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Common property resource management
Trees in farming systems

Common property resource management

One of the conclusions that emerges particularly strongly from the review in the previous section is the importance of existing forests, woodland and “waste” land as the source of much of what rural people seek from trees and forests. The forest foods and the products gathered for processing and sale come predominantly from these sources, as does much of the fuelwood. These outputs from existing common property resources are also often a major component of the overall agricultural system - filling crucial gaps in the resource and income flows from other resources, and providing complementary inputs often critical to the continued functioning of agricultural and household systems.

The heavy emphasis on afforestation in community forestry programmes so far would thus be rational only if common property resources are so exhausted as to be beyond the point where supplies can be sustained by management of existing stocks. Equally, the focus on farm forestry makes sense only if private control is more effective than communal use and management. There are reasons to question both these implicit assumptions.

Nearly everywhere common property resources have been massively reduced in modern times. Privatisation, encroachment and government appropriation have been the main processes taking resources out of common use. Increasing pressures on what is left have frequently led to its progressive degradation. The erosion of the extent and quality of the resources on which people draw has often been accompanied by a weakening or breakdown in local control and management. Privatization, increasing population pressure, greater commercialization, and technological change have all contributed to this breakdown. Possibly the most important factor in undermining communal control, though, has been the widespread replacement of local leadership and authority with centralized political control.

Despite these negative pressures and trends people still widely depend on common property resources, with the poor usually more heavily dependent than others. Even in the heavily reduced and degraded dry land communal areas of India it was found that the poor obtained the bulk of their fodder and fuelwood, and from 14% to 23% of their income, from common property resources (Jodha, 1990).

Recognition of the continuing importance of common pool resources to many rural populations has stimulated much of the recent re-examination of policies and practices which lead to their erosion. The case for bringing use of common resources under either private or government control stems from arguments that current circumstances no longer permit effective user group control - or more fundamentally that the changing environment within which individuals must operate induce behaviour patterns inimical to collective cooperation (the “tragedy of the commons” argument). However, these arguments fail to take into account the factors which encourage collective action, even under situations of increasing stress on the common resource and its users, and the self-regulating capabilities of groups of users.


In a major study of common property resources in the dryland areas of India, it was found that the poor obtained the bulk of their fodder and fuelwood - and from 14% to 23% of their income - from common property resources. - A

In a major study of common property resources in the dryland areas of India, it was found that the poor obtained the bulk of their fodder and fuelwood - and from 14% to 23% of their income - from common property resources. - B

They also overlook reasons why the alternatives to communal management may themselves not be sustainable. Because exclusion from a common property resource is difficult, it may not be feasible to privatize it. Private use can also lead to overuse and degradation. Equally, the State may not be able to control, manage or prevent degradation to a resource it has expropriated. Furthermore, privatization tends to shift control to people other than common property resource users, so that it is likely to exacerbate the problems of those without access to private property.

There are, therefore, strong reasons for questioning the discrimination against collective management, and for the attempts that have been made to reverse it. However, interventions to this end have so far had only limited success. In by far the largest, the social forestry woodlot programmes in India, the woodlot projects managed by forest departments have inadvertently shifted use of communal land from products for local use to higher valued wood products for sale outside the community. This resulted in the benefits being transferred from those who earlier used the common land, to those who will gain from the income accruing to and spent by the community as a whole. A combination of forest management prescriptions more closely tailored to foresters' rather than villagers' skills and experience, uncertainties about access to the benefits, use rules set by government which are not always compatible with local needs and possibilities (and are not open to change locally), and planning and control systems centered in local government bodies rather than user groups, has meant a widespread lack of local confidence in the outcome. The planned transfer of responsibility for management of woodlots on common land from the forest department to the community is consequently seldom taking place, so that the programmes run the risk that in effect they are unwittingly converting common property resources into state controlled resources (Arnold and Stewart 1991).

In common with most other “woodlot” programmes and projects, the social forestry interventions in India are predominantly on land outside the forest. More promising potential for success seems to exist where the interventions seek to effect joint management of forest land, building on the mutual benefits to be obtained from greater access to forest products by local people and reduced protection costs for the forest department. Features of positive experiences in a number of areas in north India and Nepal include the existence of substantial amounts of government land available for common property resource use, and similar patterns of use of forest products throughout the community. The most successful examples seem to occur in areas where the technical knowledge already existed at the village level, and the missing ingredient was an effective agreement between village level institutions and local representatives of the government. Experience suggests that such institutions and working arrangements can mature in a relatively short period.

However progress is still the exception rather than the rule. A survey of experience in Southeast Asia (Seymour and Rutherford 1990) reports two main impediments to progress. One is the reluctance, or inability, of forest departments to proceed with or implement devolution of responsibility to local level, particularly where they perceive that this will threaten their control over a timber resource. Improved access to use of forest products therefore tends to be concentrated on degraded forest. The other constraint arises from pressures from within the community, such as from in-migration by outsiders, which undermine or overwhelm agreed systems of local control.

Common to nearly all experience, both promising and unpromising, have been weaknesses in the legal framework. Effective local or joint control requires a willingness and ability of government to legitimize and empower the local controlling institutions, and to help them enforce their rights. Even the most promising approaches tend to be undermined by failures to do so. Governments are commonly slow to amend laws or to implement them. Thus even the most robust of recent initiatives are often threatened by their uncertain legal status.


As common lands diminish, and the natural resources on them recede or are degraded, farmers everywhere have sought to shift the production of outputs of value on to their own land by protecting, planting and managing trees of selected species. - A

As common lands diminish, and the natural resources on them recede or are degraded, farmers everywhere have sought to shift the production of outputs of value on to their own land by protecting, planting and managing trees of selected species. - B

Trees in farming systems

As common lands diminish, and the natural resources on them recede or are degraded, farmers everywhere have sought to shift the production of outputs of value on to their own land by protecting, planting and managing trees of selected species. In many situations farmers now depend on their own tree stocks for some products and on common property resource sources for others. In recent times the process of adding trees to fanning systems has been accelerated or transformed by the growing commoditization of fuelwood and other tree products, and the consequent emergence of markets for them when grown as a cash crop.

However, as has been widely documented (see, in particular, FAO 1985), increasing pressures on agricultural land, and on tree resources, may be such as to result in the elimination of trees rather than their retention or establishment. Prominent among such pressures are: competition with crops for light, water and nutrients; new agricultural techniques, for example tractors; broader land use practices, such as burning or free grazing; changes in control of land, such as privatisation or nationalisation; legislation or customary tenure; reduction in the rotational cycle to the point at which desirable trees are no longer able to reestablish.

Most interventions in favour of on-farm tree planting are designed to facilitate this transfer by removing or reducing such impediments. However, not all changes in land use, agricultural practices and resource use require the continuing presence of trees. Irrigation of dry land, for example, is likely to reduce the need for draught animals and hence for fodder, and is also likely to create new and more productive sources of the latter. Nor is tree growing an option available to farmers within all ecological environments. For example, the arid areas of Africa are ecologically unsuited to the agricultural intensification through home garden forms of intercropping which is practised in more humid parts of the continent. Equally, the farmer will wish to assess the opportunity presented by adding or intensifying tree growing in terms of the range of economic options available to the farm household - both on and off the farm.

Legislation, tenure and customary practice add additional dimensions to the decision framework. In Africa, use of land is still governed predominantly by often complex corporate lineage systems involving common land which do not lend themselves to useful generalizations (Fortmann 1984). The impact of tenure on the potential for initiatives involving tree growing and management varies widely - having indirect as well as direct effects, for example on serial uses of the land.

A second point that needs to be noted in this connection is that existing tenure arrangements provide opportunities as well as constraints. There has been a tendency to focus on the latter, in particular in terms of the need to increase security of tenure to the individual in order to encourage investment in a relatively long gestation crop such as trees. This may well be the case, but is not universally so - customary practices may already provide the necessary assurances of returns to capital and labour (Cook and Grut 1989). Moreover, changes in both formal and customary tenure are usually difficult to accomplish, so that it can be unrealistic to design project interventions which require such changes - design should rather be consistent with existing tenure arrangements.

Assessment of the experience of early farm forestry programmes has therefore shown the need for more precise, situation specific analysis of the optimum role of trees in a particular farming system, the nature and reason for divergences from this optimum and the scope for removing or diminishing any impediments that this may disclose. Even within a given community, the situation is likely to vary from household to household - such as by size or ability to hire labour - and within households by gender.

In the first generation of projects, there was a widespread tendency to develop projects as though they were effectively isolated from many of the key influences on them - in particular economic forces. The assumption that farmers plant trees to meet subsistence or environmental needs, and that these are not bought or sold in the market place, was reflected in projects designed as though they were divorced from and immune to market forces. Some indeed attempted to prevent participants selling their produce on the grounds that this was contrary to the service function assumed to be the goal of community or social forestry.

As forest products such as fuelwood, fodder and fruits become progressively commoditized, and with the growing dependence of farm households on income to meet at least part of their needs, the distinction between production for subsistence or sale has progressively less meaning. As was noted in the report of one review of a wide range of projects, “In all areas visited, but to different degrees, smallholders pursue food crop ('subsistence') production on the basis of local market opportunity and costs” (Cook and Grut 1989). Not only will a producer sell what is surplus to his or her subsistence needs, but will sell a commodity such as fuelwood needed in the household if the opportunity cost of doing so is advantageous - hence the widespread phenomenon of households short of fuelwood selling wood.

One result of promoting tree growing as though it were outside the forces of the market system has been failure to match project production to market possibilities, or to link producers to markets. Similarly, projects have neglected to put producers in touch with sources of higher level inputs, such as credit, available to those seeking to produce for the market.6

More widely, little is known yet about the effectiveness of the project interventions which are employed to stimulate tree growing, such as provision of free or subsidised seedlings. Until more is understood about the role of trees in different farming systems, and about the factors which distort farmers decisions about tree growing, it will be difficult to define and design appropriate interventions.

Another weakness in early farm forestry projects has been in the technical prescriptions. Two experienced observers have stated that “The project record abounds with examples of projects that have foundered because of inappropriate species choice. A recent review of the literature ... reveals how few social forestry project documents ever provide any systematic rationale whatsoever for the matching of tree species to the needs of the target community!” (Raintree and Hoskins 1988).

This is partly due to the lag in applied research and the relative neglect within the latter of on-farm work. Thus even with alley cropping, which has benefitted from one of the most intensive and thorough research efforts of any innovation in the field of agroforestry, it is still unclear to what extent farmers will find it appropriate. Another factor contributing to poor technical prescriptions and practices, has been the pressures often placed upon forest services to achieve planting or seedling distribution targets - pressures which all too often result in priority being accorded to quantity rather than quality or appropriateness.

The other main reason for the frequent mismatch between intervention and needs that emerges strongly, and which underlies much else in farm forestry as well, is poor communication with farmers and their families - due to shortage of people trained in communication and extension skills, particularly in the early days of community forestry. This has meant that even projects which are now vigorously trying to remedy this weakness are burdened with project objectives and designs which were developed without the benefit of involvement by local people. For this reason, community forestry has emphasized the need to involve household members in the design and implementation of forestry projects. There is a growing recognition that particular attention needs to be paid to the critical role of women. Women often are the members of the household that are most intimately involved with trees-gathering fuelwood and forest foods, providing fodder for farm animals, and making shelters, baskets, and household utensils from forest products. Yet their labour has remained largely unnoticed, so that they often did not have access to credit, training and technical assistance.

The focus on women has grown to include the analysis of gender as an important variable in forestry activities. This analysis looks at the different constraints and opportunities facing women and men, and examines the different labour and decision-making patterns of the two sexes. This disaggregation of data by gender has been an important tool for involving local people in forestry projects, and in helping to ensure the sustainability of forestry activities beyond the life of any single project.

The process of learning about, and improving the application of, community forestry is a continuous one and one in which we are at a relatively early stage on the learning curve. Neverless, it is clear that we are at a point where the knowledge and experience that has been accumulated over the past decade or more is being usefully consolidated.

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