A recent review of community forestry experience concluded that the basic tenets put forth (in the mid and late nineteen seventies)... were essentially sound and that the major conclusions that can be drawn from such an examination of the lessons of experience are largely the same as the earlier ones (Gregersen et al 1989). In other words, the very real increase in the knowledge base over the past decade reinforces the original assessment that rural people depend on forests and trees in a number of important ways, and need assistance in maintaining and strengthening these links. Where our understanding has altered, and improved, very markedly is in how to translate this into action.
However, our present understanding leaves us with less clear-cut prescriptions for action than was the case when the problem appeared to be heavily concentrated on fuelwood shortages, deforestation and the consequent need to plant more trees. Clearly community forestry is most accurately and usefully understood as an umbrella term denoting a wide range of activities which link rural people with forests and trees, and the products and benefits to be derived from them. If there is one dimension to be stressed above others it is the range and diversity of these linkages, and the span of different disciplines which are engaged in aspects of community forestry. Community forestry is therefore not a separate discipline, or even programme, but one dimension of forestry, agriculture, rural energy and other components of rural development.
Linked to this is the appreciation that trees and tree products are almost invariably intimately embedded in often complex resource and social systems. Rarely can they be isolated and dealt with adequately solely in terms of a single product or a single technical fix. Equally, the present dependence of rural people nearly everywhere on public sources of forest products, as well as on privately planted trees, means that it is unlikely that solutions will be found solely through more planting. Community forestry must be at least as much about improved management of existing resources as it is about afforestation.
Improved understanding of the context of participatory tree management should contribute to clearer and more realistic setting of objectives. Important though it is, community forestry can never be more than a minor component of the rural system. It is unrealistic to expect community forestry projects and programmes to achieve social or institutional changes at a pace faster than is taking place within society as a whole. If they are to succeed, they need to be compatible with the broader framework within which they are located. By the same token, initiatives are much more likely to succeed if they are compatible with deeply entrenched practices and rights than if they depend upon changes to the latter.
Turning to the practical implications for future project design and implementation, most fundamental is the need to involve the target groups from the design and planning stage. The pressures to respond to what are clearly often urgent problems have commonly led governments and aid agencies, with the best of intentions, to initiate projects with insufficient time to properly consult those involved, or to adequately research and understand the problem and the potential for useful intervention. The opinion of outsiders is substituted for the knowledge of those inside, all too often resulting in inadvertent design errors which no amount of subsequent dialogue can overcome.
In recognition of this imperative, much of the effort devoted by FAO and other donors to the development of community forestry projects and programmes is now directed to researching and assembling information that would help establish the broad boundaries of what would need to be investigated, and to developing methods of problem identification and project design that would be both participatory and also implementable within the time and resource frame usually available. For example, considerable effort has been directed towards harnessing methods developed under the general rubric of Rapid Rural Appraisal to this task. These have promising potential, but can be demanding of specialised skills and time. The search for practical, simple, but reliable methods for dialogue with the people in a community is complicated by the expansion of the range of issues that need to be investigated to include such things as nutrition and tenure. Possible solutions include separating out issues which are more appropriately carried out as applied research, and strengthening the application, relevance and use of the results of participatory monitoring and evaluation (FAO/SIDA 1989).
The other key component of participatory support is extension. Extension has not been part of conventional forestry and foresters thus are not trained in its practice. Nor are the top-down methods of extension, which have been developed within agriculture for introducing and supporting new crops and management systems, seen as being well suited to the unavoidably largely experimental situation often accompanying the role of trees in a farming system. Participatory extension methods are more likely not only to articulate farmers' knowledge and concerns, but also to facilitate the process of action research needed to identify and refine appropriate technologies, and also help people develop their own problem solving skills (FAO 1988). To achieve this, simple methodologies are needed which enable extension staff to work with local people in helping them identify project design issues and indicators (FAO/SIDA 1989). Training must be another priority, as lack of qualified extension staff is the main institutional weakness at present.
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. Nevertheless, it is clear that we are now at a point where the knowledge and experience that has accumulated over the past decade or more is being usefully consolidated. The conclusions of a recent review by FAO and SIDA of their joint activities in this area (FAO/SIDA 1989) probably has general application, namely that priority at present needs to be given to the following:
· promoting flexible and situation-specific participatory approaches to problem identification and project design;
· development and operationalizing of practical, easily learnt and widely applicable approaches and methods;
· strengthening human and institutional capability, particularly in the areas of training and development communication.