Challenges to community forest research in northwest Mediterranean Europe

A recent workshop organised as part of World Commons Week reflects on how participatory and action research could promote sustainable forest management in community areas in Portugal and Northern Spain.

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Research workshop
Researchers and practitioners come together for commons workshop. Photo: Marta Romero, Department of Social, Political and Territorial Sciences at the University of Aveiro.

Does our research make a difference for forests, rural areas and communities? This is what we asked ourselves when we saw the announcement of the World Commons Week (6-12 October 2019), which sought to promote the mutual exchange of ideas, scholarship, and practical experience related to natural commons. We are a group of researchers working with communities that own and and manage forests. During World Commons Week, local hosts around the globe organised events with a focus on the commons – we decided to organise our own in Portugal!

Our event consisted of a workshop to reflect on how participatory and action research could promote sustainable forest management and use. Our work targets community areas in Portugal and Northern Spain (Galicia). We believe that these community areas are a fruitful terrain to develop alternative uses and governance regimes that favour nature and communities, but… how do we know if we are working in the right direction and with the correct methods?

Portugal and Northern Spain have a significant area under a communal regime called “baldios” which dates from Middle Ages. Managed and enjoyed by local communities, baldios were an important support for rural families in the past, yet they were expropriated and afforested during the last century by the dictatorships of both states. Currently, these community lands are, in the national forest universe, a valuable heritage and an important space for forestry activities. Yet, communities face important challenges such as the complexity of governance regimes (e.g. self-management by local communities or co-management with the Forest Service and other key players), compliance with legislation, local peoples’ demotivation and low participation in assemblies, or the need to innovate on new economic activities beyond wood production.

In view of this, the event joined together researchers on community areas, local people from five different common lands, and other important stakeholders, like the Forest Service and the Baldios Association. In the morning, there were presentations of research projects done in community areas, followed by a collective reflection on the contributions, challenges and opportunities of these projects for the regeneration of forests and rural areas given the sharp decline of the rural population in the last decades. After this reflection, we proposed different activities inspired by art-based methods and Theory U, to think about how to create synergies and support networks between researchers, communities and stakeholders in order to take a step forward together.

In the course of the workshop, participants acknowledged the need to expand research that focuses on the needs and prospects of communities rather than on scientific agendas. They identified the following needs: (1) helping to fight individualism in the governance of community lands; (2) promoting linkages between communities and communal land so local people become interested in participating in management activities, (3) searching for, analysing and promoting new forms of joint management (e.g. private partnerships), due to the failure of co-management agreements with the state, and new economic activities.

If you have similar interests and you want to connect, please write to iryna.skulska@gmail.com.