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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 49-61

State Building and Local Democracy in Benin: Two Cases of Decentralised Forest Management

FIDESPRA-Centre for Knowledge and Sustainable Development, Department of Social Sciences, Faculty of Agriculture, Universite d'Abomey-Calavi, CEBEDES-Xudodo, 02 BP 778-Gbegamey, Cotonou, Benin

Correspondence Address:
Roch Mongbo
FIDESPRA-Centre for Knowledge and Sustainable Development, Department of Social Sciences, Faculty of Agriculture, Universite d'Abomey-Calavi, CEBEDES-Xudodo, 02 BP 778-Gbegamey, Cotonou
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009


Beyond local development, the political agenda of decentralisation in West Africa was the restoration of state legitimacy and power, and some enhancement of local democracy. The mix of local institutions created in preceding participatory development projects resulted in fragmented forms of authority. Elsewhere, lo­cal communities have developed their own institutions for managing local affairs. How in such a context do elected local governments wield power, recognise other authorities and contribute to restoration of national state legitimacy? The Lokoly forest in Benin was never subject to state intervention. The Toui-Kilibo forest, however, has been a protected state forest since 1940 and a site for participatory forest management projects since early 1990s. In both cases, the public domain has been enclosed and local government legitimacy over forest resource management contested, hampering the formation of a so-called democratic local government. This article compares these two cases, elaborating on social actors' strategies in the symbolic construction and channelling of power, and on the challenges local governments face when attempting to wield legitimate authority over public spaces and articulate local politics to national state building.

Keywords: power, local politics, decentralisation, local government, biodiversity, natural resource man-agement, democracy, institutional development, West Africa

How to cite this article:
Mongbo R. State Building and Local Democracy in Benin: Two Cases of Decentralised Forest Management. Conservat Soc 2008;6:49-61

How to cite this URL:
Mongbo R. State Building and Local Democracy in Benin: Two Cases of Decentralised Forest Management. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Jul 14];6:49-61. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/1/49/49201

   Introduction Top

THE MANAGEMENT of public affairs by African political elites from the 1960s through the 1980s was patrimonial (Mbembe 1988; Bayart 1989), resulting in corruption and poor performance of public administration and delivery of basic social services meant to construct public domains and state fields of legitimacy. By the end of the 1980s, most African states experienced economic bankruptcy and severe crises of legitimacy. Hence, the popular de­mands from Benin and most West and Central African countries for grassroots democracy carried also a quest for new consensus over the public domain and state fields of legitimacy, and for a recraft of the state's institutional framework. Beyond development goals, the political agenda of decentralisation was therefore some restoration of state legitimacy and power, together with some en­hancement of local democracy.

Previous attempts to improve state performance (1970s and 1980s) used technocratic devises for popular partici­pation. These have induced a fragmentation of the public domain in the sense of Ferguson's (1994) 'anti-politics machine', institutionalising participation that excluded moral and political imperatives or debates from the man­agement of national resources and actual delivery of so­cial services 1 (see Brosius 1999). Similarly, in the field of natural resource management, donor-funded projects transferred executive mandate to a wide range of local in­stitutions including private bodies, customary authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), resulting in multiple local forms of authority and belonging (Crook & Manor 1998; Ribot 2004). In the African political context where new legitimacies do not erase previous ones (Bier­schenk & de Sardan 1998: 20-49), fledging local gov­ernments are receiving few public powers and face competition for legitimacy (Ribot 2007).

How in such a context does the elected local govern­ment wield power so as to contribute to the restoration of national state legitimacy? Through two case studies in Benin, the Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo forests, this article examines whether fragmentation of authority and belong­ing are taking place and to what effect. While Lokoly has been altogether forgotten in the incorporation processes since the colonial period, Toui-Kilibo was classified as a national patrimony and was a site for modern state con­struction. [2] This article explores the forms of political agencies developed in these locations and the ways in which legitimacy, accountability and rules are con­structed-a process that accrues into praxis and institu­tional arrangements for forest management. The article is organised into three parts. The first gives some back­ground information on the Benin decentralisation reform. The second discusses the issues of legitimacy, agency and power in natural resource management in Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo, while the third discusses attempts by local governments to establish legitimacy over forest resource management. The conclusion discusses the political proc­esses underway in these two institutional landscapes. The challenges local governments have to face to wield le­gitimate authority over public spaces and articulate local politics to national state building are discussed, together with the support needed from research and development institutions.

   State and Decentralisation in Benin Top

Benin is a small West African country (112,700 sq km) of undulating plains and low mountain ranges, bordering Nigeria, Niger, Togo and Burkina Faso. Formerly known as Dahomey, the country was a French colony from 1902 until 1960 when it became independent. Its name was changed to Benin in 1975 following a military coup d'etat in 1972 and the adoption of Marxist-Leninist ide­ology in 1974. According to the 2007 Human Develop­ment Report, Benin remains a very poor country, ranking 163 out of 177 countries, with a per capita income of US$540 in 2006. Over half the population (estimated in July 2007 at 8,078,314 inhabitants) relies on subsistence farming for their livelihood and the poor have not bene­fited from the country's cotton sector recently ranked as one of Africa's largest cotton producers. Although signifi­cant progress has been made in improving social indica­tors, it would be difficult to meet many of the Millennium Development Goals in the absence of a sharp acceleration of current trends, except for the goals set for primary education (at least for boys) and hunger reduction.

The Decentralisation Reform

Decentralisation was agreed on in February 1989 at the National Conference that launched Benin's so-called Re­nouveau Democratique era, putting an end to 17 years of Marxist rule. Beyond the neo-liberal rationale, local fac­tors including political processes that started after the co­lonial period dictated the need to decentralise (Mongbo 1995: 60). One of them is the limited success of (post-) colonial political elites in establishing a nation-wide state legitimacy and in building a national identity and citizen­ship. A strong wave of retour au terroir started from the mid-eighties, bringing elites back to their rural home communities. [3] Local development initiatives were launched that activated a popular claim for political de­centralisation. Nevertheless, the momentum for decen­tralisation dropped after the National Conference. The 'new' political elite, who attended the National Confer­ence as an emerging civil society, won positions in na­tional state institutions in the process of implementing conference decisions. Hence, they opposed any signifi­cant transfer of national state power down to the local level. This political identity group lacked time to mature before it was dismantled (Brosius 1999). The drafting of the decentralisation law took 10 years while local elec­tions announced for 1991 were held in 2002.

The law provides for political and administrative de­centralisation. All seventy-seven former sous-prefectures became decentralised collectivites territoriale called communes. Depending on area and population sizes, each commune is divided into four to ten arrondissements consisting of villages or town suburbs with little experi­ence in political administration.

Depending on commune population size, the commu­nal council (conseil communal) has nine to forty-nine members elected at the Arrondissement level. The council elects the mayor and two deputies from its midst while the mayor appoints a Chefs d'Arrondissement. All com­munes are endowed with budget autonomy and hold dif­ferent degrees of power over nursery and primary education, health, land management, local development, socio-economic and commercial infrastructures, and local finances (Mongbo 2001; Mongbo 2006).

The deconcentration (administrative decentralisation) portion of the reform is meant to bring the state's central administration closer to the local level for monitoring. Prefects appointed by the Ministry of the Interior for each province (regrouping up to nine communes) coordinate all government activities, oversee and approve the deci­sions and actions of the conseil communal, with the power to suspend, cancel or substitute council decisions.

Actual Institutional Landscape or the Decentralisation Fallacy

While there is insufficient space to describe its unfolding, the local institutional landscape following decentralisa­tion reform appears more as institutional confusion and fallacy than the real transfer of executive or decision­making powers to local elected bodies. Every field of communal council jurisdiction is occupied by state and non-state actors and institutions, together with traditional authorities. The laws are silent on the relations between communal councils and pre-existing local centres of le­gitimate power such as committees, users associations and customary authorities. No clear financial provision is made for meeting the costs of service provision. The de­centralisation laws and decrees designed in response to the people's 1989 demand for democracy and legitimated decision-making have deprived local communities of a real share in state power. This reflects the shifts in posi­tions of political actors involved in the National Confer­ence (Rondinelli & Cheema 1983; Rondinelli et al. 1989; Brosius 1999: 283). When voicing popular demand for decentralisation, they were fighting the Marxist regime, pulling part of the state's national power down to the community level but did not expect it to be dismantled. Eventually, most of the people fighting the Marxist re­gime for local power ended up winning powerful posi­tions on the national state bureaucracies. Changes occurred in their agencies, leaving a political vacuum in the national arena of political legitimacy and power. In the absence of political force to back decentralisation un­derstood as local level decision-making, national political elites have worked to create a popular understanding of decentralisation as a shallow version of improved admini­stration of development interventions at the local level (cf. Gurukkal 2001: 69).

Legitimacy, Agency and Power in Forest Management

Problem and Questions

Some development sociologists and political scientists at­tribute to external forces the determinant role in the shap­ing of economic and political realities in third world countries, while some others would over-idealise endoge­nous independent processes. [4] I assume that though largely influenced by external forces, local actors and en­dogenous institutions play determinant roles in the social transformations taking place. We need to take a closer look at the ways in which local political elites emerge, win power and legitimacy on community and national scenes. How do some deconstruct external forces and turn them into instruments of their own strategies, while oth­ers fail to do so (Long 1992, 2001; Mongbo 1995)? The field of natural resource management is particularly in­teresting for such debates; in Africa forests have attracted the attention of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial powers for their potential to define the public domain (Hornblower 1930; De Jong 2002). Benin is known to have one of the most diversified fauna and flora in West Africa. Though resource identification has not yet been completed, present results indicate some eighty mammal species, 300 bird species, ten reptile families, many am­phibians, thousands of insect species and more than 2000 plant species (IUCN 2002).

There is a vast literature on the participatory manage­ment of natural resources but most authors stick to the involvement of local communities in the institutional and cognitive setup that yields better results in terms of effi­ciency, equity and sustainability of resource use, rules en­forcement and income. [5] There is almost no debate over how the institutional development underway locally could touch the wider issue of national state building.

Even advocates for national legislation supporting local empowerment, in line with the United States' tradition of home rule (Tang & Tang 2001: 63), view communities as fragmented and without coordinated authority. The man­agement of natural resources is addressed as disconnected from the general mainstream of national political debates.

The potential of local level collective management of natural resources for the development of democratic cul­ture and nation-state building remains largely unexplored. The interesting account of Agrawal (2001) on forest de­centralisation in the Kumaon Himalayas in India remains an exploration of the central state's attempts to instru­mentalise community forest councils in the state designed forest management scheme. 6 Despite the historical depth of Agrawal's case, we miss the opportunity to explore local community involvement in forest management as a route for investing in the articulation of locally legitimated state power with national state power. The state formation processes analysed by Agrawal (2001: 12) as the formali­sation and systematisation of social action, with the creation of new rules remains in line with the general institutional trends of incorporation processes in early 1900.

North (1990 in Poteete & Welch 2004: 279) describes institutions as commonly understood 'rules of the game'. Institutions gain their social significance by constraining social actions and shaping expectations about social in­teractions. They define the actions that must, may, or must not be taken under particular circumstances (Ostrom 1990). But institutions are not God given. Particular agents play important roles in their emergence and repro­duction. Hence, the legitimacy granted to a given institu­tion for the management of natural resources cannot be disconnected from the agents enforcing the rules, or from their positions in other spheres of society. Institutions are therefore, as Foucault indicates, a nexus of power strug­gle as much as structures above society (Foucault 1982: 222 in Agrawal 2001: 13). Hence, legitimacy here is not only as van Binsbergen (2003: 29) defines it, the quality of being found in accordance with a set of rules and meanings held collectively by a particular set of people. As much as the people granting legitimacy and yielding power to the legitimated ones, the latter power wielders are full agents in the process, playing an active role in the actual setting of rules and meanings or in advocating rules and interpretations that portray them as the best fitted.

Therefore, of major concern here is how newly elected local governments invest the battlefield of power, mean­ing and identity occupied by forest users, community in­stitutions, donors- and project-instituted committees. 7 How do local governments, endowed with popular legiti­macy through elections, negotiate legitimacy over forest resources and recognition from existing institutions and stakeholders, and what are the implications for local de­mocracy and the process of nation-state building? To what extent has the recognition legally granted to the elected decentralised authorities been shaped by the recognition attributed by donors, the central government and by indigenous communities to users committees and or­ganisations?

Methods and Research Itinerary

The research focuses on agency, power and the process of recognition winning. It identified and documented par­ticular social actors and the strategies they used in the symbolic construction and channelling of power among groups. The research also charted the evolution of institu­tions with roles in forest resources management and their sources of and strategies for developing legitimacy and power. Field investigations combined anthropological methods with quantitative surveys. Checklists and struc­tured questionnaires focused on livelihood, access and resource utilisations, and endogenous institutional devel­opment (Egboou 2001; Mongbo et al. 2005). The author observed planning and evaluation sessions to capture lo­cal actors' accounts of everyday management of forest resources and of their position on the local political scene as perceived and projected by them. The author took part in 1993 in the training and settling of the team that launched the participatory management of the Toui­Kilibo forest, and later, in 1999, was involved in one evaluation of the observed project. In 2006, in both sites, the author documented communal authorities' views on the forest and their initiatives on forest management. [8]

   Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo Forests as Institutional Battlefields Top

The Lokoly forest is a 979 ha humid swampy forest ex­tending over 30 km along a 6 to 10 m wide river (Laleye 2000). It is located in South Benin: 75 per cent is located in Zogbodomey commune and the rest in Toffo com­mune. Toui-Kilibo is a tropical savannah 47,120 ha forest located in Centre Benin: 75 per cent in Ouesse and the rest in Tchaourou commune. The research was conducted in Zogbodomey and Ouesse communes. The two forests share similar pre-colonial and present de jure status under the decentralisation law. They differ in the institutional development each underwent from the colonial period to the enactment of decentralisation. To this day the Lokoly forest is managed by community institutions with no in­trusion of state institutions while Toui-Kilibo was man­aged by state services from the 1940s and then by project instituted committees since 1994.

Forest Resources and Riparian Communities of Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo


The Lokoly forest is located at the edge of the Benin wet­land site 118 (UNESCO Ramsar convention, see Egboou 2001), 30 km from the main south-north inter-state road and is hard to reach due to the shape of the path. Inhabi­tants include various wood, grass and animal species. A diversified aquatic fauna including crocodiles, lizards and turtles live in the river.

The riparian communities in Lokoly are dominated by the Fon ethnic group. Most villages were founded before the seventeenth century. Settlement continued through the eighteenth century, scattered in many hamlets, the main agglomerations being Lokoly, Koussoukpa and Deme. Village chiefs also oversaw deification of the river and the forest. Newcomers showing mystic powers related to forest and water resources took leading roles within the community. From the mid-eighteenth to the end of the nine­teenth century, villages and leaders were incorporated in the Danxome Kingdom's administrative framework. Vil­lage chiefs' legitimacy became subjected to recognition by and subordination to the Danxomean king. The chiefs settled everyday affairs, facilitated religious rituals, col­lected taxes from people and products for the king, and recruited soldiers for wars (Michozounnou 1992).

By the end of the 1990s, activities conducted by ripar­ian communities in the forest were mostly done in the dry season bringing in an average of 38 per cent of annual in­come. The rainy season was for agriculture, food process­ing, animal husbandry and trade activities outside the forest. Forty-four per cent of the local working popula­tion earn less than 25 per cent of their income from the forest, while 20 per cent earn between 25 to 50 per cent from the forest. The most lucrative activity was wine ex­traction and processing, which is conducted by a few people due to the high level of necessary investment. For 13 per cent, the forest-based activities constitute 50 to 75 percent of total income. The remaining 23 per cent earn more than 75 per cent income from forest-based activi­ties. These patterns continue to the present. The people's pressure on forest resources remains relatively low, though there is no state control or devices for so-called sustainability (see Egboou 2001).


Toui-Kilibo forest can be reached right from the main in­ter-state road and railways. Three rivers cross it. Wood, game, fish and palm wine are of interest to riparian popu­lations. Dominant ethnic groups are the Mahi, Nagot and Fulbe. The Nagot settlers were in place before the seven­teenth century when the Mahi arrived from the south. With the building of colonial transport infrastructures in the early 1900s, the Fon from the south, and the Pila-Pila and the Yom from the north settled here. The third genera­tion of settlers was of the same groups, following a state agricultural campaign in 1965. The last settlement trend started in the 1980s with the Fon, Adja and Betamari leaving their native crowded and exhausted homelands in search of fertile land (Glin 2000). Each riparian hamlet and village is dominated by one ethnic group, the Nagot (mostly) or the Mahi. The main agglomerations are Toui and Kilibo.

Each village is headed by a chief, mostly an elder from the founder's clan. He is called Bale in Nagot villages and Gohonon in Mahi villages. 9 Individual native or migrant farmers plant annual crops of yams, maize, cassava, groundnut and cotton, and perennial trees, mainly cashew. Professional hunters are native Mahi and Nagot. Pastoralists are Fulbe settlers and transhumants. All ac­tivities were officially forbidden or restricted in the forest (quite unsuccessfully) until the participatory project started in early 1990s. By the end of the 1990s, about 70 per cent of the women involved in forest related activities were in the charcoal business, which was their only source of income, while all men combined hunting, har­vesting wild products (medical plants, honey, fruits etc.), and charcoal burning with farming outside the forest (Glin 2000: 59-70).

Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo forests, both important for ecology and biodiversity, experienced contrasting pat­terns of incorporation into the Benin nation-state. Being remote from the main colonial south-north route, Lokoly was much less in the process than Toui-Kilibo, which had been made a state patrimony and a site for a road and railway station construction. Hence, institutions for forest management evolved in different ways.

Institutions in Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo Forest Management


To the local people, the forest and the river complex are a single sacred entity called Hlan, with its forest Hlan Zoun and its river Hlan to. The indigenous institutions that manage this complex are based on myths and religious beliefs. The pantheon places the river Hlan as paramount right after Mahu Se gbo Lissa, the Supreme God. Hlan has taboos and rules called interdits that portray hygiene, cleanness, purity and sustainability. It is forbidden to cross the river with pork, which is considered as dirty, or with a dead person. A menstruating woman should not come to the river. It is prohibited to catch or kill young female or child-bearing animals or fishes, or to harvest some plants or animal species the week after someone's death (Egboou 2001; Mongbo et al. 2005). These rules con­tribute to the conservation and sustainable management of forest and river fauna and flora while shaping power rela­tions between resource users and taboo keepers. [10]

Despite apparent rigidity, interdits on Hlan resources remain open to innovations. Daily social interactions among community members, sometimes involving people from outside, produce regulations similar to interdits, to­gether with the leaders. An example is the Zounkanhoun­houn initiative: forest and water resources were of free access until the early 1950s when private appropriation began, with various forms of contracts on palm groves and continued till the 1960s when palm wine distilleries became an attractive business. By the mid-1960s, a group of young men rioted and restored the free access regime and initiated the institutional innovation called Zounkan­hounhoun whereby every year access to the forest, by opening paths, and the river is facilitated. This institution is still present. The head of the then young people chaired it until his death in 2005. His succession is yet to be or­ganised. In 1999, some Nigerian wood merchants in coa­lition with the Beninese managed to obtain cutting licenses from the state regional forest service and started cutting trees in the deep forest. Villagers stopped the op­eration and the Hlan priest appointed a youth group to watch the forest and report to him regularly.

Organisational setup of professional groups' varies ac­cording to the particular resources concerned. Palm wine processors have no particular head person. Everybody plays by the general rule of Zounkanhounhoun. But through time, changes occur in rules interpretations and users' practices, which ultimately might bring changes in the rules and institutions. According to an informant:

We need now to find ways to stop a recent ten­dency whereby some lazy young men would start extracting wine from some palm trees and stop while there will still remain wine. That is a waste of resources as nobody else is allowed to harvest such a tree. We need to talk on these and find ways before it is too late (Source: Peasant informant, March 2006).

Fishermen have one committee while the hunters have two different committees depending on the means used (traps or guns). These committees are chaired by the eld­est or the most experienced member. Meetings are held when needed. The hunters meet when the government forester is expected to visit the village. Then hunters pre­pare to 'welcome' him with some game meat. In 2001, one fisherman had his net stolen. He reported to the eld­est who called a meeting. The robber was identified and fined and then appointed chief monitor of fishing imple­ments.


When the forest was classified in 1942, the Bales' (vil­ lage land lord) authority over their portion of the forest was formally limited to symbolic rituals. Nevertheless, until the end of the 1980s, Bales were consulted by all professionals and settlers, even by the state forest agents. With the participatory project from the early 1990s, the forest was repartitioned into zones under three unites d'amenagement (management units): cropping, forest and pasture. In total, 17 per cent of the forest area is set aside for crop cultivation and 36 per cent for pasture zones.

The rest is the preserved forest. In all, eighteen forests were classified covering a total area of 1,500,000 ha.

From 1994, local communities and forest professionals (charcoal makers, carpentry wood sellers, fishermen, hunters, pastoralists, bee keepers, seedling growers and farmers) were called to participate through committees created at various levels (see [Figure 1]): each village set up formal professional associations called Groupements Forestiers, then a Comite Villageois de Gestion Fores­tiere (CVGF-committee of forest professionals' associa­tions) with two representatives from each professionals association. Each CVGF appointed two representatives to form the Comite de Gestion de l'Unite d'Amenagement de l'Arrondissement (CGUA-committee for the coordina­tion of the management unit). Then the president, the treasurer and the secretary from each CGUA gathered to elect the Conseil de Coordination des Unites d'Ame­nagement (CCUA-Coordination Council). The execu­tive board of the CCUA is operated by each CGUA represented on a cyclical basis for 2 years, while mem­bers of CVGF and CGUA are elected for a 4 year man­date (PGRN 1997).

Council and committee members gain their legitimacy from being democratically elected and are expected to re­port back to their constituencies at arrondissement and village levels. Glin's (2000: 59-98) quantitative assess­ ment of the performance of these professional associa­tions concluded that very few were functional and hardly perform any collective activity (See Knox et al. 1998; Bonnet 2000).

Committees do, however, collect fees on forest prod­ucts according to rates set by state forest services. Local communities and committees receive about 20 per cent of the sum collected. No allocation is earmarked for the lo­cal government, though this setup started in 1993, backed by the forest bill (the 2 July 1993) and the application de­cree of 2 July 1996, while the national constitution pre­scribing political decentralisation dates back to December 1990. In addition, the committees receive funds for the production of 34,000 seedlings every year (recruiting wage labourers), of which 20,000 are freely given to vil­lagers while the remaining 14,000 are used to enrich the forest and for planting 200 ha of forest every year in the buffer zones called 'free zones', between the cropping and forest zones. Over the past 10 years, a forest products commodity chain emerged out of private forests of fast growing species and from the yearly 200 ha planted in free zones. 11 Free zones are excluded from the commit­tees' mandate. Local forest professionals are entitled with free access once they pay the State Forest Service for individual professional permits (Holmes & Scoones 2002).

From the end 1990s, NGOs were contracted to imple­ment the project. They appointed village staff supervised by village forest agents and higher level forest officers. These teams assist committees in seedling production, forest planting, governance and watchdog activities over forest resources. They ensure that fees collected reach the right destination.

Representation, Legitimacy, Power and Democracy in Forest Management


Institutions are created when needed. Appointment of chairpersons' varies according to professions and contexts (eldest, most experienced or even robber). Representation criteria and source of legitimacy are not standardised but emerge from the struggle among stakeholders for resource control, and depending on readings of changes in demog­raphy, environment, market and technologies for resource harvesting. The struggles oppose stakeholders within the community (as in the Zounkanhounhoun), but might also involve outsiders and state services (as with the Nigerians). This context of institutional development sets the basis for the emergence of political agents with local recognition and legitimacy, while making them locally accountable.

Leaders emerging from these social dynamics could be people with (mystic) knowledge or particular agents within some stakeholder groups. There are no democracy rituals or drama, such as formal meetings or term elec­tions of representatives. There are no regular contacts with state forest services, NGO or project staff with their operational routines or logical framework of actions. Nevertheless, there exist spaces for people from each pro­fession to take part in processes of endogenous institu­tional innovations for access and use of the resources, with subsequent renewal of agents' and leaders' legiti­macy.

The whole scene is a political field of corporate power (Bourdieu 1990) open to all knowledgeable people in each professional sector concerned and to some extent submitted to social control, which, in Habermas' catego­ries, has the potential for democratic public debate (see Habermas 1989; Ku 2000; Staats 2004). However, the spaces for such local democracy look fragmented over the various professional fields, though linked up horizon­tally within the Zounkanhounhoun and Hlan priest um­brella. The mythical and religious basis of these institutions is their main weakness. With the recent trend of Christianisation in the area, new adherents refuse to comply with traditional myths, beliefs and rules.


Term elections are organised, chiefly in order to meet project requirements. The committees' legitimacy is largely altered by the erosion in their constituencies that can hardly grant them any recognition. They win animos­ity from implementing their mandate, which consists of controlling and fining forest users. This combines with their prominent role in seedling production and forest plantation to give of them the image of forest service vil­lage agents or brokers rather than representatives of local forest professionals or communities. This twisting in rep­resentation and legitimacy affects their accountability, turned more to forest service and NGO agents than to lo­cal communities or professional groups.

Some committee members happen to forget being members or pretend to have backed off:

Top people [higher committee leaders] take deci­sions without consulting nor reporting to village level. Therefore I withdraw. Zan an de yi o, zan an de non wa [short time goes, short time comes-suggesting the fatalist view that no situation is permanent, but is left to fate for it to change.]. Wait and see (Source: A peasant Village Commit­tee member, March 2006).

According to an arrondissement committee chairman:

When we started, people rushed and won position as member of the CGUA. But when they found no gain, they withdrew but did not resign. In my committee, only three of us remain active, not be­cause we gain anything. We even make enemies by applying the sanctions prescribed by State forest services. We simply have the sense of responsibility (Source: A peasant CGUA chairman, March 2006).

The daily management of what is left of these committees portrays them as appendages of the state forest admini­stration: instruments for enforcing state rules. They have built a network of clients and servants for tax collection, seedling production and forest enrichment. But this power base is threatened by the unites d'amenagement strategy and the group membership for committee repre­sentation, both central to the forest protection policy:

The unites d'amenagement strategy stimulates private forest planting in addition to the yearly 200 ha of state forest in free zones excluded from the committee's con­trol. This has deepened the lack of interest in professional group membership and has contributed to a decrease in fee collection over the last 4 to 5 years. Tree cutting per­mit delivery dropped close to nil while monthly charcoal export fines fell by 40 per cent. Professionals in these fields prefer resorting to the 'free zones' where they are exempt from local taxes.

Professional group membership figures are no better. Of the thirty professional groups enumerated in 1999, there were ten carpentry groups and four charcoal groups. In February 2006, there were only two charcoal groups left and no carpentry wood groups. These professionals remain active though, but in free zones and private for­ests. The committees have become nothing more than empty shells. In effect, they were given saws to cut the tree branches on which they were sitting.

Finally, participatory management appears as a strat­egy for further centralising forest administration away from local communities and for developing a private for­est planting sector formalised in state forest services books. A few local elite emerged as committee members, instruments in the state forest administration strategy with no downward accountability to local communities. Their power and legitimacy emanate more from forest administration than from local communities. These elites were extracted from their communities and incorporated into vertical ties with some immediate and non-durable gains from taxes, forest planting and networks (see Lund 1990). They had no voice in the forest management strat­egy but enjoy their status as brokers, intermediating be­tween the state bureaucracy and project cultures on one side and the forest professionals and the local communi­ties on the other.

Local Governments in the Arena of Forest Management

Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo communities differ in their ar­ticulation with recent national politics and in the structure of local governments and local political party arrange­ments. Zogbodomey (Lokoly) is dominated by the main opposition party, Renaissance du Benin (RB). At the 2002 communal elections, most council members were elected under the RB banner. In Ouesse (Toui-Kilibo), Mahi and Nagot ethnic groups have been fighting each other since the colonial period for political leadership as well as individual and collective gains from state pres­ence. In 1977 under the Marxist regime, the Mahi got the offices of the district in their zone. Since mid-1990s, most Nagot vote for the party coalition in power with president Kerekou (from 1996 to 2006), while most Mahi vote for the RB. At the communal elections in 2002, the Nagot won the mayorship and conceded the two deputy positions to the Mahi.

Lokoly and the Zogbodomey Local Government

Communal authorities don't know much about the stakes and taxable income in the forest or of how local authori­ties manage. In the communal development plan, the for­est is mentioned as a potential tourist destination. But no subsequent disposition has ever been taken in the com­munal budget. The Chef d'Arrondissement is a native of Koussoukpa riparian village but his attention was less captured by the local institutional dynamics and peculi­arities than by the researchers and development actors operating in the villages. With the assistance of some environmental NGOs, he tried to launch forest users in a tourism management scheme (Aguemon & Egboou 2005). He held a meeting in June 2005 with the commu­nities and all intervening institutions. Some NGOs sug­gested that villagers could reduce the harvesting of forest resources without affecting household income. This, they argued, would maintain the tourist potentials of the river and the forest, which would yield additional returns for individuals and communities. Villagers, however, argued for the need to construct a bridge over the river and good roads for better marketing of forest products while reject­ing all ideas from NGOs and the local government for managing forest resources in the name of rationality, sus­tainability or biodiversity conservation:

Who are you to warn us about forest exhaustion? I am older than any of you here and got from my grandfather that the forest was there before his grandfather. We know what the threats to the for­est are and what the remedies are. It is nothing of what you are preaching (Source: Old man peasant farmer, Koussoukpa, June 2005).


The only job I have is to extract palm wine and process it into alcoholic drink. Do you expect me to stop because you think it might exhaust palm trees? You don't even know anything of how these trees emerge, grow and die (Source: Middle aged palm wine processor, Koussoukpa, June 2005).

Rumours circulated about the government's intention to take away the forest as was done for a nearby forest (Lama) and for a few others elsewhere in the country. Villagers rejected any intervention requesting the government to withdraw from the forest and actions that were harmful to their activities. The meeting ended with promises of fur­ther discussions. A week later, the mayor invited inter­vening institutions for a meeting, which was a short replay of the previous one. He asked each organisation to submit a report of its activities and to prepare for another meeting, which he did not organise until the end of 2006.

The local government never questioned the legitimacy of customary institutions as assessed by community peo­ple or against state regulations. They timidly try to attract donor funding and tourism professionals. In case they get anything done, they would bypass endogenous institu­tions and set up new competing institutions with no le­gitimacy to address sustainability matters.

The Toui-Kilibo Forest and the Ouesse Local Government

In contrast to Zogbodomey, the Ouesse local government had a clear idea of the resources at stake and had no doubt as to their legitimacy as maitre d'ouvrage (master of works). The communal development plan asserted that 'the management of natural resources legally fall under the jurisdictions of the local government and would no longer be the exclusive domain of any council outside the local government'. They tried to get a hold of the re­sources generated by the forest coordination council, which the latter considered a mere agitation of a local government ignorant of forest management realities:

Right when he got into office, the Mayor jumped on us and demanded that we report on our man­agement. He thought we had funds in our account. He finally noticed that there is nothing in this business and congratulated us for our voluntary office for the commune…. (Source: A forest coun­cil member, field work March 2006).

Since then, nothing has happened. The mayor confesses that he has to be careful in attacking the forest commit­tees people too much, fearing the large popularity they seem to enjoy in the communities through their network of forest professionals and seedling growers. The Mahi­Nagot divide emerged also, questioning the relevance of merging earnings from Nagot and Mahi forests in the commune's common account.

State forest agents recommend that local government plant its own forest, promising to assist in all possible ways. Once the commune plants its own forest, it will en­joy all management rights as prescribed by law. Within the present forest law, a commune cannot claim any clas­sified state forest unless the state government passes a decree that transfers the forest to the commune. Such an event cannot be expected in the near future as forest ser­vice staffs are the people who can draft such a decree. Unless most local governments interested in protected forests take a radical concerted action that forces the gov­ernment in such a direction, nothing will change. Unfor­tunately, as indicated earlier in this article, the emergence of such a political identity group backing the decentrali­sation process cannot be expected any time soon.

   Conclusion Top

The political agenda of decentralisation in West Africa was the restoration of state legitimacy and power at local and national levels, together with some enhancement of local democracy. Within preceding development projects implemented since the mid-1980s, public mandate had been transferred to local organisations and committees in the name of community participation. In cases of no state intervention, local communities developed particular in­stitutional arrangements for the management of local af­fairs. Hence, most elected local governments experience opposition from established stakeholders, and are denied state legitimacy over public domain at the local level. The

cases of forest management in Lokoly and Toui-Kilibo in Benin show the challenges local governments have to face to wield any legitimate and effective authority over public spaces.

In Lokoly forest, access and management are regulated by priests, chiefs and local forest professionals (in charge of specific forest or water resources), usually functioning with little interference from centrally legitimated authori­ties. Rules of access and use are locally produced and shared, with rooms for challenge and change. Authorities in charge of enforcing the rules are established pragmati­cally and opportunistically, not in a standardised manner, depending on the particular professional group involved (fishers, hunters, palm wine processors etc.). The legiti­macy of chairpersons is unquestioned. Their position ap­pears as a mandatory as well as a powerful one, obtained by meeting criteria set by resource users, to whom they account when needed. These leadership/mandatory posi­tions are indicative of the ongoing struggles for the con­trol of natural and human resources. In those struggles, young men can win over elders as in the Zounkanhoun­houn episode. Criteria setting and leader's appointment are not step-wise mechanistic processes but rather dialec­tical, and might lead to unexpected decisions as a fisher­man convinced of robbery being appointed chief monitor of fishing implements.

In Toui-Kilibo, despite the participatory rhetoric, rules of access and use of forest resources are largely dictated by the state central government agencies while users' committees and organisations in charge of enforcing them are appointed within state projects in a standardised and mechanistic manner. Local communities and forest users do not have a rooted adherence to these authorities, as do users in Lokoly to endogenous managing institutions. In Toui-Kilibo, contrary to what formal discourse want us to believe, local forest authorities are not accountable to us­ers or local communities. They are project dependent cli­ents involved in wage-based seedling production and forest planting, and are incorporated into the state forest bureaucracy to whom they are accountable. As in Lokoly, the situation reflects the ongoing struggles for the control of resources. But in Toui-Kilibo, bureaucrats endowed with central state's legitimacy and resources use their dominant position to exclude forest users from decision­making.

Though the mythical and religious basis of the Lokoly framework is shaken by recent Christianisation waves, it remains dominant, part of its legitimacy being based on real power devolution to leaders appointed through social processes in which most forest users take significant part. The resulting authority relations are horizontal, being es­tablished and contested among local actors. In Toui­Kilibo, committee leaders' constituencies have shrunk by attrition over the years and they play no role in the setting of rules of access and use of forest resources. At the ex­pense of their own future development as political agents, Toui-Kilibo project-established local authorities have been used as an instrument for the consolidation of the state bureaucracy's power over forest management. They are a product and instrument of the historical mindset based on the belief that natural resource management can only be achieved under the direct and close supervision of (para-) state forestry institutions and agents (Baland & Plarreau 1996; Cline-Cole 1997: 524; Barrett et al. 2002). The resulting 'participation' safeguards and reproduces the hegemony of dominant forestry discourse and prac­tices.

Local partakers in the 'participatory' processes in Toui-Kilibo are cut off from their communities and in­corporated into vertically legitimated types of authorities and central state structures. The endogenous management processes in Lokoly produces horizontal ones. The insti­tutional arrangements in Lokoly open paths for local de­mocracy while those in Toui-Kilibo obstruct local democratisation. Despite these contrasting institutional arrangements, both cases produced a similar response to the local government's attempt to intervene. In both cases the local government had the wrong picture of the politi­cal landscape and got into arenas through the wrong doors. In Zogbodomey commune (Lokoy forest), the lo­cal government opened debates with all forest users and intervening institutions without prior negotiations with local legitimate professional leaders, village chiefs and priests. In Ouesse commune (Toui-Kilibo forest), the lo­cal government jumped on the management council to later find out that the actual decision makers were state staff. During the first 4 years of their 5 year mandate, none of these local governments managed to find its way to the forest via the right institutional gate (local authori­ties for Lokoly and state forestry staff and regulations for Toui-Kilibo). The capacity of local governments to prop­erly assess political stakes and stakeholders will be key to their success in establishing political legitimacy over mandatory public domains.

The rejection of the local government's attempts in Lokoly bears a different meaning from that of Toui­Kilibo. In the first case, local communities defend the forest as a 'common resource' where their access right should be respected if external actors, including national or local government, were to intervene. At the same time, they use the forest as a bargaining chip to attract state funding in the village (bridge, roads) for a better incorpo­ration into the market economy. In Zogbodomey, the lo­cal government is not denied the legitimacy to intervene on matters relating to the forest as long as this interven­tion does not affect the livelihood of indigenous users (wine processors, hunters, fishermen).

The Toui-Kilibo forest has been integrated in the pub­lic domain-state controlled-since the colonial period. The existence of a public good is often equated with space and state, the physical domain of its anchorage, which is linked with the authority or public power that founds it (Gazier & Touffut 2006: 11). But in Toui­Kilibo, state staff show very opportunistic reading of state law, adopting a patrimonial attitude towards state resources. They suggest that the local government plants its own forest and leaves the state forest (in fact a central government domain) alone. This is a vision of public do­main linked to a vision of the state where the public do­main of the state is the private domain of the government. By excluding local authorities from state forests, this top­down management encloses the local 'public'-in the sense of historical use-domain (see Hill 1910; Peffer 1949; Barton 2001).

The members of the elected local government seem to share this vision of the public domain and the state: con­sidering the forest as belonging to government. They do not make much of an attempt to use existing state laws and endogenous relevant institutions to make claims on this forest and strengthen their own legitimacy. The Zog­bodomey government continues lobbying with NGOs and the Ouesse local government remains silent, seriously considering the idea of planting a communal forest, in fact a private domain for the local government. In both cases, because the local government does not read or support local dynamics and institutions, society loses an opportunity for a locally rooted democracy and natural resource management as an integral part of a national state building processes and biodiversity conservation that might articulate local dynamics to national policy. A priori assumptions of the superiority of either national state centred, local government or community-based re­gimes of local resource management are indeed seriously contested (see Robbins 1998). Nevertheless, the present hegemony of (para-) state forestry institutions and agents over natural resource management policy, discourse and practice can only be but counterproductive to biodiversity conservation. In fact, it evicts from the scene local knowledge together with local processes of knowing (see Cook & Brown 1999) and local politics of environmental transformation despite their determinant role in political ecology (see Schneider 2000; Holmes & Scoones 2002).

Local governments are key players that deserve atten­tion to help change this state of affairs. They are at the right social and institutional position to articulate local dynamics and public debates into national state policy processes. To achieve this, they would need to improve their own capacity to read and cope with the institutional and political landscapes in place, while their awareness of being political agents that are part of a national state building process needs to increase. A major handicap on this route is the attitude of the central state and its bu­reaucracy-as shown with the forest staff-that consists of denying local government, any significant access to public goods, including state budgets and human re­sources. As in some cases in the past, donors could be of significant assistance in this particular matter for the fate of democracy and national state building in Africa. Further investigations will also be needed on the potentials for endogenous institutional experiences to contribute to local democracy and national state building. Furthermore, we need to know which forms of political identity groups are emerging within the actual implementation of decen­tralisation reforms in West Africa, and in which ways they might weigh on national debates on public resource allocation, biodiversity conservation and national politics of environmental transformation.


Support for the comparative World Resources Institute's Institutional Choice and Recognition Project, of which this working paper is a part, was generously furnished by the World Bank Program on Forestry (PROFOR) and by the United States Agency for International Develop­ment's Economic Growth, Agriculture and Technology division (EGAT). In Benin, the research project on Local Governance and Community Forest benefited from Dan­sih International Development Agency funding.[73]

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