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Conflict or cooperation? Social capital as a power resource and conflict mitigation strategy in timber operations in Ghana’s off-reserve forest areas

Mirjam A. F. Ros-Tonen, University of Amsterdam, Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies
Mercy Derkyi, University of Energy and Natural Resources, Department of Forest Science and Centre for Climate Change and Gender Studies (3CGS), Sunyani, Ghana


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Conflicts over forests and trees threaten the sustainability of the resource base. The nature and causes of such conflicts have been documented, but little is known about factors that determine whether interactions result in conflict or cooperation. Particularly, the role of social capital has been underexposed, with existing studies focusing mainly on networks, and less on the role of norms, trust, and reciprocity in conflict mitigation. Our case study addresses these gaps, asking what factors determine whether interactions about timber resources in Ghana’s off-reserve forest areas result in conflict or cooperation. Off-reserve areas, which are mosaics of forest, fallow, and farmland patches, contribute significantly to timber for domestic and export markets, despite a rapidly declining resource base since the 2000s. Conflicts over legally required social responsibility agreements and inadequate compensation for crop damage abound, but, in rare cases, peaceful cooperation exists. Based on a literature review, document analysis, key respondent interviews, semistructured interviews, and focus groups, we found that interactions between actors are shaped by a complex mix of socioeconomic, social, orientational, and institutional power resources that actors mobilize to negotiate access to increasingly scarce timber resources and their benefits. Socioeconomic power resources initially determine whether a cooperative relationship between timber operators and communities can be established, but elements of social capital (connectedness, norms, trustworthiness, and reciprocity) determine the further course of the interaction patterns. Communities thereby rely primarily on bonding social capital because their bridging capital is practically absent and their linking capital is limited to people who are potential conflict partners. We conclude that conflicts in forested landscapes go beyond competing claims and benefit sharing, and that norms, trustworthiness, and reciprocity are at least as important dimensions of social capital as networks. This finding implies that more attention is needed toward the cultural context in which interactions are embedded.

Key words

conflict and cooperation; forestry; Ghana; multifunctional landscapes; natural resource conflicts; norms; power resources; social capital; timber; trustworthiness

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087