Implications of decentralized forest management and REDD+ for rural vulnerability in Kenya

PhD defence

Susan Wangui Chomba


Over the last few decades, many people have gradually come to recognize the impact of various actions and interactions between themselves and the earth’s planetary system. Some of these impacts include environmental degradation; increased levels of anthropogenically generated gases such as CO2 and associated changes in climate; increased occurrence of climate related risks such as drought and flooding. This results in people experiencing increased exposure to climatic risks and shocks, which constitutes the external side of vulnerability. On the other hand, there are social, economic and political factors that affect how people are able to cope with or adapt to shocks. These include governance aspects that structure people’s access to key resources. They determine peoples’ (in)ability to anticipate, cope and recover from risks and shocks, in other words, they form the internal side of vulnerability. Vulnerability here is understood as “the state of susceptibility to harm from exposure to stresses associated with environmental and social change and from the absence of capacity to cope” (Adger, 2006, pg. 268). This definition identifies three components of vulnerability: i) exposure to stresses, ii) environmental and social change, and iii) absence of capacity to cope. These three vulnerability components reveal the relationship between people, the environment, as well as social, economic and political changes.

Interventions such as Community Based Forest Management (CBFM) and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, including enhancement of carbon stocks and forest conservation (REDD+) have been promoted with multiple goals, including poverty alleviation, sustainable management of forests and improving natural resource governance. If CBFM and REDD+ are implemented in such a way that the three goals are achieved, then their proponents suggest they can contribute to better livelihoods, income generation, improved forest management, reducing CO2 emissions, and thereby mitigating the effects of climate change. In addition, governance principles such as decentralized decision making, safeguarding rights and interests of forest dependent communities, ensuring equity in distribution of benefits, and promoting local empowerment are part and parcel of both CBFM and REDD+ architectures. To this end, CBFM and REDD+ represent interventions in forestry, implemented to protect people and the environment, thereby potentially reducing both the vulnerability of people and that of the natural ecosystems.

But do these interventions always achieve the desired outcomes? What are the various humanly devised opportunities and constraints that structure the political, economic and social interactions under REDD+ and CBFM that either increase or reduce vulnerability? Or simply put, what are the governance risks under CBFM and REDD+ that can affect the delivery of intended outcomes? These questions are the primary concern of this thesis.
The overall objective of the study was to analyze how CBFM and REDD+ affects the vulnerability of forest dependent communities in Kenya. The first step was to build a framework that links access to benefits and decision making powers under REDD+/ CBFM to vulnerability. Using this framework, the study then went on to identify and detail the dimensions of governance that sanction access to benefits and decision making powers under REDD+, thereby mediating and configuring vulnerability. It is critical to note that the research does not claim to exhaust all aspects of governance that play a role in vulnerability under REDD+ and CBFM under different contexts. Rather, using a pragmatic approach of theory building, drawing from primary data and first-hand experience with the local contexts in the two case studies, three aspects of governance emerged and were studied in detail: equity, empowerment and democracy.

The empirical analysis entailed two case studies (one for REDD+ and one for CBFM), employing mixed methods approaches, as well as multiple levels of analysis (national, subnational and local). The overall objective was broken down into four research questions, two on CBFM and the other two on REDD+ as follows. 1) How can CBFM mediate access to benefits and decision making processes in order to reduce vulnerability of local communities? 2) Can the transfer of forest management authority from the state to local institutions lead to local empowerment? 3) How do present and historical tenure arrangements affect equity in distribution of benefits under REDD+? 4) How do institutional choices under REDD+ affect local democracy?

To answer the first question, the study first aimed at constructing a framework within which to assess how access to benefits affected vulnerability. This framework, although it was first developed for CBFM, was later adopted for the rest of the study, following critical examination and realization that the mechanism of access and control of benefits under REDD+ were not that different from those of CBFM. Under research question 1, the study then went ahead to empirically assess how access to forest benefits under CBFM can affect vulnerability of forest dependent communities. By mapping out endowments and entitlements of various actors on the ground, we found a set of complex underlying socio-economic differentiations amongst the members of local communities which conditioned differentiated interests and claims over forest benefits and decision making powers. Overall, we found that CBFM exacerbates vulnerability through taxation of forest benefits and presiding over institutional mechanisms that favor the interests of elites over other groups.

On the second research question, the study examined the concept of local empowerment under CBFM in detail. The study developed an analytical framework with which to assess empowerment, which constituted asset-based agency and institution-based opportunity structures. The research then empirically assessed how the transfer of power under Kenya’s 2005 Forest Act (the institution-based opportunity structure) and how representation of the needs and interests of different socio-economic groups in the community (that is, people with variable asset-based agency), affected the empowerment of local communities in the case study area. The study analyzed what types of powers were transferred in theory and in practice from the state to the CFA through a critical review of legal and policy documents. The powers were categorized into legislative, executive and judicial. The study also assessed how representative the CFA was of the diverse interests of socially and economically differentiated groups, with competing claims over the forest resource. The overall findings indicate that forest policies and actors transferred minimal powers that enabled local communities to execute forest protection and conservation roles, while maintaining legislative powers and control of economic benefits centrally; and, that representation within the CFA was highly skewed in favor of small and already powerful elites. Thus, building on the first research question, the study demonstrates that CBFM can increase vulnerability through partial transfer of powers and establishing institutions that further an already powerful elite’s interests at the expense of an asset-poor majority.

For the third research question, the study looked at REDD+ and the question of equity. Similar to the CBFM case, the objective here was to examine equity in the context of access to benefits. The study identified and further developed an equity framework that stresses three dimensions: contextual, distributive and procedural. The study focused mainly on how contextual equity, mapped through the distribution of key endowments such as land, determines distribution of REDD+ benefits among various local actors. The findings indicate that when benefit sharing models are based on very unequal tenure arrangements, which are in turn pre-determined by a complex historical process of land dispossession and formalization of tenure, then the goal of equity is hard to achieve. The result is a skewed distribution of benefits (mainly cash from selling CO2 credits at the voluntary international market), in favor of those endowed with larger parcels of land, at the expense of asset-poor marginalized groups.

The fourth and last research question looked at whether institutional choices under REDD+ present any implications for local democracy. Democracy is viewed as the ‘corrective mechanism’ through which the interests of the majority, and particularly disenfranchised asset-poor groups, can be addressed through democratic representation. The choice and recognition framework was used to examine the effects of institutional choices, in terms of which local partners, high level actors (institutions or individuals) chose to work with at the local level; and the implications of these choices on democratic representation, i.e. accountability and responsiveness. Partnering in this case, involved a transfer of powers (i.e. material resources and decision making powers). In so doing, the intervening agent (which can be the government, private sector, or a donor) confers their local partners with power to act on local needs, thereby bestowing authority and recognition.

The examined project chose to partner with Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and Location Carbon Committees (LCCs), which offered parallel mechanisms of accountability outside state-sanctioned institutions. This choice was predicated upon a historical lack of accountability, inefficiency, and prevalence of corruption among the latter. According to proponents of local democracy, working with single purpose committees and CBOs cannot be considered democratic, because it empowers them at the expense of democratically elected local actors, who are presumed to carry the democratic mandate of the majority. Furthermore, proponents of democracy argue that such single-purpose committees do not provide long-term institutional solutions beyond the life of the project. Yet this study reveals critical and rational reasons why such choices were made; thereby bringing attention to factors that constrain how external actors (development projects and investors) partner with local institutions that may be democratic in theory but not in practice. It also shows how institutions which are not considered to be democratically elected can, nevertheless, facilitate the implementation of some democratic elements such as representation, accountability and responsiveness, thereby providing useful lessons that inform policies and decision makers about how to mainstream these elements into democratically elected government structures.

Overall, this thesis uses the empirical cases of CBFM and REDD+ to inform how governance aspects (equity, empowerment and democracy) mediate people’s vulnerability and how policy and practical changes can turn the governance risks into opportunities for reducing rural vulnerability.


Thorsten Treue (Principal supervisor), Associate Professor, IFRO, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Iben Nathan (co-supervisor), Associate Professor, IFRO, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Peter Minang (co-supervisor), Dr., Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)

Assesment Committee

Christian Pilegaard, Associate professor, IFRO, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Anja Nygren, Associate Professor, University of Helsinki, Finland

Mikkel Funder, Social and Institutional specialist, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), Denmark