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Authority over Forests: Empowerment and Subordination in Senegal's Democratic Decentralization


  • Jesse C. Ribot

    1. is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA (e-mail He was previously a Senior Associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. He conducts research on decentralization; resource tenure and access; natural resource commodity chains; and household vulnerability in the face of climate and environmental change.
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  • Many thanks to Jakob Trane Ibsen, John Heermans Ahamadou Kanté, Tomila Lankina, Christian Lund, Amy Poteete and Thomas Sikor for their constructive comments on this article. Sincere thanks to the Dutch Royal Embassy in Dakar, and especially to Franke Toornstra, for supporting the research behind this article. I would also like to thank the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology for providing an inspiring setting in which a portion of this article was composed.


Senegal's 1998 forestry code transfers rights to control and allocate forest access to elected rural councils, ostensibly giving the elected authorities significant material powers with respect to which they can represent the rural population. But the Forest Service is unwilling to allow rural councils to exercise these powers. To retain control, foresters use pressure, bribes and threats while taking advantage of the inability of the rural representatives to influence actors higher up in government. They justify themselves with arguments of national good and local incompetence. The foresters ally with urban-based forest merchants and are supported by the sub-prefect. Despite the transfer of forest rights, the foresters continue to allocate access to lucrative forest opportunities — in this case charcoal production and exchange — to the merchants. Despite holding effective property rights over forest, such as the right to exclude others, rural councils remain marginal and rural populations remain destitute. The councils cannot represent their populations and therefore cannot gain legitimacy: they have no authority. Despite progressive new laws, the Forest Service helps to maintain Senegal's healthy urban charcoal oligopsonies, while beating back fledgling local democracy.