Negotiating Locality: Decentralization and Communal Forest Management in the Guatemalan Highlands

By Wittman, Hannah; Geisler, Charles | Human Organization, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Negotiating Locality: Decentralization and Communal Forest Management in the Guatemalan Highlands


Wittman, Hannah, Geisler, Charles, Human Organization


Decentralization is a political process, concerned with the distribution of power, resources, and administrative capacities across national territories. This research analyzes nominal decentralization of the forest sector in Guatemala, where recent legislation situates administrative power and territorial control of communal forests at the municipal level. We explore the local implications of this legislation, especially for communal forest management, in the context of historical power asymmetries between competing localities and the state. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and historical analysis of public policy in several municipalities in Guatemala's Western Highlands, we suggest that decentralization policies at times diffuse centralisation and actually increase state power at the local level, putting at risk and even weakening successful village-level forest governance structures and local livelihoods.

Key words: decentralization, deconcentration, power, common lands, community forest management, natural resources, Guatemala

Introduction

Decentralization is not always what it appears to be, a fact often minimized in debates over the merits of centralized versus decentralized natural resource management systems. Advocates of centralized management cite the need for uniform standards of environmental protection and accountability, warn against the failure of local jurisdictions to manage landscape-level and other transboundary systems, lament the lack of technical capacity for resource management at the local level, and summon the tragedy of the commons in making local resource managers seem inherently dysfunctional.

Yet centralized, state-dominated natural resource management and planning institutions have also not always succeeded in effectively managing natural resources. These institutions suffer from elitism and corruption, fiscal crises and lack of accountability, bureaucracy and inefficiency, and a tendency to homogenize rather than respect the diversity of nature and region, With few exceptions, states subscribe to what Scott (1998) calls high modernism, or scientific rationalism, technical progress, and an overweening confidence that nature can be successfully controlled despite evidence to the contrary. Against this backdrop, decentralization is considered to be at least a partial reform measure giving the public decision-making prerogatives in conservation and development programs, capturing valuable local knowledge, and replacing environmental elitism with new forms of environmental citizenship (Agrawal and Gibson 1999; Carney 1995; Hulme and Murphree 2001; Ribot 1999a).

Rarely is this debate situated in the historical power relations between state and localities. Yet decentralization is a political process concerned with the redistribution of power, resources, and administrative capacities across national territories (Agrawal 1999). In some cases, such as the one that concerns us here, nominal decentralization polices may increase state power and actually erode local control through the creation of new organizational structures that standardize and weaken locally diverse and historically successful natural resource management systems. Carney (1995) and Larson (2002) have referred to this as "deconcentration." That is, centralization can be diffused to give the appearance of decentralization while power relations privileging the center change very little.

In this paper, we analyze the impact of the decentralization of the state natural resource sector on communal forest governance in the Guatemalan Highlands, where recent legislation has shifted the regulation and administration of communal forests to the municipal level. Here, diverse community-level systems of forest governance are being replaced by a municipal system that remains politically embedded within a historically centralized and hierarchical state power structure. In Guatemala, decentralization of land and resource management was a key concession by the government under the 1996 Peace Accords that ended 36 years of civil war. …

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