Balancing Power

CGIAR News – June, 2007
Opinion: Yulia Siagian and Heru Komarudin

Research shows that collective action can be effective locally, but questions remain about how best to devolve power to communities, by Yulia Siagian and Heru Komarudin

Forests and Governance Program of the Center for International Forestry Research

Collective action plays an important role in many aspects of human society, from public elections and striking for higher wages, to meeting to form a sports club. In the context of forests and development, probably the most obvious application of collective action is seen in the efforts of people working together to reduce rural poverty.

Collective action can provide the rural poor with the opportunity to access services, request protection for shared claims and community interests, and generally strengthen their bargaining power, especially when it is constrained by a lack of resources, power and voice.

Despite its strengths, however, a number of researchers have shown that local collective action often needs external support to have any significant impact.

We at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), one of 15 research Centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, have been involved in the CGIAR-wide Program on Collective Action and Property Rights ( CAPRi). Through CAPRi, we have explored the role of collective action in securing property rights for the poor in the Indonesian province of Jambi, on the island of Sumatra.

Working with government institutions and communities, we used a participatory action research approach to engage local communities and encourage meetings involving many stakeholders. Our project also examined government policies and programs that might influence collective action.

To evaluate our research we focused on two groups of farmers, male and female, in two villages. We examined the ways they shared roles, planned and acted to tackle shared problems, as well as their degree of success. Our findings suggest that the mechanisms groups used to channel their aspirations and make plans had improved. Improvements were also seen in the opportunities people have to act more freely and express their views, thus enhancing multi-stakeholder policymaking processes.

However, it remains uncertain how the resulting policy changes have affected the ways people act together and the security of property rights for local communities. For example, our research suggests that the central government’s cancellation of local governmental authority to issue small timber concessions has both advantages and disadvantages. The cancellation slowed forest degradation. And it allowed stakeholders to reflect on what worked and did not work when the local government had greater authority. But it also restricted our ability to learn how property rights may be secured and whether local people, if given clearly defined forest areas, would manage them any better.

Our research into multi-stakeholder meetings clearly indicates that people now have more opportunities to participate in regional development. Though still in its infancy, facilitated interaction among government officials, local politicians, villagers and other parties is increasingly seen as leading to better policies.

Our participatory action research has boosted community awareness of the importance of acting collectively to resolve common concerns. We visited several communities whose collective action had convinced officials to certify communal land or agree to other landscape-related requests. Now it is not unusual to hear people say it is easier to achieve their goal if they work together instead of individually.

For more information about CIFOR’s collective action research in Jambi, Indonesia, and about the differences between male and female collective action, click here.