Successful community-based natural resource management should include both resource professionals and local communities. Recognizing this fact, my research seeks to encourage more locally adaptive and collaborative forest governance that facilitates sustainable development by enabling grassroots participation. Specifically, I explore opportunities for developing a more sustainable relationship between India's Joint Forest Management (JFM) program and rural forest-dependent communities in Sikkim-a remote, northeastern state of India bordering Nepal to the west, the Tibet Autonomous region of China to the north and northeast, and Bhutan to the southeast. As an instrument for sustainable forestry management, JFM seeks to develop partnerships between forest user groups and state forest department based on mutual trust and jointly defined roles and responsibilities regarding forest protection and management. Despite governmental claims of successful implementation of the program since its inception in 1998, JFM in Sikkim continues to face challenges. In response to various administrative, ecological, institutional, political, and technological barriers, JFM in Sikkim has been driven by external donors rather than by local communities, and has been oriented toward ecological targets to the near exclusion of social concerns.
In a world where limited socioeconomic, financial, and institutional capacities present an ever-increasing threat to global conservation, appropriately targeted efforts to synchronize conservation ideals with community priorities is of utmost importance. For developing countries with limited economic resources and high biodiversity threats, this becomes even more relevant. The objective of my study was to discover ways to enable natural resource professionals and natural resource dependent communities to jointly develop locally relevant and adaptive problem solving approaches to forest management and conservation. To accomplish this goal, I conducted multi-sited ethnographic research, interviewing more than 250 members of rural, forest-dependent communities, natural resource professionals, members of local self-government institutions, NGOs, and other government officials between May 2014 and June 2016. While conducting fieldwork, I learned that JFM in Sikkim often has functioned as an agent of community destruction. The misalignment of state conservation strategies and the priorities of the human population resulted in exclusion of local human residents from conservation planning in the region. Excluding locals often escalated latent conflict and hampered desired conservation outcomes. Achieving just sustainability requires strategies that harmonize conservation priorities with diverse realities of local communities, particularly when local residents wield power to influence the success or failure of conservation initiatives. This requires moving beyond simply listening to local voices to actively incorporating local realities into conservation. Critical to this process, therefore, is the need for natural resource professionals to understand and deliberately foreground diverse stakeholder viewpoints, knowledge, needs, and preferences in natural resource management decisions.
Worldviews shape how individuals perceive and interpret reality. Social control frames, or preferences regarding how society should be managed are integral to worldviews. Understanding these frames, I posit, can guide natural resource professionals to management options that are more socially acceptable and effective. In this study, I hypothesize that key sociodemographic (i.e., age, gender, generations in region, household size and composition, and principal occupation) and spatial (i.e., elevation, distance of household from nearest accessible road and from nearest statutory forest boundary) variables may play an important role in shaping an individual's social control frames. Results of my study demonstrate that a better understanding of how key demographic and spatial factors influence prevailing social control frames, can help resource professionals better understand what motivates individuals to accept or reject natural resource management programs, and bridge the schism between policy intent and action by developing more socially appropriate management strategies.
As a first step toward incorporating people’s motivations and attitudes towards conservation efforts in East Sikkim, I conducted two workshops, the first of their kind in the region that provided a diverse group of stakeholders with a shared platform for interaction and constructive dialogue. Through soft system thinking exercises, the workshops promoted trust building and social learning, while encouraging participants to see themselves as active agents of a complex forest management process. This study provides a platform that encourages natural resource professionals and local community members to recognize and cultivate their mutual interdependence and appreciation through an iterative dialogue process. Through a dynamic collaborative learning process that recognizes plurality of stakeholder perspectives, it promises to open spaces previously held exclusively by resource professionals and introduce local forest-dependent communities as important contributors to participatory forest management in the region.
Together, the results of the study suggest important directions towards understanding and prioritizing people’s motivations and attitudes towards community-based natural resource management efforts. This knowledge may serve as a valuable tool enabling natural resource professionals to bridge the schism between policy intent and action by formulating and implementing conservation plans that are both culturally appropriate and equipped to address the uncertainties of managing complex human-dominated systems across varied spatial and temporal scales.