

Recently I was discussing with friends from Tanzania the contrasting stories of CBNRM in the wildlife and forestry sectors in that country. Apparently the two systems used: Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and Participatory Forest Management (PFM) are incompatible, which would appear to be a spectacular failure of the donor-supported policy-making process in the late 1990s. Did they never talk to each other?

More to the point, PFM is widely viewed as having been more successful than WMAs. Why? Well one possible explanation is that the central government controls the allocation hunting concessions through a notoriously opaque process. (Hunters are rumoured to be generous donors to the ruling party.) Wildlife is widely perceived as highly valuable, and the government is not keen on giving away to communities a share (25%) of the income they receive. In contrast, forestry has historically been viewed as far less important, and so the government was happy to agree to communities to get up to 100% of the value of timber on their land! More significantly, responsibility for managing the forests had been devolved to district councils during the 1990s decentralisation drive. Thus, while organisations and projects working on WMAs must contend directly with the central government if they are to succeed, a forestry project, when faced with uncooperative district officials, can appeal over their heads to the central government. It’s a tactic with limited impact, but the fact that it exists at all might make the difference in some cases.

What, in effect, has happened is that responsibility for forest management had been devolved twice: once to district councils, and then again to rural communities through PFM. If anyone involved in the Tanzanian forestry policy making process back then had their eyes on this kind of political economy and anticipated such effects then I take my hat off to them; that’s seriously cunning! More likely it is just happy coincidence, but we can learn two important lessons. Firstly, that the political economy is always critical (we’re not supposed to ever forget that, but sometimes it slips), and, secondly, if you’re trying to engineer a similar kind of result in a different context, then setting up future allies within central government like this could pay dividends in the long run.

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