Sustainable collective action in Joint Forest Management, Maharashtra, India
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The Joint Forest Management (JFM) policy was implemented across India during the 1990s with the vision of combining forest conservation and rural livelihood improvement goals through creating local level partnerships between the Forest Department and the local villagers. The difference between the rhetoric and the reality has been widely documented, as has the great variety in outcomes of JFM seen in forests and villages across India, raising the question about the reasons for such diversity. In this research the departure point of forests as a common pool resource (CPR) is taken, central to which is the concept of collective action through which forest users devise rules to manage the forests. Collective action lies at the heart of the JFM policy. One reason for the variety in outcomes of JFM at a local level could be the differing levels of involvement of external actors- seen here as individuals and organisations other than the local forest users, with the key external actors being the Forest Department and NGOs. This research uses a comparative analysis of four cases in which collective action is functioning and two cases in which collective action is not functioning, with the level of key external actor involvement varying across the cases. The influence of external actors is measured through the independent variable indicators: provision of relevant knowledge, management and social skills, communication channels and financial support. The sustainability of collective action (the dependent variable) is assessed using the indicators: the functioning of collective action, the level of understanding of JFM policy, awareness and involvement of forest users, connections with external actors, confidence in future benefits and the perceived ability to independently manage JFM. The main conclusion is that external actor involvement is not a pre-requisite for functioning collective action, however external actors do occupy a central and powerful position to influence the level of sustainability of collective action. Whilst there are individual positive cases of external actors influencing individual indicators, there is no clear correlation between external actor involvement and the indicators for sustainability of collective action, indicating that their involvement does not necessarily lead to more sustainable collective action. The influence of external actors is determined at an individual, rather than an organisational level and is limited due to a lack of policy knowledge, limited efforts in outreach towards marginalised groups, poor communication between external actors themselves and the low level to which JFM is institutionalised within the Forest Department. The study concludes with policy recommendations for external actors at a local level to strengthen the sustainability of JFM in Maharashtra.