Citizen’s monitoring in community forestry: Governance tools for local people

Binod Chapagain and Monica S. Cheng

When our Monitoring and Evaluation team met with forest department representatives around Southeast Asia, they noticed a common trend: community forest groups have been successful in protecting resources, biodiversity, and generating livelihoods, but were relatively weak in documenting and reporting the necessary statistics. Generally, the CF groups do not send their periodic reports to government officials, which are considered mandatory.

Because it was unclear whether or not local communities could collect the required forest and biodiversity data, RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests checked the expectations of forest officials at different levels. It soon became clear that the expectations were not directed towards technical forest or biodiversity data, but rather about CF activities and outputs related to the livelihoods of local people – mainly income generating activities, forest and non-timber forest product harvesting, human capacity development, forest area protection and plantation, as well as others.

RECOFTC further studied if the forest departments had advised the communities on any reporting templates. The findings were indeed positive. This prompted our M&E team to investigate the reporting gaps and review the records of CFs in Cambodia and Myanmar, where RECOFTC  has operating offices. One finding was that the CF groups did not have systematic record keeping tools and consequently, the retrieval of information was based on an individual’s memory; this was limiting them to send their periodic reports to the departments. Second, and just as important, the forest departments were unable to account or accept reports if the CFs did not follow prescribed templates.  

RECOFTC, which aims to enhance local capacities, secure stronger rights, improve governance, and generate fairer benefits in sustainable forest landscapes, believes that citizen-based monitoring is an important facet of realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, otherwise known as the SDGs. The SDGs recognize local knowledge as a critical tool to assess the results, promote governance and develop future programs and projects. Moreover, when local people are involved, the data is reliable, culturally relevant, cost effective and sustainable. This is not due to romanticized ideas of local preservation, but is rather the outcome of the best survival path learned from years of growing up in that specific environment.

Therefore, we organized meetings with CF groups and forest department officials in both Cambodia and Myanmar to find a locally relevant solution. To promote a holistic response, however, we also learned from the experiences of the Federation of Community Forest Users Nepal (FECOFUN) and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which piloted community based forest management assessment tools in nine different countries.

The following summary describes the product of our efforts, which were piloted and implemented with ten CF groups in Myanmar and Cambodia to address the gaps of CF level record keeping and reporting. With the RECOFTC facilitators, the tools were piloted by the local people, who analyzed the changes in forests and livelihoods. The importance of these processes and tools were immediately appreciated by the CF leaders, which RECOFTC has called ‘citizen’s monitoring in forestry’ (inspired by Professor Robert Chambers and DFID's Livelihoods Framework). The goal is to strengthen local communities’ collection, documentation, and reporting capacities to the relevant stakeholders.

The tools were developed using the livelihoods monitoring framework because of its ability to holistically capture CF group outputs. The information is categorized according to five livelihood capitals: natural, financial, physical, human and social. These capitals are instrumental in identifying the benefits and risks associated with diverse landscapes.

Moreover, this toolbox includes organizational development as an additional facet to monitor the changes in a CF as an institution, which involves the ongoing monitoring and analysis of a CF’s governance structure, by-laws, operational structure, decision making process and overall capacity to ensure that it is achieving its objectives and adapting to the needs of the community. This is built on the idea that a strong and well-managed CF is likely to achieve effective outcomes (Gaventa & Barrett, 2012).

As monitoring and evaluation is a learning process, each individual CF group is encouraged to contextualize the tools, indicators and subsequent checklists based on their specific needs. CF management committees (CFMCs) will be the primary users of this toolbox, and as such, they will be able to plan, record, monitor, and manage information in order to reflect upon and improve CF practices and benefit sharing. The CFMC is responsible for using the tools, sharing outputs,  and lessons learned with group members, forest department officials and other appropriate stakeholders, and are responsible to get their feedback.

With the guidance of a facilitation team in each country, the CFMCs piloted 10 different participatory tools over a one year period. The tools include baseline tools (resource mapping, social mapping and participatory wellbeing ranking), planning tools (CF visioning, and long-term target-based planning) and progress monitoring tools (annual target-output monitoring, activity monitoring, budget and expenditure tracking, individual income account keeping and self-assessment and reporting). If repeated after a certain interval, the baseline tools will provide comparative information about the resources, social changes and economic wellbeing of local people. In turn, this will demonstrate the overall impact of CF at the local level.

In the piloting process, CFMCs worked together with CF group members and forest department representatives in both countries. Although, getting actual and written information from some CF members was challenging in certain areas, the CFMCs of all 10 groups collaborated with their members and made efforts to update information with the help of various participatory tools. Additional attention was given to assist forest dependent households to keep record of the non-timber forest products that they harvested from the forest area, consumed at home and sold in the market. Tools like participatory visioning helped the groups to visualize and plan their future; the tools were accepted by the communities because they brought unity, transparency and accountability to communities that wanted fairer governance.

The government officials in both countries noted the utility of such tools and labeled them helpful in updating the information at the department and country level. One forest officer in Cambodia noted that, “We can easily update CF information if all groups could send us the information that is recorded in the annual target-output monitoring tool”. For example, the representative was impressed by the ‘spider-web’ tool, which allowed community groups to develop a snap-shot of their conditions and priorities in an objective fashion.  In a reflection workshop organized in Myanmar with forest officials and NGO, a government officer labeled the use of tool as ‘magic,’ speaking to how well the tools worked to improve the information management at the CF, provincial, and national levels.

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Community forests provide unique opportunities for local people to conserve and sustainably use the forest resources.  With the use of these tools, the group members have opportunities to measure the changes in resources, and the subsequent benefits to local people. The tools recently created thus demonstrate multi-folded advantages.

First, the tools helped local people to document their resources, wellbeing and other baselines, as well as develop plans and monitor progress. The process also gave the CF group members consistent access to information, which can now be  preserved beyond oral histories and individual memory. Second, this process engaged and sought inputs from different CF members. Once the data is updated, the information was presented to back to the CF members, thus ensuring the accountability of CFMC to group members and to government authorities, and placing the citizens in charge of monitoring the resources and services.  Third, the information management and sharing of plans, progress, budget and other resources helped to generate additional learning at the CF level. This promoted mutual learning and sharing between CFs based on local people’s experiential knowledge. Fourth, the groups have used big vinyl flipcharts – resilient to rainwater and tough handling – to keep record and displayed the record in public places. These all have contributed to increase the transparency of CF groups. Fifth, it has demonstrated that the CF level information complements the data gathering efforts that forest departments have been making in both countries. And finally, locally based monitoring is cheaper relative to expert driven monitoring and documentation.  In the origami folds of benefits, an intricate outcome has been shaped: participatory tools have emerged as an institutional governance tool for a CF, ensuring participation, transparency, accountability and responsibility. Although the ‘citizen’s monitoring’ is still young and the sustainability of it needs to be observed further, it holds brilliant potential.

The toolbox is available in English, Khmer and Burmese languages. For English version, please visit this page

 

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Gaventa & Barrett (2012), Mapping the outcomes of citizen engagement