New research proves that participation does not always equate to power in decision-making processes. Marlon del Aguila Guerrero, CIFOR

A seat at the table isn’t enough to ensure equity and “counter power”

Multi-stakeholder platforms need critical mass of Indigenous and local people

Inviting Indigenous People and local communities (IPLCs) to the proverbial table might help them be heard, but it isn’t enough to ensure they are treated as equal and influential partners in land-use negotiations, says new research that offers warnings and proposes solutions.

Although multi-stakeholder forums (MSFs) are increasingly used to resolve thorny issues such as sustainable land, forest and resource use in landscapes shared among competing interests, serious problems persist regarding representation, voice and influence from marginalized groups, including women and youth.

“Many organizers think that inviting people to the table is the most important step to support equity and voice, but this just glosses over differences,” says Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Anne Larson, whose team’s research included interviews with participants of 13 subnational MSFs (and one national) in four countries: Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Peru. 

“But there must also be open discussions about the needs of marginalized groups and how to facilitate accountability and a genuine commitment to equity, voice and empowerment.”

A place at the table is not enough: Accountability for Indigenous Peoples and local communities in multi-stakeholder platforms looks at forums designed to address land-use concerns and improve forest practices. Eleven of the 13 MSFs involved men and women from IPLCs who were the focus of the research and contributed over 50 responses studied by researchers. Most (119) of the remaining 185 participants interviewed were from national and subnational government institutions, 33 from non-governmental organizations, and the rest from the private sector, academia and donor organizations.

The effectiveness and governance of MSFs and their role in how landscapes are managed have global implications, because the decisions made therein can have significant impact on carbon sinks, biodiversity, food production and the like .

Although MSFs have been around for some 40 years, the research shows that lessons about inclusion still haven’t been learned, says co-author Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti, a CIFOR-ICRAF scientist based in Peru. That may explain why researchers found that more than half of IPLCs participating in forums suggested other options – such as their own collective organizations – may be more useful.

“We learned that (MSF) organizers need to engage more strategically with IPLCs to ensure they feel effectively included and empowered,” says Sarmiento Barletti. “Inclusion and empowerment are particularly important, as the forums we worked with – most of those organized in the Global South – are framed by deep histories of inequality and conflicts over land.”

Research suggests the main solutions start by devising a strategy for the MSF that fosters “counter power” among IPLC and marginalized participants – that is, finding ways to reduce the advantages of more powerful groups.

This means:

  • Ensuring a critical mass of representatives from marginalized groups,
  • Developing rules for the MSF that foster a fair, level playing field for participants,
  • Building spaces where IPLCs and women can learn, debate and self-organize, to increase their voice and influence in the forum, and
  • Fostering alliance-building with other MSF participants, and not assuming this will happen by itself.

One reason many MSFs flounder is that, too often, they are “idealized” as imagined spaces for collaboration among equals – despite ample research showing that it’s not easy to foster equity, said Larson.

“That idea is also an obstacle to meaningful change,” she says. “Platform organizers need to understand that participants bring their identities, shaped by history and context, by power and social relations, into the room. They can’t just leave them at the door.”

IPLC interviewees included in the research were somewhat optimistic about the potential of MSFs, but many were far more skeptical than other participants about the potential for these forums to empower, assure voice, prevent those with more power from dominating dialogue, and avoid placing their ancestral rights to land at risk, says co-author Nicole Heise Vigil.

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indigenous peoplesindigenous rightsland rightsrightstenure

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