Participatory policies attempt to meet the livelihood needs of the rural poor while encouraging the sustainable use and conservation of natural resources. In the context of shared resources, such as forest commons, a large body of research exists on how such resources could be managed and used sustainably. Key to sustainability in the commons is the extent of collective action or cooperation among resource users.
My interest in how cooperation in the commons can be instigated, improved or degraded found expression in the Newton Fund Institutional Links research project ‘Participatory approaches to natural resource conservation in the Brazilian Amazon’, which was funded by the British Council and the Sustainable Amazonas Foundation (FAS). This project, a two-year collaboration between the London School of Economics (LSE) and the State University of Amazonas (UEA), was initially led by an LSE colleague of mine, Anthony (Tony) Hall. Five months after the start of the project, I was asked to take over from Tony when he had to leave the project for health reasons.
Working with Grace Iara Souza, the project’s Research Officer, Edilza Laray of UEA and Virgilo Viana of FAS and his team, I learned about the project’s focus: the Bolsa Floresta programme, a policy targeted at poor, marginalized communities living in mixed-use reserves in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. As of 2018, Bolsa Floresta was operational in almost 600 communities, covering over 10 million hectares of tropical forest. Although Amazonas has relatively low deforestation rates, the policy is targeted at areas judged by the policy manager, FAS, to be at high risk of future deforestation.
Bolsa Floresta provides some incentives to conserve forests and builds community capacity to manage and use forests sustainability. Central to the implementation of Bolsa Floresta is a policy approach that fosters pro-conservation attitudes among community members while giving them greater control over their forest resources and labour. In particular, community members enrolled in Bolsa Floresta are encouraged by FAS to participate in workshops to develop sustainable livelihoods with the potential to replace livelihoods that use resources in a less sustainable manner.
Our research was designed to test whether this participatory approach had any impact on community members’ intrinsic motivation (or personal fulfillment) to conserve forest commons. Intrinsic motivation was measured via the extent of cooperation elicited in a common-pool resource game. We found evidence of a positive relationship between participation and cooperation.
Given the lack of financial resources in the study area, cooperative behaviour and FAS will both be critical in the response of those enrolled in Bolsa Floresta to coping with and managing the spread of COVID-19. At the time of writing, Amazonas was on the way to being particularly badly hit by covid-19 and the virus had already reached communities in the study area. Donations to support indigenous and other rainforest people in surviving covid-19 in these communities can be made here: https://www.welight.io/against-covid-at-am.