Jesse Ribot has a lesson to share about natural resource policy and local democracy. It's a story of colonization and misused resources, yet Ribot sees the potential for donors and international agencies to transform it into a story about rights and representation.

Ribot is a senior associate at the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington and currently a Wilson Center fellow working on a new book on rural democracy in Africa. Several years ago, he was writing a history of forestry in French West Africa, a story of a supposed deforestation crisis from 1880-1920. The colonial government had devised odd policies to fix this nonexistent problem—policies that would not have fixed it had there been a crisis. Furthermore, the policies concentrated access to lucrative resources in the hands of a few elites. "The discourse of ‘deforestation crisis' was being used to expropriate the people's resources," Ribot said. "That was the real story."

Since then, Ribot has viewed the word "crisis" with suspicion, maintaining that many such "crises" in Africa—from soil erosion to wood and fuel scarcity—have been exaggerated. Ribot said the real crisis is often created when the developed world projects its own fears—of dust bowls, soil loss, deforestation, energy shortages—across the African landscape. He said development experts consistently see crisis, blame local people for the problems caused by commercial exploitation, and somehow elites still run off with the goods.

To illustrate his point, Ribot wrote a children's-style book, An African Forest Tale, not yet published, illustrated by renowned Senegalese artist Mor Gueye. In the book, Captain McGee sails into an African village with his friends McFilch and O'Pillage, talking of his vision of a sustainable future. The local chiefs, however, quickly let them know: "…your work leaves our village in a sea of new stumps, we don't even have places to hide rubbish dumps…We can't wait 10 years for our trees to grow back, we must cook our next meal on that wood that you hack." But even put simply, McGee misses the message.

It's a tale of the danger of donor nations and agencies coming to developing communities claiming to promote efficiency and equity, but instead they leave a mess behind. For example, said Ribot, donor agencies imported their favorite tree without considering any of a thousand other indigenous species that would much better match local needs. McGee says, "You can grow village woodlots—eucalyptus or pines; we'll help you to manage them through incentives and fines. If you listen-look-learn and do as we say, even democratization will be on its way."

Chiefs, however, are not all good. Democratization in Africa has been thwarted by a re-emergence of despotic traditional authorities who can undermine public access to resources. "If all you empower are non-democratic authorities, you cannot end up with local democracy," Ribot said. "The locals are often critical of custom and the chiefs. They want modernity, democracy, and access to markets." To that end, he recommends that governments, donors, and NGOs empower local democratic officials in managing natural resources.

Ribot, raised in New Jersey, recounted as a child riding along the New Jersey Turnpike peering out the car window at the vast industrial landscape. Back then, each pipe and drum was labeled with a company name. He recalled the irony of the presently anonymous landscape with only a sign next to the malodorous smokestacks that reads "Environmental Facility." He said, "It feels similar to talking of ‘local democracy' in parts of Africa."