Co-management approaches in forestry have frequently failed to fulfil their promise and have generated unexpected conflicts. This is partly because they intersect with a plurality of interests and concerns, in settings that are more socially, institutionally and ecologically differentiated and dynamic than is often assumed.
This article engages with current debates around pluralism in community forestry, and illustrates how they can be informed by a better understanding of institutional dynamics. It begins by characterising the dynamic forest landscapes in which community forestry processes are enacted. It goes on to sketch out some analytical tools that can help illuminate these processes, and which expose the links between interests in forests, resource access and control, and institutions.
In this context, the third part of the article illustrates how institutional dynamics can work out in practice when villagers, governmental, non-governmental and donor agencies interact in the practice of community forestry. The need to take account of multiple institutions and power relations, to manage pluralism rather than necessarily attempting to achieve consensus, and to appreciate social and ecological uncertainties, suggests that forest management should seek to influence processes rather than to define states, and be adaptive rather than pre-planned.