Environment and Land Reform: relations between non-governmental organisations and community groups

The report examines relations between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community groups in the light of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.


Challenges for NGOs and community groups

There can sometimes be a conflict of priorities between NGO's mission and community needs. In some instanced, NGOs prioritise the expectations of their funders and members over local concerns.

Inadequate communication between stakeholders, often in the form of a 'top down' approach, can cause poor relations and create cross-purposes. For example, consultations are often conducted in a passive rather than active way, where communities are informed about management plans rather than engaged. The reasons behind it are multiple: NGOs struggle to define who the community is, communities do not have a clear vision for their place, there is no time or resources to conduct active engagement, and NGOs fear that communities will not agree with their plans.

However, there was still the perception that while NGOs' staff working on the ground are seen as engaged and approachable local communities still often felt that executives and boards of trustees, who make the decisions about the reserves they live on, remained distant and unapproachable.

NGOs interviewed believe that they hold land inalienably and therefore there are limited opportunities for transfer of assets from charitable bodies to communities and individuals. Although from a legal perspective transfer of assets from charitable organisations is possible under certain conditions, the perception of both communities and NGOs is that NGOs have inalienable rights to land.

NGOs expressed sceptical perceptions of community land ownership. They argue that change of land ownership can affect land management negatively as a result of communities having limited resources and their priorities are less well defined. Following land acquisition, communities struggle to access funds for management, which is a real challenge expressed by community stakeholders as well.

Opportunities and ways forward

Evidence from the case studies showed that effective communication is key to overcoming differing priorities and finding common purpose from which mutually beneficial compromises can be established and effective collaboration can be grow. The existing examples of co-creative partnerships and engagements that take community groups and local people's needs and concerns as a starting point, as a 'bottom up' approach, offered alternative approaches to community consultation and can serve as a blueprint for other organisations

In the case of Arkaig Forest case, wider public contributed generously to support this project and the NGO, The Woodland Trust, saw local collaboration as valuable. This proves that with adequate planning, communication, and compromise conservation objectives can be presented inter-dependent rather than opposing to community needs. This, of course, does not mean there are always aligned, and continuous dialogue remains an important part of partnerships.

Arkaig Community Forest was also a model of collaborative ownership, which despite many challenges, offered opportunities for both the NGO sector and the local community. For NGOs, it offered access to assets at a set price, an on-going PR value, and opportunities for bottom-up learning. For the communities, it created a chance to own land in areas of high private land concentration, it created job and training opportunities, and it empowered the community.

The case of Cumbernauld showed that there are important, untapped benefits of conservation work in urban areas. The case offered lessons in how engaging deprived communities in environmental projects can be made beneficial to all. The project also served as an example of the benefits of when staff, NGOs and community group members, are embedded in the community and how this helps them be more aware of the concerns and challenges for a project, and how this can be key in initiating collaborative partnerships and shaping successful projects.


Email: Neil Davidson

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