Beyond policy statements: how politics and ecology combine in land, water and forests

Sunset in Kenya

Governing land, water and forests (so-called ‘nexus’ resources) is critical for sustaining livelihoods, especially in the face of emerging shocks such as climate change. This also means that the effectiveness of interventions aimed at addressing climate change and other livelihood issues will heavily depend on how these resources are governed – including how they are accessed, utilized and controlled.

Most stakeholders have an overly simplistic view of how governance of nexus resources relates to climate change interventions. It is a common thing for development actors to interpret policy statements such as “increasing forest cover by 10% by a particular time” to mean good governance for forest resources, and good prospects or policy support for climate change interventions aiming to protect forests – for example, the reduced emissions from avoided deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

However, effective governance of these resources goes beyond arbitrary policy statements. Land, water and forests are caught up in complex interactions with human and ecological processes – including histories, ecosystems, and politics. In this post, I’ll explore the intersection between governing nexus resources and the effective implementation of a globally endorsed climate change programme: the UN’s programme on Reduced Emissions from Degradation and avoided Deforestation (REDD+).

If you look closely at REDD+, you can see how land, water and forests are connected, and how the ecological and political processes that affect their governance are also linked. This should help us to see how intervention in one area can affect the others in ways that we may not expect.

How does REDD+ link to the wider governance of ‘nexus resources’?

REDD+ is a post-Kyoto programme designed to achieve climate change mitigation and adaptation through forestry activities. The basic principle of REDD+ is that developing countries who can protect their forests through effective governance of forest and land resources, and avoid carbon emissions, should be financially compensated for doing so.

As part of this global agenda, countries such as Kenya have committed their forests to climate change actions through country-driven Nationally Determined Contributions and ‘REDD readiness plans’. These strategies outline the necessary technical and institutional governance procedures for forest protection. But while REDD+ is defined around forests, the governance issues that determine how effective it is reach out beyond forests into other areas. This governance is conditioned by both socio-political and ecological processes, which determine different people’s access to and use of land, water and forests.

First, let’s look at the socio-political processes. These involve the rules, procedures and political interests that influence access to land, water and forests. Socio-political processes affecting one (e.g. forests) significantly interlock with the processes in another (e.g. land or water). For instance, in most developing countries, political interest in land is often synonymous with interests in resources in the land (forests, water etc).

In other words, people prefer to legally or illegally acquire land based on resources connected to it – for example, the availability of water for farming, the microclimate of the land, or forests as an aesthetic resource.  This means that the socio-political governance of an area of land affects the access and use of forest and water resources in it.

Forests and land in Kenyan policy

For example, an analysis of Kenya’s forest status indicate that forest losses largely resulted from politically driven land allocation, either for livelihoods or private developments  (Mogoi et al., 2012, Wass, 1995). Kenya’s Land Policy still vests land allocation (development control) and acquisition (compulsory acquisition) powers on the Ministry of Lands. Through this policy, Land authorities allocated large parcels of gazetted forest areas to settle landless peasants or private developers, either for genuine reasons, but in most cases for reasons around gaining electoral advantage. In this case, it is clear that forest policies don’t exist in a vacuum: they are confronted with a mix of multi-sectoral and political interests and complexities around land and water resources. This directly affects REDD+ procedures aimed at protecting forests for carbon and livelihoods.

What about the ecological processes that involve the governance of these resources? These manifest themselves mainly in terms of natural biogeochemical processes that link the resources’ functions, productivity and ecosystem services – the things humans get from them. The soils on land support ecological functions like nutrient cycling, which produces biomass and nutrients for forest growth; the forest in turn generates and helps conserve rainfall and water. In other words, the ecological functioning of land influences the functioning of forests and vice versa.

Crucially, though, the ecological and political processes described above are linked. Ecological functions are heavily influenced by the socio-political processes which set rules and procedures on resource use and planning (e.g. rules on areas to be cultivated, protected or used for settlement). For instance, in Kenya, land use for peasant agriculture and private development has displaced several acres of protected forest areas. This has led to deterioration of water catchments, soil erosion and a general loss of forest microclimate.

In order to succeed, any effective governance framework must consider these linkages between ecological and socio-political processes. The dilemma in most developing countries, however, is that the socio-political processes often take precedence in decisions, at the expense of ecology. This ultimately affect climate change programmes such as REDD+, which aim to benefit both people and nature.

What affects the success of REDD+? The case of the Kasigau project

The practical implications of this can be observed in the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ project in Kenya. The project is one of the world’s first REDD+ initiatives to sell verified carbon credits in the voluntary market by protecting 500,000 acres of dry land forest for carbon credits.

The protected forest is dominated (up to 75%) by group ranches, with patches of communal and private forest lands. Group ranches are relatively expansive grassland with continuous dry land vegetation (both shrubs and trees).  Each group ranch comprises between 20-2500 individuals who hold transferrable shares in the ranches. The other 25% of the forest is made of communal forest land that is mainly hills managed by the community. Individual lands, where households have settled, also exist in patches between the communal hills and the group ranches.

Our research shows that by including this variety of forms of land use, the REDD+ project supports the inclusion of various social groups in its activities and benefits. Most importantly, the collective ownership of group ranches and communal land helps the project’s implementation, by enhancing collective decisions on how to protect the forest, and simplifying negotiations on land commitment and carbon rights – something which is often complicated where there is individualized land ownership due to differences in land use plans.

Threats to the Kasigau project

Despite this collective setting of forest/land ownership, the project currently faces a major threat from socio-political processes around land in the Coastal area. There are plans by the State to subdivide the group ranches and communal land into individualized titles.  This ultimately will complicate the situation for the project: it will have to convince more than 2000 ranch shareholders to commit their land to particular forest protection practices.

What is more, the State-driven socio-political governance of land is largely justified around livelihoods, but gives little attention to the ecological functions that have long benefitted from the collective/communal land ownership. The situation is made worse by bureaucracy and sectoral fragmentation, where sectors monopolize decisions on land, forests or water, with little consideration of ecological flows across the resources.

This fragmentation limits the legitimacy of REDD+ as a climate change initiative across sectors, and constrains its practical implementation. Because the State department of forests has a monopoly on forest issues, this means that land authorities may not understand what REDD+ is all about, so may not think they are harming a REDD+ project by making discrete decisions on land subdivision. Similarly, the water sector may not appreciate the need for water in a REDD+ project, if most REDD+ plans and decisions remain centered in the forestry sector.

In other words, sectoral approaches to governing land, water and forests largely support socio-political processes (i.e. sector-based decisions, responsibilities and specialization), but they fail to support the ecological processes that go beyond sectors. The case of Kasigau reflects the conflicts of interests between socio-political and ecological governance of the nexus resources, especially in a developing setting. This then translates into major impediments in programme/policy implementation around these resources.

The way forward

The above discussion reveal that a major problem for the governance of land, water and forests in developing countries lies in the inability to balance socio-political processes and ecological processes.

This problem persists even at a time when developing countries are increasingly committing themselves to using nexus resources like land, water and the environment towards achieving their global environment and development agendas under the Paris Agreement (through country NDCs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For these initiatives to work well in practice, developing countries – especially those of Africa – must rethink their resource governance agendas. They need structural transformations of a kind which account for both socio-political and ecological processes and interests in land, water and environmental resources.

About the author

Joanes Atela is a researcher based at the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) and co-ordinator of the Africa Sustainability Hub. This blog post was partly supported by a grant through the Governing the Land-Water-Environment Nexus in Southern Africa project.