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Participation of local people in monitoring forests: why and how?

Manuel Boissière, Douglas Sheil, Stibniati Atmadja, and Martin Herold discuss the Participatory Monitoring for Forests, Climate and REDD+ Collection, which investigates the factors determining the viability of local people’s participation in forest management and conservation.


It is a common slogan that many “global problems call for local solutions”.  This slogan certainly applies to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide by maintaining and improving our planet’s forest cover.  This is appealing because many local and global benefits also derive from forest: for example, forests support the majority of the world’s species, are a critical source of rainfall, and support the livelihoods of over one and a half billion people including many of the poorest on our planet.


The success of forest management and conservation often depends on the consent and involvement of local people.  Projects that ignore local needs and concerns frequently fail while those that seek engagement and achieve effective participation are more likely to succeed.  These issues are receiving renewed attention now that forest protection and expansion are among the major strategies to mitigate climate change – an approach widely known as “REDD+” (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries).  Our new PLOS Collection investigates the factors determining the viability of such participation.


The collection focuses on the central requirements of REDD+: formally described as “measurement, reporting and verification” or “MRV”.  These requirements involve measuring forest carbon stocks and the absorption and emission of greenhouse gases. This is mainly the carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere as forests grow, which is released back to the atmosphere when forests are reduced. Requirements also include the ability to report these measurements to higher authorities and the quality control and verification procedures that ensure that information is reliable.  Until recently, most efforts to meet these requirements have focused on trained technical staff.  But, that may not always be either practical or optimal, especially if local people’s contribution could improve their engagement in the REDD+ process and thus bring additional benefits.


The 12 resulting articles build the empirical foundations required for putting participatory MRV (or “PMRV”) into practice. They draw lessons from systematic reviews, and multidisciplinary studies in Ethiopia, Mexico, China, and Indonesia.  The authors of these articles come from a broad range of backgrounds (social, natural, and health sciences), which gives a refreshingly unconventional breadth to the collection.  Despite this breadth, the authors share several considerations for making participatory PMRV practical. They show that, even if there are commonalities, the situation differs from place to place.  To engage local communities in MRV requires an understanding of local people’s preferences and priorities regarding their forests and their land.


In general, local people are not intrinsically motivated to participate in measuring trees. Such activities are far removed from their daily activities, and offer no clear benefits.  As one of the articles points out, forest monitoring may even threaten livelihoods if the observed changes are driven by activities important for the local people, for example small-scale mining, wood extraction, or shifting cultivation.  By looking at what motivates local people to participate in similar local to national monitoring activities, such as Indonesia’s national monitoring of child health, the authors found more general motivations, which could be developed and applied to REDD+.


Overall this PLOS Collection allows us to be cautiously optimistic: PMRV looks feasible but not simple. Many of the challenges can also be viewed as opportunities.  For example, local people often have detailed knowledge of the forests that grow around them.  This can be a valuable resource for REDD+ to tap into, but most local people lack the formal skills to gather relevant data in the consistent and uniform manner required for scaling this information to national levels.  There is no obvious process or system, so far, that allows such potentially rich but idiosyncratic information to be gathered and summarised at larger scales.


While increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases pose a global problem and the protection and expansion of forests offers at least a partial solution, we still have a long way to go to show that local scale forest solutions can be scaled up sufficiently to make a difference.  The viability of these efforts reflects not just practical issues, but also the motivations of those who can help make it happen.  Whatever the future brings, a better understanding of how we can work with local people to maintain and improve our planet’s forests is something that can bring wider benefits.  This PLOS Collection provides a foundation on which to build such hopes into plans and actions.  We hope it will be widely read.


Read the collection:

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