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Michael Ochieng Odhiambo,
Centre for Environment Policy and Law in Africa (CEPLA) Nakuru, Kenya

Paper Prepared for: E-Mail Conference `Addressing Natural Resource Conflicts Through Community Forestry' January - March, 1996


This paper outlines the situations of natural resource conflicts in the four Eastern African countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, and discusses how community forestry can assist in the resolution of the conflicts. In the four countries, we have identified the major situations and causes of natural resource conflicts, traced their evolution over time, and suggested policy and legal options for their resolution. We have considered the relevance of community forestry in assisting to manage and resolve conflicts in natural resources in this region.

The paper identifies the intervention of the colonial experience as a major turning point in the resource management situation in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and the overthrow of the monarchy and the installation of a Marxist-Leninist regime as the equivalent in Ethiopia. The two historical conditions introduced new resource management paradigms which brought into play forces and circumstances that left a lasting impact on resource use in these countries. These management systems introduced elements which were not compatible with traditional resource management systems previously in place in these countries.

The paper suggests that the management of resource conflicts in Eastern Africa primarily involves questions of governance, which have to be addressed at the macro-level. We recognise the opportunities created by the ongoing democratisation process in the four countries, but suggest further that any reforms in this area must seek to integrate traditional systems and institutions of resource management in order to be sustainable.

The paper concludes by presenting questions to be considered in the course of the conference. We believe that by answering these questions, the conference will contribute to addressing resource conflicts in this region.



Acronyms and Abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. The Context

3. Natural Resource Conflicts in Eastern Africa

3.1 The Political Basis of Natural Resource Conflicts

3.2 The Legal Basis of Natural Resource Conflicts

3.3 Economic Factors in Natural Resource Conflicts

3.3.1 Water

3.3.2 Forests

3.3.3 Socio-Cultural Dimension of Natural Resource conflicts

4. Community Forestry and Natural Resource Conflicts

5. The Way Forward in Eastern Africa

6. Conclusion

Select Bibliography



Electronic mail


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Forest Trees and People Programme


International Monetary Fund


Kenya African National Union


Kenya Peoples Union


National Environment Action Plan


Structural Adjustment Programmes


Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Forum


United Nations Development Programme


In conjunction with FAO/UNDP's SARD-FORUM, the Community Forestry Unit of the FAO will be holding an e-mail conference on the theme, Addressing Natural Resource Conflicts through Community Forestry', during the period January through April 1996. The aim of the conference is, inter alias to bring together information on natural resource conflicts relevant to community forestry around the world, and make it available to interested persons globally, thereby providing a forum for people and institutions involved in community forestry to exchange ideas and learn from each other. The conference will also seek to identify approaches, methods and tools for the effective handling of conflict situations within community forestry specifically and in natural resource management generally.

Participation in the e-mail conference is being arranged through the FTPP(1) global network, the Eastern Africa component of which comprises Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. This paper outlines the problem of natural resources conflict within the framework of community forestry in Eastern Africa, to highlight major causes and situations of natural resource conflicts, and presents major questions that require further elaboration in the context of the e-mail conference.


Each of the countries that comprise the FTPP Eastern Africa region, has had a political history with significant implications for natural resource management. Indeed, natural resource issues have been central to the history of the countries discussed here. Some of the situations arising from this history have to a large extent engendered conflicts that are relevant to community forestry.

Ethiopia is the oldest independent state of Africa, and was ruled by a long line of monarchs until September 1974, when the last emperor(2) was overthrown in a military coup. During the rule of the emperor, there were very serious disparities in landownership and access. Aristocrats and the church owned most of the farmland, and most farmers were tenants of these aristocrats. The farmers provided as much as fifty percent of their produce as rent to the aristocracy. Following the collapse of the monarchy(3) and the institution of a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist government in Ethiopia, this resource management regime(4) was disbanded and all land nationalised. This was celebrated by a large number of people who had been rendered landless during the reign of the monarchs. With the collapse of the monarchy, institutional arrangements and controls that had been in place for resource management also collapsed. An elaborate land reform programme was put in place by the Marxist-Leninist government. The objective of the programme was to rectify inequitable distribution of land during the rule of the emperor. Yet, while the land reform programme destroyed the feudal order, changed landowning patterns, particularly in the south, in favour of. peasants and small landowners, and provided an opportunity for peasants to participate in local matters through peasant associations, it was not without its own conflict engendering potentials.

In Ethiopia, the institutional arrangements introduced during the reform period were new and not based on traditional authority. The Marxist-Leninist ideological basis of devolving decision-making powers to local level institutions it created was also new and foreign to the people. As a result, there was a fair degree of resistance to the composition and nature of these institutions from those who had traditionally held positions of authority in the old regime, and those whose privileges were thereby abolished.

When ultimately the Mengistu regime collapsed, the natural resource management situation, though markedly different from what it had been during the feudal era, was nevertheless wrought with potential for conflict. The collapse of the Mengistu regime marked the end of a long and bitter civil war that had ravaged the country. As the government collapsed, institutions it had set up to administer natural resources also collapsed without any immediate replacement. Due to the high-handed manner in which these institutions had been introduced into the society, the citizens looked upon their collapse as a matter for celebration. The resources from which the institutions had kept the people were now viewed as freely available for uncontrolled appropriation and exploitation, leading to serious encroachment on forests. The immediate consequence of this collapse was a heightening of those conflicts that already existed within the society over access to and control of natural resources.

Tanganyika(5) was a German colony(6), but at the end of the first world war, under the Versailles Treaty of 1919, it became a Mandate territory under the League of Nations and was assigned to Britain. At the end of the second world war it became a Trust territory under the United Nations, and the British continued to administer it. Uganda and Kenya on the other hand, remained under the colonial administration of the British until they attained political independence in the 1960s. The colonial experiences of the three countries had significant implications for natural resource management, although as shall be seen hereafter, these experiences and their consequences were country specific. Even between Uganda and Kenya, which were colonised by the same imperial power, significant differences emerged with respect to resource management arrangements.

The most significant attribute of the colonial administration of Tanzania, as regards natural resource management, was that the British did not rule directly, but indirectly using native administrative structures. In Kenya, however, they were involved directly in the running of the country. As a result, traditional resource management systems and institutions in Tanzania remained more or less intact throughout the colonial period. This is why, for instance, customary land tenure still prevails at the de facto level, if not de jure, in most of rural Tanzania. No major tenurial reforms were undertaken either by the Germans or the British(7). It was, in fact, the independence government that ultimately, following the Arusha Declaration, implemented policy changes with implications for traditional resource management systems and institutions. These, however, did not significantly change the resource tenure system.

Through the Arusha Declaration, the TANU(8) government committed itself to the `ujamaa' villagisation programme, under which land and other key sectors of the economy were nationalised. The government sought to improve rural conditions by creating cooperative villages and abolishing many forms of private ownership. Under the programme, up to 80% of the population of Tanzania was settled in `ujamaa' villages all over the country. These villages were run by party organs, replacing traditional resource management systems and institutions. The programme and its institutional framework derived their legitimacy, not from the traditions and customs of the people, but from the legislative and policy actions of the central government in Dar-es-salaam. Again, these interventions only served to fuel conflicts that existed within the communities relative to natural resources.

In Uganda, one very significant factor that affected the cowry's colonial experience was the existence of powerful and well organised kingdoms at the commencement of the colonial period. These kingdoms had elaborate resource management rules and systems in place, which the British were forced to recognise and work with. As a result, there was very little interference by the British with the property rules and institutions within the kingdoms. For instance, tenure rules stayed in tact within the kingdoms. The colonial government was content with, for the most part, exercising control over land that had been set aside for it either by treaty or by conquest.

The post-independence experience of Uganda is, however, unique by virtue of the traumatic rule of the military regime of dictator Idi Amin, followed by various shortlived governments until 1986 when the current regime of Yoweri Museveni swept into power. This long period of military rule had significant negative implications for the institutional mechanisms for natural resource management while, at the same time, providing an opportunity for community-based management systems to prosper. On the one hand, the absence of effective government over vast areas of Uganda during the 15 years from 1971 to the mid 1980s resulted in large-scale invasion of forests and other natural reserves that had been set aside by the government. Forests were a major victim of this institutional breakdown as forest reserves were invaded for timber, mining and settlement. On the other hand, this institutional breakdown also gave impetus to community-based resource management systems. As government was unable to function in the villages, traditional resource management institutions provided the only mechanism for resource allocation and monitoring. Thus the traditional systems and institutions of resource management, which had been rendered dormant for a long period by government interventions, were revived. Now, as Uganda launches an institutional policy and legal framework for sustainable resource management, these traditional systems and institutions are making a significant contribution, although they have been given form within the framework of more formalised Resistance Councils(9).

While Kenya has had a political history similar in many respects to Tanzania, but its resource management situation has been markedly unique in Eastern Africa. Apart from the very significant policy and legal interventions introduced by the colonial administration, the country's history during independence has been dominated by resource related issues(10). Although the country has had its fair share of political upheavals over the last three decades, Kenya has been ruled throughout this period by a civilian government led by KANU(11). KANU has consistently pursued a free market policy tempered with a measure of state controls. These controls are being progressively relaxed as a result of liberalisation through structural adjustment programmes (SAPS). Yet this is not to say that there have been no natural resource management conflicts in Kenya. In fact, Kenya's resource management conflicts have been caused by the country's free market policies. The policy and legislative framework that was put in place by the colonial government has survived with a few changes over the past three decades since political independence. Interestingly, while at independence large parts of the country were set aside as trust lands to be administered by local authorities for the benefit of local peoples, in recent years these lands have been progressively allocated to individuals thereby changing communal tenure into private land tenure. Group titles have been subdivided to create private titles. As we shall presently show, this drive towards privatisation is one of the foremost sources of conflict in natural resource management.


Conflict has been acknowledged as an integral part of the process of human interaction(12). With respect to natural resources, conflict is bound to arise from competing demands placed on resources by different claimants. Even within a cohesive community of people, conflict may arise over resources as population increases causing demand to exceed supply. Moreover, in Eastern Africa, with its diversity of tribes each with its own culture, a major source of conflict is the ethnic diversity of resource users, which has implications for resource demands.

As society evolves, the nature and intensity of resource conflicts also changes. This means that in societies that are rapidly changing, as in Eastern Africa, it is not possible to create a conclusive list of resource conflict situations. However, there are, no doubt, outstanding resource conflict situations that are common to the Eastern Africa region. These we have identified by their major causes as follows:

1. Political Factors

2. Legal Factors

3. Economic Factors

4. Socio-cultural Factors

3.1 The Political Basis of Natural Resource Conflicts

Politics determines the locus, structure and function of power in a society, each with serious implications for access to natural resources within the society. In Eastern Africa, politics plays a very significant role in the allocation of natural resources and is therefore a major cause of natural resource conflicts.

Except for Ethiopia, all the other three countries were colonised until the early 1960s. The British in Kenya and Uganda, and the Germans in what was then Tanganyika(13), created authoritarian systems of government that survived by traumatising the native populations. The colonial administrations trampled upon native structures and systems of governance, uprooted and resettled whole populations from their natural habitats and interfered with the organisation of native society. They justified their actions with the pretext that they were bringing the benefits of modern government, economics, and culture to Africa. The degree to which the colonial powers interfered with traditional structures of governance depended, to a large extent, on the degree of organization that existed in the colony at the commencement of the colonial experience. That is why the impact of the colonial experience differs from one country to the next, even where the colonial power was the same. In the long run however, it became clear that one of the most important objectives of colonialism was the exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of the colonial powers. The political structures established by the colonialists were meant to ensure the disempowerment of native peoples. This paved the way for the colonialists to acquire unhindered access to the natural resources of the colonies.

It is important to note, in this connection, that native peoples' quest for access to natural resources triggered the process of decolonisation. In all the three former colonies, Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, the marginalisation of the people from their main resources was a major catalyst for the agitation for political independence. The desire to reclaim the control of natural resources from the colonialists was the basis for the struggle for political liberation. This is the case even in Ethiopia, where there was no colonial government to dislodge(14). The royal family and its supporters were denying the majority of the population their rightful share of the country's natural resources. This justified the overthrow of the monarchy.

When the three East African countries that had been under colonial rule attained political independence in the early 1960s, they inherited political structures with specific resource management orientations. Of the three countries, Kenya had experienced the most far-reaching resource management intervention during the colonial era. An elaborate land titling programme had been set in place in the 1950s and through it, customary land tenure systems were converted private titles in large parts of the country(15). The property regime under the titling scheme exacerbated existing conflict situations. Although Uganda and Tanzania had comparatively less intervention in their resource management systems during the colonial era, political independence in the two countries created situations for resource conflict, as expectations were raised among the African communities.

During the seventies and early eighties, Kenya and Tanzania became single party states, while Ethiopia and Uganda became military dictatorships. These developments had serious implications for the resource management systems in the respective countries.

In Kenya, the creation of a single party state was accompanied by a progressive emasculation of institutions of civil society which had blossomed in the run up to political independence. In Tanzania on the other hand, the single party state does not appear to have had any negative impact on the process of political mobilisation that had started with the Arusha Declaration. Thus, while the same process in Kenya led to a weaker level of political consciousness among the people, in Tanzania it created an enviable mass political consciousness, that remains to date the foremost achievement of the Nyerere era.

The major difference between the two military regimes lay in the fact that the Ethiopian regime had a strong Marxist-Leninist ideological orientation, while the Amin regime in Uganda was a military dictatorship par excellence. Accordingly, the Ethiopian regime sought to mobilise the population in accordance with its revolutionary leanings. Whereas, the Ugandan regime dismantled organisations of civil society, centralising all power on the military establishment. Either way, these actions had an impact on the resource management systems.

The political dimension of natural resource conflicts in Eastern Africa is most clearly manifested in the distribution of power between the central governments and the local level community-based institutions. The political systems described above have tended to concentrate political power at the centre, denying the legitimacy of local level decision-making. Even where there have been attempts at decentralisation, there has been no substantial expansion of social liberties. Consequently, these efforts amount to no more than the decentralisation of executive authority. Thus, powers and agencies external to communities exercise resource management decision-making without regard to local interests and priorities. One consequence of this centralisation of political power, evident all over Eastern Africa, is the marginalisation of pastoral communities, from the Karamoja in Uganda to the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya. These pastoral communities have not always been central players in the political process, and have suffered significantly as a result(16).

It is noted however that recent political changes resulting from the democratisation process that has swept across the region and the continent, have brought new opportunities for the empowerment of civil society. Community-based associations are being reactivated all over the region, with a commitment to empowering the local communities to participate effectively in the decision-making process relative to their governance. Though they are not strictly speaking resource management associations, these community-based civil organisations are bound to get involved in resource management issues at the local level.

These opportunities are however, double-edged; they bring solutions, but are also a source of new conflicts. For example, the demands of resource management associations sufficiently emboldened to request the devolution of authority and decision-making powers from the centre to the local levels are in themselves a source of conflict. Moreover, at the local level, these dynamics of empowerment are bringing to the open conflicts that were for a long time contained by the strong authorities of the central governments. In both Tanzania and Kenya, this is most notable in Maasai areas where major conflicts have recently been reported.

3.2. The Legal Basis of Natural Resource Conflicts

Throughout the colonial period in Eastern Africa, law played an important function in the legitimisation of policy imperatives. This was particularly so with respect to land acquisition. The British were particularly adept at this, and in Kenya under British rule, a whole series of land laws were passed to justify the expropriation of the best parcels of land from the natives. The wholesale forcible removal of entire populations from their native lands and the grant of these fertile lands to the colonists was carried out without any form of compensation(17).

The colonial system created a legislative framework founded on the presumption that the law of the colonial power was superior to the native customs and traditions that governed access and allocation of property and property rights. This created an enduring conflict in natural resource management in Eastern Africa. The conflict was borne out of the simultaneous operation of two different legal systems, one based on Western European perceptions of property and the other based on traditional African perceptions(18). The colonialists sought to impose their systems and institutions on the Africans, and for this purpose created an elaborate legal and policy framework. At the same time they sought, again through policy and law, to extinguish all native forms of resource management institutions and systems. Even where the colonial administration did not interfere with traditional resource management systems, as in certain parts of Tanzania and Uganda, there was, nevertheless, a tacit policy commitment to changing traditional resource tenure to bring it closer to what the colonial administrators were comfortable with.

While the legal systems and institutions introduced during the colonial era have become formal structures governing resource management in most of Eastern Africa, their traditional counterparts continue to operate both formally and informally. In Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, recognition is given to customary law in the statute books, although in practice the governments and the courts have tended to ignore the customary laws and to institutionalise the imported law. This is virtually inevitable given the limitations on the applicability of customary law(19). There appears to be a tacit understanding at the formal governmental levels, in all the three former colonies, that the evolution of these societies is from traditional systems to imported, formalised systems. So, even where customary laws are applied, this is done as a temporary measure pending the adoption of statutory systems. Ethiopia is an exception in this regard given its long history as an independent state, although it also has its own situations of resource conflict.

Nevertheless, in most of rural Eastern Africa, the vast majority of people continue to relate with each other and with their natural resource base on the basis of customary laws and norms. Access to natural resources in these rural areas is governed by customary rules applied by traditional institutions, even though the statute books provide a different basis for such rights founded on the regime of property laws that were imposed by the colonial system. This legal environment creates an abiding conflict situation that is both institutional and systemic. The customary legal arrangement has its own institutional resource management framework that allocates resources, settles disputes when they occur, exacts penalties and inflicts punishment on offenders, and otherwise governs the resource use. It is a framework that is not necessarily within the formal statutory system, and which, in certain instances, is informed by ideals that are contradictory to ideals that are the basis of the formal system. The traditional framework derives its legitimacy not from the policy and legislative actions of the governments, but from the customary norms of traditional society. The sanctions applied within this framework are equally legitimated not by the formal structures of government but by the same customary norms and beliefs. Given the political systems discussed above, these legitimisation processes that exist outside the formal policy and legal framework are bound to be a source of serious conflicts.

The most serious conflict situation borne out of the legal problems discussed here relate to the issue of tenure. Land and resource tenure systems espoused by the formal policy and legal framework, are ones founded on Western perceptions of property, in which ownership and control vests on an individual person or institution to the exclusion of all other claimants. The hallmark of this tenure system is the individualised private title that bestows absolute ownership with the right to exclude others. The individualised tenure system came into existence in Western Europe at a certain stage in the evolution of the capitalist economic system. By the time colonialism commenced in Africa, the Europeans recognised this as the best form of tenure, arguing that it was conducive to the most productive exploitation of natural resources. Traditional tenure systems on the other hand, vested the control of land upon the community rather than the individual. There was no concept of land ownership in the sense of excluding all other claimants. Rather, there were strict rules of access and use of land that ensured that all persons had access to land in accordance with their needs, whether for settlement, farming or pasture. Once a piece of land was allocated to the individual or family, and so long as the allocated remained in effective occupation and use of it, they retained the exclusive control and right to the land and its produce. However, the moment the land was vacated or left idle, control over it reverted to the community and it became part of what was available for allocation to other members of the community.

This communal tenure system did not make much sense to the colonial administrators who had been schooled in the primacy of private property. They considered it a free access system in which nobody was concerned to safeguard the resource, since nobody really owned it. They argued that the system encouraged unsustainable exploitation of the resource as every person sought to maximise the benefits they derived from it. Thus throughout the colonial period, the colonists and the colonial administrations sought to replace the traditional tenure systems with the tenure system they were most familiar with.

Hardin captured the Western perception of traditional resource tenure in the expression tragedy of their commons(20). Closer analysis has shown however, that the Western characterisation of communal tenure was wrong. It is now increasingly appreciated that communal tenure is equitable and sustainable. Nevertheless, the conflicts in resource management that result from the original misapprehension still abound in Eastern Africa. Moreover, the appropriateness of communal resource tenure is not as yet universally accepted. Privatisation of title continues to be the cornerstone of policy formulations by the governments of Eastern Africa, especially as part of the process of liberalisation of the economies within the framework of the World Bank and IMF supervised SAPs. Little regard is given to the factors that informed the institution of communal tenure, especially in pastoral and other marginal areas.

3.3. Economic Factors in Natural Resource Conflicts

The economic factor addresses the diversity of demands that are made on natural resources by different sectors of society according to their major needs. All the countries of Eastern Africa are endowed with a wealth of natural resources and little industrial capability. This means that the natural resource base remains the most significant source of wealth for these countries and their peoples. The governments of Eastern Africa look to these resources as the capital upon which the development process depends. The private sector also seeks to exploit the same natural resource base to create wealth and profits. Yet the same resources comprise the homes and the basis of livelihoods for the vast majority of the rural people in Eastern Africa.

While it may not be possible to set out all natural resource conflict situations borne out of economic factors, the following shall serve as illustrations, by sector, of the conflicts of this nature prevalent in this region.

3.3.1. Water

Water is a major natural resource in Eastern Africa. The Nile, Lake Victoria, the Indian Ocean, and a host of rivers and lakes provide a steady supply of this resource in the area. Conflict situations relative to water arise because of competing demands for the resource by different persons and sectors of the economy. Apart from domestic or household use, water is important for the provision of hydroelectric power, for industrial and domestic effluent treatment, for transportation, and as a source of fish and other aquatic life used and traded as food.

The realisation of these competing demands create competition and therefore conflicts between the various claimants. Such conflicts arise both within and across sectors. For example, government funded hydroelectric power projects and irrigation schemes may affect the flow of water and the availability of fish thereby impacting on the sources of food, trade and livelihood for local peoples. Elsewhere an industrialist discharging toxic effluent into the lake may thereby adversely affect the fish life which another industrialist uses as raw materials in a fish processing plant.

3.3.2. Forests

Forests are an important natural resource that have a bearing on the livelihoods of millions of people across Eastern Africa. Timber, fuelwood, medicinal herbs, biodiversity, wildlife habitats, carbon sinks and a host of other products and services are provided by forests. This diversity of what forest offer to humanity is the basis of the conflicts prevalent in forest resources management.

In Eastern Africa, we perceive the main conflicts over forest resources to be at two levels. The first level is one of conflict between national interest and local community interest. The national interest is represented by the central governments usually through the agency of the forest departments. The national governments view forests as national resources which have to be used for the benefit of the entire nation within the framework of the national developments agenda. Thus, if industrialisation is a priority issue at the national level, then the national governments will order the clearance of entire forests to give way to the establishment of industries. The local community interest, on the other hand, is served by the sustainable management of tree and forest resources for the benefit of local communities and the resources. The clearance of forests to promote industrialisation does not serve the local interests. On the contrary, it disrupts the lifestyles of the communities, uproots them from their natural environment and results often times in the loss of their collective identities.

The second level of conflict over forest resources pits the profit propelled interests of business against the subsistence interests of local communities. Multinational, national and local trading companies see forests as sources of raw materials to be extracted in large quantities for purposes of industrialisation and trade. In this they are often supported by government policies that seek to promote industrialisation and international trade. This runs counter to the interests of local communities for whom forests and forest resources are a basis for subsistence.

In both the conflict situations discussed above, the community interest is threatened by an external interest. However, it is not suggested that at the level of the local community there are no conflicts. In fact, even at the subsistence level there are different demands made on different resources by different users which translate into conflict. What differs is the intensity of the conflicts and their implications for sustainable resource management. Infra-communal conflicts tend to be less intense than conflicts that pit the community against external forces. In fact infra-community conflicts rarely threaten the sustainability of the ecosystem. They are conflicts with which these communities have lived for generations and in respect of which they have created mechanisms for management.

Even within the government sector, there are conflicts related to forestry resources. While the ministry of environment and natural resources seeks to conserve the natural resources based within the forests for their innate value, the ministry of tourism and wildlife would require them as wildlife conservation habitats. The ministry of industry looks at the forests as potential industrial sites, and are quite pleased to have the same excised off and allocated to industrialists. These conflicts at the government level have become more pronounced with the onset of economic liberalisation, as governments compete to attract private sector investments. In both Uganda and Kenya forest lands have been excised and allocated to individuals and companies for the establishment of industries and for settlement. When these excisions are done, little or no regard is had to the communities that live within the vicinity of these forests whose livelihoods depend on the sustainable management of these forests, and who are the major custodians of these forests and forest resources.

3.4 Socio-Cultural Dimension of Natural Resource Conflicts

A number of factors discussed above have a socio-cultural dimension, and we need not refer to them any further. However, one of the greatest causes of natural resource conflicts in Eastern Africa is the impact of radical socio-cultural changes that the traditional society has undergone and continues to undergo.

The traditional mechanisms for containing resource conflicts are collapsing as are the external conflict management mechanisms that were in place. An illustration is the loss of authority of elders, which is a direct consequence of the institution of state-controlled government mechanisms. The authority of elders was the basis of conflict management system within traditional societies. This authority is progressively being eroded as elders councils and tribunals are replaced by government-appointed agencies and functionaries. Yet these functionaries, who qualify for these appointments on the basis of considerations that are totally at variance with what constituted qualifications for leadership in traditional society, cannot effectively replace elders. Their authority does not derive from the traditional system, and they are lacking in the indigenous knowledge that made the elders so appropriate to the task.

Urbanisation has also brought radical changes within African traditional society that have implications for natural resource conflict and has affected the capacity of traditional systems and institutions to cope with the conflicts. Urbanisation results in the migration of large numbers of people from the rural areas to the urban centres. Most of these are young people in search of better opportunities. Once they move in to towns they come under the influence of diverse cultures. The traditional structures of authority no longer apply to them, and even when they return to the country-side whether on visits or permanently, they do not ascribe to the authority of the elders. They begin to question some of the tenets of traditional society including, those that govern property relations, thereby creating new situations of conflict.

Another source of resource conflict in Eastern Africa that may be considered under this category is population pressure. One impact of the development process all over Eastern Africa, is the relative improvement of the health of the people. This has resulted in a major reduction of infant mortality rates in the respective countries, and in longer life spans for the adult populations. Agricultural land has become insufficient. As a result large numbers of people move from the agricultural areas into what were hitherto pastoral and forest lands. This has created serious conflict situations both between pastoralists and farmers, between pastoralists and the governments, and between the pastoral communities themselves.

All these socio-cultural factors that create conflict situations relative to resource management can be put together under the rubric of the impact of the development process on the culture and lifestyle of the African people. But this is development perceived in terms that are Western. It is modernisation rather than development. The challenge to research and policy in this area is to create tools and methodologies that will incorporate the values inherent in the traditional natural resource management mechanisms into the existing macro level policy framework.


Community forestry is informed by an appreciation of the potential that exists in indigenous knowledge systems and institutions for the sustainable management of natural resources. It therefore involves the empowerment of resource users so that their views are taken into account in the formulation of policies for the management of forests and forest resources. It also entails a bottom-top approach by which policy makers and implementers accept to learn from the experiences and wisdom of the communities. It is this potential for empowerment that gives community forestry a role in addressing natural resource conflicts which result from disempowerment of resource users and ignorance of their wisdom and knowledge systems. This also involves the devolution of power to the community level, which has implications for the political, legal, economic and socio-cultural factors discussed above.

At the political level, community forestry seeks to strengthen institutions and systems of governance at the local level. This, in the context of Eastern Africa, involves the reestablishment of village level authorities. These authorities will not necessarily be of the same character and composition as the traditional systems that existed in the past. Present day realities will determine the character and composition of the new community-based resource management institutions. What is important is that there is a devolution of power to the community level, and that the new structures reflect a synthesis of the traditional with the modern, taking what is good in either system and creating a system with which people will identify.

This transformation at the political level requires substantial changes in the thinking and institutional orientation of the political power structures in the governments. This change is already evident in the countries of Eastern Africa. The new Ethiopian government is committed to the devolution of power and community level structures of governance are becoming a reality in the new set up. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are all involved at different stages in the establishment of National Environment Action Plans (NEAPS), the major concern of which is the decentralisation of natural resource management and the involvement of different stake- holders including individuals, households and the private sector in the formulation and implementation of resource management policies.

Success of Community forestry depends on creating an appropriate legal framework that gives effective authority to the institutional structure at the community level and addresses tenure problem to secure community interest in natural resources. The legal reforms needed for this purpose have already been suggested, and would deal effectively with the conflicts that relate to the tenure question. Again, as in the policy reform agenda, legal reforms must entail giving recognition, form and content to the traditional rights and obligations relative to resource management, so that they become part and parcel of the legally protected and enforceable rights and duties within the society.

At the economic level, community forestry seeks to address first and foremost the needs of the local community, and to use the resources of the forests to satisfy these needs. Only when there is a surplus is the external interest addressed. Emphasising local needs is important for sustainability, but it is also extremely difficult to operationalise in the face of economic liberalisation and the new consumption trends. However, if local communities become sufficiently empowered under a reformed policy and legal framework, then communities should be in a position to influence creation of economic policies and consumption patterns that are conducive to sustainable natural resource management.

Some of the socio-cultural changes that are taking place in the traditional African society are inevitable. Natural resource management systems have suffered most acutely and conflicts in resource management have been exaggerated greatly because traditional systems have been portrayed as inimical to development. Thus, development has been conceptualised as involving moving away form traditional ways which are characterised as primitive and retrograde. This thinking is negated by the ideals of community forestry which define development with reference to the empowerment of the people who set its pace and direction. Thus within this set up, the development process is directed by local imperatives so that it fulfils the aspirations of the people.


On the basis of the above discussion, we pose the following questions for consideration during the e-mail conference. We believe that by tackling these and other questions that shall arise in the course of the conference, that we shall start to address the conflict issues highlighted in this paper.


We have sought to highlight in this paper the natural resource conflicts situations that are prevalent in the Eastern African countries of Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The conflict situations discussed are not exhaustive nor do they occur in the same manner in all circumstances. However, they are fairly representative and generally applicable to the region. Suggestions have been made on the management of these conflicts and the potential that exists in community forestry in this regard. Again these suggestions are neither exhaustive nor conclusive. It is expected that the e-mail conference will provide an opportunity for their elaboration and further development. At the end of the paper we have raised few questions that we expect will generate discussion and assist in addressing the said conflicts.


(1) Forest Trees and People Programme is a community forestry programme of the FAO that promotes the sustainable use of trees and forests at the local community level to facilitate self-development.

(2) Emperor Haile Selassie was born Ras Tafari Makonnen, but changed his name on assuming power in April 1930. He ruled Ethiopia until his overthrow in September 1974.

(3) Ethiopia was formally a constitutional monarchy from 1931, when the first constitution was adopted, although real power lay with Emperor Haile Selassie. Following the overthrow of the emperor, the monarchy was abolished in March 1975.

(4) The resource management regime is discussed in P. Poschen-Eiche, The Application of Farming Systems Research to Community Forestry; A Case Study in the Hararge Highlands, Eastern Ethiopia, Tropical Agriculture 1, TRIOPS Verlag Tropical Scientific Books, Langen, Germany, 1987.

(5) Present-day Tanzania came into existence as a union between Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar in 1964.

(6) The German East Africa Protectorate was created over Tanganyika in 1890, and the Germans ruled the colony until the end of the first world war.

(7) The country has only recently conducted an inquiry on the land tenure situation as a prelude to tenure reform. See, Land Policy and Land Tenure Structure; A Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters, 1994.

(8) Tanganyika African National Union, which has ruled the country since the attainment of political independence. In 1977, the party merged with the Afro-Shirazi Party that was in power in Zanzibar to form Chama cha Mapinduzi { the Revolutionary Party).

(9) Kenneth Kakuru, Benedict Mutyaba, Brian Rohan and Anne Ziebarth, Roles and Best Practices of the Central Government of Uganda in Environmental Management, World Resources Institute, Washington, 1995

(10) Calestous Juma, Albert Mwangi and Cleophas Torori, Kenya Natural Resource Management Assessment, Vol. 2: Policies, Institutions and Capabilities, USAID KENYA, Nairobi, 1995

(11) Kenya African National Union ruled the country continuously since the attainment of political independence in 1963. In 1992, KANU retained power after winning the first nation-wide multiparty elections following the reintroduction of a multiparty political system after the repeal of legislation passed in 1982 that made Kenya a de jute one party state. Prior to that legislation, Kenya had had a de facto one party state following the prescription of the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU)in 1969. The party has been in existence only from 1966.

(12) Christine Pendzich, Gary Thomas and Tim Wohlgenat, The Role of Alternative Conflict Management in Community Forestry, RESOLVE and FAO { 1994), p. I

(13) Tanganyika mainland joined up with the island of Zanzibar to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

(14) Ethiopia was never really colonised. However, between May 1936 and January 1941, it was occupied by Fascist Italy intent on creating an Italian Empire. During that period, the emperor, Haile Selassie took refuge in England.

(15) See generally, H.W.O. Okoth-Ogendo, Tenants of the Crown : Evolution of Agrarian Law and Institutions in Kenya, ACTS Press, Nairobi, 1991

(16) See generally, Pastoral Natural Resource Management and Policy; Proceedings of the Subregional Workshop held 6-10 December 1993 in Arusha, Tanzania, UNSO and UNDP, New York, 1994

(17) The land factor was very important for the occupation of Kenya by the British, and the way they handled the issue in Kenya is instructive and illustrative of their approach throughout the region. See, Y.P.Ghai and J.P.W.B. McAuslan, Public Law and Political Change in Kenya: A Study of the Legal Framework of Government from Colonial Times to the Present, Oxford University Press, Nairobi, 1970, Chapters 1 and 3.

(18) As recently as the 1980s, the Tanzania Court of Appeal found it necessary to assert that customary land rights have the same standing before the law as statutory rights. See the decision in Methuselah Nyagwaswa v. Christopher Mbote Nyirabu, Court of Appeal for Tanzania at Dar es Salaam, Civil Appeal No. 14 of 1985 { Unreported).

(19) For instance in court cases, customary law can only apply in matters of personal law in which all the parties are subject to the custom.

(20) Garett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science 162; 1243-1248


1. Y.P. Ghai and J.P.W.B McAuslan, Public Law and Political Change in Kenya: A Study of the Legal Framework of Government from Colonial Times to the Present, Nairobi, Oxford University Press, 1970.

2. Donald A. Messerschmidt and others (ed) Common Forest Resource Management: Annotated Bibliography of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Rome, FAO, 1993.

3. James E. Crowfoot and Julia M. Wondolleck, Environmental Disputes. Community Involvement in Conflict Resolution, Washington, Island Press, 1990.

4. Christine Pendzich, Garry Thomas and Tim Wohlgenant, The Role of Alternative Conflict Management in Community Forestry, FTPP Phase II, Working Paper No. 1. RESOLVE and F AO, 1994.

5. Pastoral Natural Resource Management and Policy: Proceedings of the Subregional Workshop, held 6-10 December 1993 in Arusha, Tanzania, New York, UNSO and UNDP. 1994.

6. State of the Environment Report for Uganda, 1994, Ministry of Natural Resources, Republic of Uganda, Kampala, 1994.

7. Kenya Forestry Master Plan, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Nairobi, 1994.

8. Mark Bradbury, Simon Fisher and Charles Lane, Working with Pastoral NGOS on Land Conflicts in Tanzania; A Report on a Workshop held in Terrat, Tanzania 11th-15th December, 1994, London, IIED, 1995.

9. C.O. Okidi, Review of the Policy Framework and Legal and Institutional Arrangements for the Management of the Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya, (A Report Prepared for the Kenya Government with the Support of UNEP), Nairobi, April, 1994

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