Co-Management Practices In Forest Zones Of Bangladesh For Sustainability

There has been an upsurge concerning the concept and application of ‘co-management’ in the governance of natural resources in Bangladesh in recent years. However, the overall approach to implementation has been overtly technical in nature; and there has been limited attention to sustainability dynamics. This article aims to explore aspects policy and practice within co-management in the coastal forest zones of Bangladesh. By Niaz Ahmed Khan, University of Dhaka, Junaid Kabir Choudhury, Bangladesh Forest Department, AZM Manzoor Rashid, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Mohammad Raqibul Hasan Siddique, Khulna University, and Karishma Sinha, Independent University Bangladesh

In view of the rapid pace of deforestation and associated biodiversity loss, the recent years have seen something of an upsurge and interest in the concept and application of collaborative management (for short, co-management) in the governance of natural resources (NR) in Bangladesh, encompassing both forest and wetland sectors. 

The country’s actual forest cover is estimated to be 6.7 percent of its entire land mass; nonetheless, many species have already gone extinct locally. 

As a result, Bangladesh has become a forest poor country with a per capita forest area of less than 0.02 hectares, one of the lowest in the world. The forestry sector currently employs nearly 10 million persons per year and contributes approximately 1.76 percent to the national GDP. 

Although forestry contributes relatively little to the national GDP, as currently measured, it makes a substantial contribution to the country’s ‘comprehensive wealth’ when assessed from a broader perspective of environmental economics and natural capital.

With the stated goal of conserving biodiversity and reducing forest degradation, the Government of Bangladesh adopted a co-management approach in the late 1990s. Since then, it has established 54 forest protected areas (PAs) of which 21 PAs are co-managed by 28 co-management organisations. 

In addition to enabling meaningful local participation through joint decision-making processes co-management aims to reduce resource management costs with more locally relevant management plans developed in ways that simultaneously aim to reduce poverty through diversification of economic activities. 

As a result, the co-management approach is expected to contribute to Bangladesh’s sustainable development goals by combining environmental conservation with development needs.

NGO activity in Bangladesh began in the late 1970s, after a severe storm and the end of the battle for independence in 1971. Following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Bangladesh saw the emergence of environmentally focused NGOs and associated environmental advocacy groups. 

These NGOs have partnered with the government in implementing large-scale forestry and environment-related programs, notably the National Environmental Management Action Plan and participatory coastal plantation development. Since the 2000s, NGOs have been routinely involved in co-management programs. 

However, there has been very limited academic focus on the performance of these NGOs. This study intends to contribute to this relative gap.

Co-management does not imply management in the sense that methods and actions are chosen to accomplish specific predetermined goals; rather, co-management broadly refers to a form of governance in which local stakeholders participate and co-lead in setting their own goals and deciding how to attain them. 

Notwithstanding the popularity of co-management as a major natural resources (NR) governance regime, to date the overall approach to implementation of co-management projects has been predominantly technical in nature; the concept has remained be- devilled with ambiguity and ramifications; and there has been limited attention to the dynamics of sustainability. 

Ensuring sustainability while addressing the hopes, aspirations, and livelihood needs of resource dependent local communities remains a daunting challenge.

Against the above backdrop, this article aims (i) to explore aspects of the policy and practice of co-management in Bangladesh by drawing on selected cases in coastal forest zones; and (ii) to identify the major challenges and issues concerning the sustainability of co-management initiatives. In view of limited research on the subject, this study is expected to generate lessons that may be of relevance and use for both policy makers and practitioners alike.


Natural Resource Co-Management

Co-management implies the sharing of responsibilities, rights, and duties between the primary stakeholders, specifically local communities, and the nation state. 

It has been adopted in response to the perceived failure of centralised management of natural resources. 

Co-management is a pragmatic way through which people of all ranks and across scales collaborate to adjust responsibilities, functions, and activities to changing environmental conditions. 

Co-management also feeds into issues of justice, for example, redressing earlier seizures of land, and thus also has social ramifications. 

This process creates power, allowing for rule changes and win-win solutions. It now recognises the critical role of people who live near resources and have an impact on its utilisation and management. 

Co-management agreements today commonly include the devolution of power, authority, and responsibility for day-to-day natural resource management—from national to local and subnational governments.

The most promising forest-centred co-management practices worldwide rely on community-based enterprises that generate revenue from its resources while ensuring social and ecological sustainability. 

Improving the well-being of the local population is a corollary objective of implementing co-management systems for public forests. Improvements in well-being largely arise from the economic activities of local communities that focus on sustainable forest resource use. 

Co-management involves various stakeholders and thus the process outcomes and long-term sustainability of such initiatives rely on both external actors and local communities.

Participation in decision-making, implementation, and enforcement are key components of co-management agreements. 

Co-management focuses on creating effective local institutions and a supportive environment for long-term management. 

Local, on-site co-management has in turn led to more adaptive governance—resulting in the emergence of a new form of environmental governance in the context of dynamic, complex, and uncertain systems. 

Power sharing and conflict resolution amongst stakeholders in co-management systems also combine with adaptive management and lead to collective learning and problem solving. 

Many countries have been switching from centralised, non-participatory management of PAs to co-management models in order to benefit from the latter by practicing adaptive governance and integrating nature protection and sustainable development. 

This requires the presence of institutional entrepreneurs, a dense central core of network actors, and strong horizontal and vertical ties among community-based resource management groups. 

However, in order to protect the environment and pro- mote long-term development, co-management approaches must be institutionalised gradually.

Involvement of local residents in natural resource management is now man- dated by the international community with a pursuit of ‘double sustainability’ to protect biodiversity and livelihoods. 

To be successful in co-management, traditionally disadvantaged community stakeholders must feel ownership of the natural resources and work in organised fashion in order to function effectively as equal partners with regional and national governments.

In sum, co-management refers to the sharing of power and cooperation between the state and local communities and their representatives in resource management and use. 

These two key stakeholder groups frequently work in collaboration with a third party, such as an NGO, civil society organisation, or other institution, to help them interact, partner, and negotiate. The priorities and working styles of these stakeholders may, however, be quite different, which often makes it quite difficult to find common ground.


NGOs In Sustainable Co-Management

A non-governmental organisation (NGO) is a non-profit organisation that is not affiliated with any government. NGOs are likewise dedicated to addressing social is- sues and improving the human condition. 

NGOs are able to handle challenges that other sectors or the government cannot or will not address by establishing and focusing on their own specialised missions and drawing on the enthusiastic support of local communities and devoted volunteers. 

Additionally, NGOs have an unrivalled level of independence in their public work. NGOs may receive funding from the government and for-profit businesses, and they frequently collaborate with them.

Aid donors prefer NGOs because they believe they can help encourage a more flexible and efficient decision-making processes at a lower cost at the community level. 

As a result, NGOs have become a channel for international donors to build their capacity to deliver development in poorer countries through bottom-up, people-centred, and participatory approaches. 

They frequently favour international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) because they often have greater institutional capacity than local NGOs. Consequently, scholars argue that the success and efficiency of interventions are influenced by the dynamics of these actors’ relationships.

Although co-management places a great emphasis on partnerships and connections between communities and other stakeholders, there remain managerial hierarchies. 

Meaningful partnerships are unlikely to develop unless the capacities of traditionally disadvantaged community stakeholders to organise themselves are developed. This will allow them to become equal partners with the government. 

The basic premise of an NGO approach is that it insists on involving people in governance who are likely to be impacted by the proposed actions. 

These methods, however, have drawbacks and limitations. Concerns have been expressed, for example, about the participatory aspects of such strategies, including the challenges associated with com- munity involvement (e.g., consultation fatigue) and the ever-present (though not always recognised) knowledge mismatch between western and Indigenous knowledge systems.

Some scholars also argue that notions of ‘community’ are superficial and different from the local sense of community, since so-called local communities have often been framed as homogenous and unified units, ignoring their complexity, diversity, and power dynamics. 

As a result, community-based initiatives frequently misinterpret local settings, resulting in programs centred on token community engagement and gender stereotypes. 

Moreover, relationships between international NGOs (INGOs) and local NGOs are ‘dependent’ and rely on the comparative advantages of the organisations involved.

Partner local NGOs are often weaker since INGOs control the funding (and often have higher technical and operational abilities), and therefore, a partnership becomes a ‘donorship,’ forcing local NGOs to be concerned primarily about funds. 

As a result, local NGOs may become more concerned about their own survival rather than about the community they are aiming to help. NGOs have also been chastised for pushing agendas and objectives that do not always represent the priorities of the communities themselves, as well as for prioritising donor desires and ideology over scientific and progressive societal norms. As a result, NGOs are accused of accommodating western expertise and norms in planning, and implementing their initiatives at the expense of local objectives, social norms, and needs, jeopardising their innovation, autonomy, and legitimacy. 

Because such agendas are frequently implemented through time-limited interventions, NGOs frequently adopt target-driven rather than process-driven approaches. For these and other reasons, the actualisation of the key ideas behind collaborative natural resource management may face a wide suite of challenges and obstacles.


Developing A Sustainable Co-Management Model

Recent research has linked poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation to four major aspects of sustainable development: the environment, development (especially economic factors), society (including social services, freedoms, and more), and important connections between these which has been shown in Figure 1. 

An interrelated global environment and world ecology is made up of nature with both biophysical and human dimensions; the latter includes socio-economic-political settings. 

Development should not exceed the environment’s carrying capacity to provide natural resources and services. 

Economic activity is not only an indicator of development, but it is also a process of qualitative and equitable growth. 

Sustainability should be positioned in political-institutional arrangements to restructure public prowess and integrate fair decision-making in the development process. It is critical for social development to prioritise community well-being, job creation, and income distribution as part of social responsiveness.

Scholars have argued that in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals, a poor institutional environment typified by a lack of democracy, poor enforcement of forestry rules and regulations, and a lack of appropriate land-use planning poses a serious obstacle to environmental sustainability. 

Global economic growth cannot be achieved with an unequal distribution of wealth if human society is viewed as an interdependent and global community. Cultural values and beliefs must be recognised and considered at various stages of development in order to guide and justify anthropogenic actions. These four key factors, taken together, steer development towards sustainability.

Scholars have also found that community-based initiatives, such as co-management, may suffer from a lack of adequate local engagement; financial sustainability (i.e., long-term cash flow to support activities); lack of sustainable alternative income generating (AIG) opportunities; lack of local institutional backing; and low levels of community awareness about the project and about exacerbating factors such as climate change. 

Because community adaptation programs initiated by NGOs are often reliant on foreign donor money, the latter institutions are likely to have a considerable impact on the design and implementation process. 

Studies have also shown that a lack of local technical skills in project management, as well as concerns of power, governance, and elite capture, have an impact on co-management efficacy.

Besides the above, co-management success is linked to institutional quality and Ostrom’s design principles for implementation. Ostrom, a political economist, identified the four ‘design principles’ and challenged conventional wisdom on how community users can successfully manage shared resources through social practices and self-governance, and demonstrated such co-management success via empirical fieldwork. 

Ostrom’s design principles include group size, resource salience, clear ownership, resource dependency, stakeholder interaction, the presence and enforcement of agreed norms and customary rules, participation in the decision-making process, benefit sharing, outcome evaluation, and effective leadership. In addition to these, rights of access to forest products, forest management responsibilities, decision-making power, property rights, and local sovereignty over forests are also required. 

It is equally important that culturally relevant communication and conflict resolution mechanisms are in place, allowing for feed- back to higher levels of government and joint governance, to ensure successful management of common pool resources (CPR).

Overview Of Current Co-Management Practices In Bangladesh

The prevailing co-management practices in Bangladesh with respect to natural resources may broadly be divided into two types, co-management by NGOs and co-management by the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) through the Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD), the Department of Fisheries (DoF), and the Department of Environment (DoE).

Co-Management by the GoB through BFD, DoF, and DoE: As of January 2022, GoB has declared 60 Protected Areas (PAs) in Bangladesh and amongst these, co-management approaches have been established in 22 PAs. 

Most of the PAs are managed by the GoB through the BFD, while others are managed by the DoF and the DoE.

Co-management was first implemented in the wetlands in Bangladesh through a project entitled Management of Aquatic Resources Through Community Husbandry (MACH), which began in 1998 with the goal of developing community-based participatory approaches in wetland management. 

Subsequently, in 2004 the BFD and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched an experimental co-management project in five trial PAs in Bangladesh. 

The primary objectives of this management method were to incorporate forest dependent communities into the governance system for sustainable forest resource management and to halt the widespread loss of local biodiversity. 

Between 2004 and 2018, three separate projects supported the development of co-management initiatives in Bangladesh: the Nishorgo Support Project (NSP), Integrated Protected Area Co-management (IPAC) Project, and Climate Resilient Ecosystem and Livelihood (CREL) Project.

The 2017 Protected Area Management Rules and the Government Orders of 15 May 2006 and 23 November 2009 formally approved co-management in PAs in the country. 

These rules expressly state the benefit-sharing percentage from government revenue to the co-management organisations for PA environmental conservation and community well-being. These rules and orders are intended to establish a com- prehensive legislative framework for co-management with special reference to the establishment of co-managed protected areas. Co-management organisations may be recognised in three tiers:


(a)Village Conservation Forum (VCFs) is the lowest level institutions comprised of enlisted households that are dependent on forest;

(b)Peoples Forum (PF) is the apex body of the VCFs, formed at the Forest Range level, comprising all VCFs from the PA landscape;

(c)The Co-Management General Committee (CMGC) is the formal co-management organisation in Bangladesh comprised of 38 members from various stakeholders such as representatives from local communities, the BFD, local government administrations, and civil society. The executive body of the CMGC is the Co-Management Executive Committee (CMEC), also with representation from all stakeholder groups (19 members).


The CMGC approves the CMEC’s yearly work plan for managing PAs. The CMEC updates the VCF roster and conducts frequent patrols with a Community Patrol Groups (CPG). 

The CMEC can create as many CPGs as needed, with members chosen from VCF members in each range. The CMGC meets every six months.

Co-management by NGOs: Some NGOs such as Friendship, Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS) and Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK) are reported to have co-management activities with respect to the newly established plantations in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. We purposively visited three sites out of 13 sites across the country.

The NGOs are trying to establish their own co-management system. They are involving people in afforestation and monitoring activities after forming a group from the local communities.

Recently, environmental issues, particularly those related to natural resource management, have sparked widespread and growing interest across governments. Similar to other developing countries, PAs in Bangladesh suffer from a severe financing crisis, jeopardising forest protection and biodiversity conservation. 

The GoB is unable to provide sufficient funding from the public budget to the forestry sector, including PAs, due to competing priorities [91]. This provides an opportunity for NGOs to work in this arena as they have the capacity to garner substantial attention and support from foreign donor agencies, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), as well as local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).


Salient Issues And Challenges Of Sustainability

Based on the field visits and local and community level consultations (through Focus Group Discussions), this section summarises some key issues and challenges that have serious implications for co-management operations in the field and their long-term sustainability.

Tenurial complications: Community forestry can only be successful if the landowners have a sense of security. People who believe that their rights to future benefits from forest resources will not be challenged are more willing to invest in conservation and silvicultural enhancement. Still, tenurial security is absent here. The NGOs in the case studies are said to have entered into an informal agreement with the local communities or UP members; however, no documents were found or provided. The local community people have no sense of ownership of land because of the absence of legal documents. 

Co-management by NGOs: Adaptation to climate change requires a co-management paradigm for mangrove-based ecosystems and their services. To some, mangrove plantations are not incorporated into coastal ecosystems but are regarded as separate activities. If the plantations can generate profits through harvesting, commercial players will invest and reinvest in this region and thereby play a role towards achieving sustainability.

All the NGOs visited are afforesting river-bank land without permission from the authorised authorities and are focusing more on conservation than socioeconomic well-being. Taking into account the types of climate stressors and vulnerabilities that affect coastal communities, frameworks should be developed to make it essential for NGOs to diversify income prospects across land and water-based livelihood activities across village landscapes.

Extent of community engagement: Plantation programs are often implemented without consultation with locals. Local NGOs strive to build a community with local people after consultation with local elites and key political figures. Typically, INGOs or major national NGOs pro- pose riverbank afforestation to meet donor interests as well as their own vision. The local expert, with support from NGOs, plans the project without community input.

NGO leadership often tries to persuade others by promoting the benefits of the plantation program and by participating in activities without initial community in- put. Co-management is defined as involving locals in program implementation. Community engagement is less about inviting people to join and more about educating them about the initiative.

Political interface: Co-management institutions, as field observations suggest, are gradually gaining prominence and visibility. In the process, these institutions have attracted the attention of local power holders, including socio-political elites, as prospective support bases and ‘vote banks,’ i.e., blocs of loyal voters. A few members appeared to be getting actively engaged in local politics and aligning with major political parties. 

Some NGOs are bypassing local institutions to form communities, and in doing so, they try to involve female participants but ignore the class-based, hierarchical, and gendered rural unit, locally known as ‘samaj.’ 

The efficacy of focusing on disadvantaged women is limited by class divisions and power structures in rural areas controlled by wealthy male elites and patron-client interactions. Furthermore, by prioritising local communities based on identities and relationships with uncertain institutional limits in co-management, institutions may provide a chance to reshape socioeconomic and political interactions in order to maximise the interests of dominant parties. It also eliminates the possibility of decentralising resource management and use rights to local, permanent units, which could be detrimental to sustainability.

Rationalising of harvest: As the local community has an acute fuelwood shortage, how they will collect from these plantations needs clarification. Moreover, to sustain this practice, there should be a clear benefit-sharing scheme to convince the government that it not only helps to reduce pressure on the natural resources of the Sundarbans but also plays a role in the socio-economic uplift of the local community. The proper guidelines of using the funds from yields must be tabled and secured so that it does not get drained away without accruing any benefit to the community.

‘Ownership’ issues: The absence of tenurial rights over land and trees compels locals to consider whether they will have the right to use it in the future. In addition, improper inclusion of individuals in decision-making adds fuel to their reasoning. Moreover, locals believe that INGOs and NGOs’ funds are time-limited and cannot be relied upon to continue for an extended period of time. As a result, the local populace lacks faith in NGO assurances and a sense of ownership, which compels them to maximise their profits from these activities without regard for the project’s objective and long-term viability.

Financial viability: Bangladesh is facing a serious financial crisis, threatening forest protection and biodiversity conservation activities. Due to competing priorities, the Bangladeshi government is unable to adequately subsidise the forestry sector. NGOs are currently assisting in plantation establishment and monitoring. Locals continue to fear that NGOs’ financing will not be assured for a long time.

While the government should fund these initiatives, no Development Project Proposal (DPP) has been filed. As a government department, BFD cannot work with NGOs until a DPP is granted. 

Accountability: According to the notification published in the 2010 Government Gazette, the Co-management Committee is expected to be accountable to its fellow co-management bodies, specifically the People’s Forum and the Co-management Council, through periodic reporting. Local people who engage themselves in coastal plantation and monitoring activities are getting some money for their work. However, they have no information regarding finance and hence have a mistrust of NGO officials. There is a lack of accountability towards the development of beneficiaries, a propensity for donors to deliver foreign aid directly to NGOs, and donor conditionality in NGO agreements.

In Bangladesh, INGOs usually work in collaboration with local NGOs to carry out projects. INGOs are held to a higher standard by funding agencies in terms of project outcomes, and they direct their partners to carry out the project toward that goal. However, to ensure a sustainable plantation program, local actors have to be downwardly accountable.

Absence of conflict resolution power: The Co-management Committee (particularly NGOs) is not a part of any co-managed dispute resolution authority with the BFD for land and resource rights, neither on paper nor in practice. Land use, benefit sharing, forest access, resource rights, tenure rights, or land encroachment (for example, new homes, commercial brickfields, illegal gardens), boundary conflict between forest users, or forest villages with respect to their land use rights are all handled by the latter. 

Therefore, local people have little belief that these plantations will bring any benefit to them in the future as there are no legal documents supporting their recognition. This raises mistrust among local communities towards NGO officials as well as governments.


Suggestions for improvement

This concluding section presents the following propositions for improvement based on the feedback from the focus group discussions and empirical observations from the study:

(1)Develop a code of conduct for co-management institutions and their members. Identifying and selecting members of local co-management organisations should be done with extreme sensitivity to avoid selecting fraudulent members (not matching the criteria for membership). Bangladesh may implement capacity building programs for both co-management groups and BFD workers to streamline forest co-management. Finance management, office management, and leadership are the three main streams that should be prioritised for co-management institution capacity building interventions;

(2)For co-management to be financially sustainable, corporate sponsorship, particularly Corporate Social Responsibility funding, may be pursued. This will necessitate more proactive co-management leaders and financial managers. Ef- forts should be made to leverage local resources (local government institutions, social philanthropic sources, etc.) and to maintain government oversight of co-management activities, including endowment fund management. It is better to save and accumulate through cooperatives in targeted ways. 

(3)Developing and implementing a coordinated management planning approach is crucial. Conservation NGOs are distributed over the landscape. However, while these programs may fulfil local needs, they rarely achieve large-scale change. Unification is particularly essential. In addition, community co-management leaders should avoid open conflict with powerful vested interest groups and elites as a management technique. Active local government involvement is preferred. The local context should be considered while developing and implementing any initiatives.

(4)NGOs may undertake reforestation on newly acquired land outside the Reserved Forest after negotiating land and resource use agreements and rights. Land tenure issues should be handled routinely, as should conflict situations. To avoid tillage regression, it will also be necessary to assess when this land is suited for other purposes outside of forestry. Depending on the situation, two strategies should be employed to gradually develop co-management:

To increase the scope of co-management territory beyond the PA boundaries and into other landforms and legal categories;

To horizontally expand the scope of co-management territory by including new forest and wetland tracts.

(5)Co-management organisations should prioritise outreach to the broader ‘third sector,’ including civil society, research centres, think tanks, and tertiary educational institutions. The participation of civil society is crucial for advocating and influencing policy. One way to make people more aware of co-management is to provide resources for media and communication.

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