LTRA-1: Decentralization Reforms and Property Rights

Research Focus

This project, working in Uganda, Kenya, Mexico, and Bolivia, sought to link policy changes with outcomes for people and the environment. Researchers focused on the role of institutions at multiple scales and examined how decentralization policies create incentives that affect behaviors and livelihoods as well as outcomes for forests. 

Principal Investigators

Elinor Ostrom
Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science
Indiana University

Krister Par Andersson
Assistant Professor of Political Science
University of Colorado

Ruth Meinzen-Dick
Senior Research Fellow, Environment and Production Technology
International Food Policy Research Institute

Esther Mwangi
Giorgio Ruffolo Post-doctoral Fellow in Sustainability Science
Center for International Development, Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

Bruce Campbell
Director, Research School of Environmental Studies
Charles Darwin University, Center for International Forestry Research

Marty Luckert
Professor of Forest Economics, Department of Rural Economy
University of Alberta


As part of this multi-scale analysis, the project is completing a large survey of households in selected forest communities in the four host countries and analyzing data on a wide range of topics, including incomes and livelihoods, use of natural resources, and perceptions of change in forest cover and quality as new policies are implemented. In Uganda in particular, researchers so far have found few cases where both favorable livelihood changes and sustainable forest management have been achieved. In some sites, increases in income have been attributed mainly to sale of illegally harvested timber. Forest cover in some areas has decreased only slightly, but reduction in tree diversity, water quality, and presence of large trees indicates diminishing forest quality. These findings call into question the benefits presumed to accrue from decentralization approaches. Building on studies demonstrating that women’s access and decision making are crucial for the sustainable management of forests, the project also is examining whether conditions vary under predominantly female user groups compared with predominantly male or mixed forest groups, how, and why.

Researchers have found that large discrepancies exist between decentralization policies on paper and on the ground. Further, they observe that high-level changes in decentralization trickle down to local people along complex paths. Building on their findings, researchers are developing capacity at the selected forest sites to enable resource users – particularly women, the poor, and other marginalized groups – to identify, understand, and participate in forest governance, benefits, and policy processes. They also are developing capacity within government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to understand the effects of policy changes and to monitor and evaluate the impact of decentralization and other property rights reforms on livelihoods and natural resources, including biodiversity. By building capacity at both levels, researchers hope to increase the ability of actors at many scales to work together effectively.

LTRA-1 has reported significant progress. Data from the project’s Uganda partner was used in a campaign to protect the Mabira forest, a preserved area since the 1930s, from reallocation for sugar cane production. Citing environmental concerns, Uganda’s National Forestry Authority announced in July that it will not grant a sugar company’s request to increase its acreage. Also in Uganda, researchers found that, while wealthier households have experienced gains in income after policy reforms in 2003, lower-income households have seen losses.
In Latin America, LTRA-1’s nationwide survey in Mexico caught the attention of a number of influential groups. The World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and the National Forest Commission have expressed interest in the survey results and subsequent data analyses. The Bolivian team, which has just completed data collection for its nationwide survey, notes that researchers frequently cannot locate the authorities in charge of forest management at the local level. This underscores the discrepancy between decentralization policies in theory and in practice.
Though violence and protests in Kenya following the recent election delayed some of the research team’s activities there, the project continues to sponsor community meetings and training sessions, and to network with farmers and other stakeholders. Links also have been established with influential groups such as the National Museums of Kenya, CARE Kenya, Friends of Lake Victoria, and Maseno and Moi universities.

Training is a key part of this project’s overall mission, enabling stakeholders to participate in researchers’ work, to share and discuss the findings, and to understand and benefit from policy changes. Training also allows researchers to convey their findings directly to community members and to representatives of organizations that affect forest management. Through April 2008, LTRA-1 had trained 1,192 individuals in various topics related to sustainable forest management.