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Making Forests Pay: Participatory Forest Management

Farm Africa pioneered the introduction of PFM in Ethiopia in the mid-1990s in partnership with local NGO SoS Sahel Ethiopia and along with other agencies such as the German development agency GIZ (then GTZ). The approach was born from a workshop in 1994 designed to raise awareness of deteriorating forest conditions and share experiences from Southeast Asia where involving local communities in forest management was being rolled out with some success. In the same year, Farm Africa/SOS Sahel organised a study tour to India for Ethiopian government forestry experts to witness the success of government/community partnerships on the ground. 

Ethiopia’s first pilot project was launched by Farm Africa/SoS Sahel in 1995 in Chilimo and Bonga. Subsequently, several other organisations began to initiate pilots of their own. These trials demonstrated the potential of the approach in diverse forest types and socio-economic settings and served as basis for scaling up and policy recognition. The Oromia Regional State became the first to formally recognise PFM in 2000, by forging formal agreements with communities. Box 1 illustrates the process as recorded in the first written guidance produced by Farm Africa and its partner SoS Sahel.


 Box 1: Participatory forest management in practice

There are several phases to the establishment of a PFM system. The first written guidance (Farm Africa/SOS Sahel Ethiopia, 2007), as well as the more recent harmonised national guidelines, present a three-phased approach: 

  • The first focuses on investigating current and past forest conditions. Community forest management groups and government foresters clearly define who the forest users are and how they use the forest (stakeholder analysis), conduct participatory forest resource assessments to understand management needs and explore forest-based livelihood opportunities.
  • The second involves negotiations on what actions can improve forest condition and exploring rights and responsibilities held by communities. A forest management plan is prepared and a co-management agreement signed between community and government through transparent negotiation.
  • The final phase involves forest management actions to improve forest condition and sustainable use. The forest management and utilisation plan is translated into practice including the sustainable harvest and marketing of forest products.

The pilot phase demonstrated how PFM projects could be implemented successfully and indicated the potential of the approach for positive impacts on forest conditions and rural livelihoods. Trust in communities’ accountability and ability to manage forests grew and broad recognition and acceptance of the approach increased systematically at all levels of government. Since 2000, other development partners joined the initiative, and the geographical coverage of forest area under PFM increased substantially.

Today PFM is formally recognised, in forest proclamations of Ethiopia’s Federal Government[1] and several regional states[2]. The approach has expanded significantly. Our own data suggest that nearly 40% of the country’s forest resources are now under some form of PFM[3], although Winberg (2010) is more cautious. The government is committed to taking the approach to scale and, through the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), is currently implementing two large PFM projects. A Farm Africa PFM Project, supported by EU, covers 254,000 hectares of forest in four regional states. GIZ is integrating PFM into the government’s Sustainable Land Management Programme (SLMP) through a programme called PFM-SLM, working in forests in and adjacent to watersheds in three regional states.[4]

The formal harmonisation of the approach across actors and programmes represents a key milestone in the evolution of PFM in Ethiopia.  Many PFM actors (including Farm Africa/SOS Sahel, GIZ, JICA, Ethio-Wetlands, Natural Resources Associations and others) had been implementing their own approach to PFM. Recognising that such lack of coordination could ultimately jeopardise the ability of government to scale up, a national PFM Task Force was formed. Farm Africa played a leading role in this group, which built on the relative strengths of each approach to create a harmonised national guideline that is in use by many practitioners today (Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), 2011).

What started out as a series of pilot projects has now grown to be recognised as one of the most promising models of natural forest management in the country (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 2011). At least five of the nine regional states are practising PFM today and have included it in their forest proclamations. Several regional states have revised their old proclamations to provide increasing recognition for the approach. Box 2 sets out the PFM implementation steps in the Harmonised National Guidelines.


Box 2: The PFM model presented in the Harmonised National PFM Guidelines

Communities organise themselves into Community-Based Organisations (CBOs). These comprise villagers, recognised by all as forest stakeholders, who voluntarily enrol as members, develop internal byelaws to govern relations of their members with the forest, elect managers of their organisation and formally register at the appropriate government agencies. The legalised CBO enters into a Forest Management Agreement with the relevant government body, specifying roles, responsibilities and rights of both parties. They jointly develop a forest management plan which sets out development activities, how much and which product to utilise, where and how frequent forest patrolling and protection need to be conducted and monitoring procedures to review the effectiveness of joint operations.


Since the 1990s, Farm Africa has continued to drive improvements to the approach. The widely held belief that deforestation was driven by poor farmers seeking to increase production through an expansion of their land assets led to increased efforts to increase the productivity of agricultural land as a means of diverting farmers’ attention from forests.  

However, initial efforts to tempt away farmers from forests by generating greater income from agriculture proved counterproductive as they intensified deforestation to further expand agricultural land (Temesgen et al., 2007; Temesgen and Lemenih, 2011).

It thus became clear that, if forests do not represent an economic asset, they are not managed well. Promoters of the PFM model responded to this challenge by refocusing efforts on ‘making forests pay’. In this revised approach, forests are now actively managed, rather than protected, and communities are granted legal rights to produce and market forest products on a sustainable basis – see Box 3 for an example from Benishangul Gumuz.


Box 3: Case Study: Frankincense production in Benishangul Gumuz

Farm Africa’s EU-funded PFM Project in Benishangul Gumuz Regional State trained PFM communities to produce frankincense from the forest. Before the project, government and privately held forest concessions produced frankincense using labour hired from outside the local area. With the introduction of PFM, local communities began producing it themselves.

Community enterprises were linked to a company called Natural Gum Processing and Marketing Enterprise that was interested in a reliable supply. In return, the company provided training in producing and delivering a quality product, that, in turn, realised a price premium of between 5-10 Ethiopian Birr per kilo compared to local prices i.e. 15-30% above local prices in each production year, while the community agreed to deliver their produce to the enterprise. With incomes growing annually, more community members became involved. Recognising the value of the forest, the community is committed to manage it and sustainably produce incense.


Finally, building on its successes in Ethiopia, Farm Africa introduced the PFM model for testing in its Nou Forest project in Tanzania via a study exchange tour with the Tanzanian Government with whom Farm Africa has been
working since 1990. The approach has since evolved in Tanzania, taking account of the differing contexts, legal and land tenure regimes, deforestation rates and opportunities for forest-based livelihoods.

The exchange of experiences between Ethiopia and Tanzania continues to prove useful. In Ethiopia, there is growing experience in the creation of sustainable value chains that can support continued community custodianship of the resource base, while Tanzania’s experiences in building institutional and policy frameworks represent valuable lessons in establishing the enabling conditions to attract finance. 

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[1] Proclamation No. 542 (2007)

[2] Oromia, Southern Nations, Beneshangul-Gumuz and Amhara

[3] Source: Temesgen and Lemenih (2011), corrected for Biosphere Reserve areas (Lemenih and Tadesse, 2015: personal communication)

[4] Oromia, Tigray and Amhara