Can we learn our way to sustainable management? : adaptive collaborative management in Mafungautsi State Forest, Zimbabwe

T. Mutimukuru

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Following the failure of top-down centralised management approaches to natural resources, attention has shifted in the last two decades to participatory approaches. Unfortunately, participatory resource management projects have produced disappointing results. They have failed to meet the objectives of enhancing sustainable management of resources and of improving the well-being of local people.

These efforts have recently been criticized by environmental conservationists, who continue to believe that participation by local people has resulted in increased degradation and loss of biodiversity. Proponents of participation however take the option of reverting back to top-down management approaches as ‘reinventing the square wheel’ since top-down approaches have an even worse record in resource management. The proponents of participation, therefore, call for alternative approaches that combine improvements of both human well-being and the status of natural resources.

It is against this background - a conviction that community participation must be the way forward, despite a number of failed participatory initiatives - that the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) initiated in 1999 a multi-country, multi-site Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) project. The starting point of the ACM approach is that sustainable resource management can only be achieved if local people participate in the utilisation and management of those resources. The approach makes use of various theories and concepts from several disciplines including complex systems theory, adaptive management, social learning, cooperation and competition, and theories of human interaction.

The ACM project was implemented in Mafungautsi in Zimbabwe forest by a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from 1999 to 2003, and aimed to strengthen an on-going Resource Sharing Project that began in 1994. This thesis documents and critically analyses the interventions facilitated by the ACM team and their outcomes. It also traces these outcomes to check if they were sustained or not, and why.

Evidence presented in Chapter 4 shows some of the complexities encountered in implementing the ACM approach. Several activities and processes were initiated simultaneously in the different sites. ACM researchers facilitated stakeholders to go use Participatory Action Research (PAR) processes to deal with their problems and learn from the impacts of their actions, they, too, had to learn by doing.

Through context studies the team realised a number of issues had to be addressed at the outset. The context studies revealed a range of issues to be addressed if stakeholders were effectively to participate in the PAR process. These included numerous conflicts among stakeholders at various levels, unequal distribution of power, misunderstandings, passiveness of local community members in issues related to the management of the forest, the fact that not all stakeholders in local communities were interested in all resources in the forest, and finally weak leadership skills among stakeholders.

The ACM team therefore developed several interventions to resolve conflicts and build stakeholder capacities before the PAR process could progress. These interventions included empowerment training workshops, conflict resolution workshops, training on leadership skills and finally the formation of the resource user groups. Implementing these interventions took considerable amounts of time.

PAR processes were later initiated with various resource user groups. Stakeholders at a range of scales, including resource user groups, resource management committees, and FC officers and researchers, were included in processes to develop visions and implement action plans. The process however was not so neat in all cases and some of the action plans were never implemented. Opportunities were created for stakeholders to share experiences, and learn together.

The team also facilitated the development of a collaborative monitoring system to help stakeholders learn about the impact of their actions. The process for doing this was time consuming since several relevant stakeholders had to participate in the process. The CM system was initially not welcomed by all resource users. Follow up studies showed that stakeholders in various RMC areas did not implement all the aspects of the CM system but chose only certain aspects. The development of a plot system in Gababe to monitor the quality of the grass resource as well as resolve problems related to favouritism in allocation of resource harvesting areas was an interesting outcome. The CM system however in some cases (like in the Batanai area) collapsed due to political factors at play.

The interventions by the ACM team resulted in some positive outcomes including the empowerment of local communities, some improvement in incomes obtained through value addition and seeking alternative markets, improvement in stakeholders’ knowledge about their forest resources through their monitoring activities and the use of sustainable harvesting methods. However, a follow-up study four years after the project ended showed that these positive developments were not sustained.

The ACM team also aimed to influence resource management institutions and Chapter 5 traces how the Resource Management Committees (RMC) transformed over time. The chapter shows that the RMCs (especially the one in Gababe) over time, with capacity building on both the RMCs and local communities transformed into downwardly accountable and transparent organisations. The positive change was however short-lived, when the FC officer died. A follow up study four years later showed that, the RMCs were no longer accountable to their communities and several conflicts were now present among stakeholders. These were simply ignored.

In trying to understand why things turned out this way, I address one central question – to what extent was failure a result of misconceptualization and misapplication of the participatory approach, as distinct from being a product of the general rapidly declining socio-economic conditions in the country? Although from a superficial analysis one can conclude that wider events in the country finished off a beautiful initiative in its infancy, I argue that the initiative would have failed anyway even if the environment had not changed. I identify key factors that would have led to the failure of the project.

First, the overestimation of what the ACM team could do given the limited period and the complexity of the situation in Mafungautsi. Second, the ACM team did not address issues of power and its unequal distribution. Third, the ACM team did not facilitate the development of clear rules and their means of enforcement to support management activities. Fourth, the ACM team paid insufficient attention to the conflicting needs of local resource users, and finally, the team left the future work with an underfunded and understaffed organisation.

I conclude that if ACM and other learning-based participatory resource management initiatives are to succeed, they must empower the poor and marginalised and explicitly address issues of power and politics. Joint learning processes should not be taken as a panacea but must integrate elements from other disciplines such as political ecology. Such projects should also ensure that clear rules for management and use of resources are agreed upon as well as their means of enforcement.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Richards, Paul, Promotor
  • Giller, Ken, Promotor
  • Almekinders, Conny, Co-promotor
Award date23 Apr 2010
Place of Publication[S.l.
Print ISBNs9789085856511
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • natural resources
  • resource management
  • participation
  • participative management
  • sustainability
  • forest management
  • forest policy
  • africa south of sahara
  • zimbabwe
  • sustainable development


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