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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Sharing Power: Co-management agreements

What are the different kinds of co-management agreements, from informal to legal?

Documents of reference

Borrini-Feyerabend Grazia, Pimbert Michel, Farvar M.Taghi, Kothari Ashish, Renard Yves et al, Sharing Power-Learning by Doing in Comanagement of Natural Resources throughout the World, IIED, IUCN, CMWG, CEESP, 2004.

There is no standard co-management agreement, as each must be tailored to its specific subject context and scale, and negotiated with the relevant actors. In particular, different types of agreements exist at the local, national and international level. At the local and national levels, agreements may involve local communities, indigenous peoples‘ organisations and private enterprises as well as state, provincial and territorial authorities, government agencies, research and educational institutions, international agencies and development cooperation.

International agreements may be multilateral or bilateral and be related to a general convention or specific ad hoc situations. Natural resource management agreements are constantly being negotiated throughout the world. Whilst some agreements are reached after complex and lengthy negotiations involving lawyers and mediators, others are simply made by farmers or nomads shaking hands under a baobab tree or in the village hall.

In general, indigenous peoples and traditional communities have developed, and continue to follow, rules and regulations that govern their use of and relationship to natural resources. Sometimes formalised and codified, often informal and seldom written, these rules and regulations define collective behaviour, and provide a valuable basis for co-management arrangements that may also involve non-local partners. Within the diversity of customary systems around the world, a few common characteristics of such “internal agreements” seem to emerge:

  • land, water and biotic resources are assigned livelihood values but also symbolic and religious significance: they contribute to determine the cultural identity of a group;

  • rights and responsibilities are usually collectively held;

  • individual, heritable rights in land (and wetlands) can be accommodated, but most such rights are either rights of use subject to a superior group right;

  • rights to particular resources (such as tree or animal species); or rights to harvest a particular cultivated spot;

  • land tenure, resource tenure and access rights are not necessarily the same, and one parcel of land or area of water is often subjected to a variety of rights held by different persons and groups;

  • traditional rights over land, waters and natural resources are rarely recorded in maps or written documents; generally, orders and “ownership marks” make use of natural features and mutual understandings that are more significant to the community of users than to outsiders;

  • limits are frequently set on the exploitation of resources, often on the basis of seasonal regulations, and some areas and resources can be placed completely off limits (e.g., sacred groves);

  • little conceptual or practical separation exists between resource use and conservation.

Whilst indigenous and local governance of natural resources respond to many of the needs of local peoples, the diverse concerns of different groups within communities are often differently accommodated. Indeed, in all societies (indigenous or not) various types of co-management agreements may be more or less fair and capable of accommodating the specific interests of different social actors. Informal resource management agreements are constantly negotiated among a variety of parties. For example, the arrangements to establish a livestock corridor through a farmers‘ field in semi-arid northern Senegal are usually the product of informal discussions at the village mosque. Such ad hoc agreements have no formal legal status and are not enforced by the government. Conflicts between two or more parties are informally arbitrated by respected authorities such as the village chief, a village council, or a wise elder.

Among indigenous peoples, resource management agreements are usually enforced through social sanctions according to customary law, with decision-making in the hands of local institutions. The recognition of such agreements by governmental agencies can foster very effective co-management systems (see Box 7.4). In Rajasthan (western India), self-initiated forest protection committees even levy fines on offenders (the amount often depending on the ability of the offender to pay) besides imposing social sanctions, a practice that is informally condoned by official agencies.

Box 7.4 Village law and co-management of aquatic resources in Khong district (Lao PDR) (adapted from Baird, 1999)


The aquatic resource co-management system in Khong district is part of the existing administrative structure of Lao villages. No attempts were made to establish new levels of bureaucracy at the village level, although certain villages have established their own informal or ad hoc working groups to deal with particular issues. Regulation, implementation and enforcement are left up to the community. From a legal perspective, Khong district administrators consider that the aquatic resource co-management regulations of villages fit well into what is known as “village law” (kot labiap ban). The legal system of Lao PDR allows villages to make certain regulations regarding local issues, provided that they do not conflict with national laws or the constitution. In the recent past, village regulations were rarely utilised to deal with natural resource management issues (except for some security issues, or the tying up or releasing of water buffaloes). Now, Khong district officials believe that the village law system accommodates well for aquatic resource co-management not only within a village but even among villages. A fundamental issue with regards to any aquatic resource co-management programme relates to boundaries of management jurisdiction between villages. For several years no major conflicts between villages with regards to boundaries and aquatic resources have been reported. There seems to be a great potential for utilising village law for dealing with other natural resource management issues as well.

The village structure is the foundation of ethnic lowland Lao society. Villages are self-sustaining communities relatively unconnected with larger political and social units, have very limited social and economic stratification and possess a strong sense of social equality, cooperation and mutual dependence. Currently, disparities in wealth and power within villages are growing, but villagers are still able to speak with one voice when dealing with outsiders, a fact that positively influences the outcome of co-management regulations. There appear to be three interlocked and mutually reinforcing elements maintaining Lao village cooperation and solidarity: (1) a village ideology of mutuality, (2) successful events of cooperation, and (3) shallow socio-economic stratification.

Informal resource management agreements are also increasingly being negotiated between local communities and rural development and conservation projects. Covenants, memoranda of understanding, project and research agreements rarely have a legal standing. Yet such non-notarised written agreements can be effective in formalising the roles, rights and responsibilities of the rural communities and external agencies involved.

Legally recognised agreements can be stipulated at local, national or international levels, but the difference between these types of agreements is often blurred. For example, a natural resource management agreement may be codified in national law but signed locally. Conversely, local agreements may influence national level processes and legislation for resource management. And international treaties may deeply affect national policies and local resource management regimes.

There has been a trend in some countries (e.g., Australia, USA, and Ecuador) towards increased use of conservation agreements over private land. Examples are the land use and conservation easements now numbering in the thousands in the USA. Such agreements address the protection of species, ecological communities, habitats or potential habitats and are usually legally binding on the contracting parties and successors in title. The parties include one or more landowners and the relevant government authorities, often with the facilitation of an environment-concerned NGO. The agreements are effective until terminated or revoked, may be registered and can be amended if so provided in the agreement or in legislation. In general, where an area is under a conservation easement, the authority of the landowner is affected in accordance with the terms of the covenant or the regulations corresponding to the management plan for the area.

The so-called “contractual approach” is becoming common place in conservation and development initiatives. A recent review has highlighted the growing use of local conventions and contracts throughout the Sahelian region of francophone Africa. This is partly because the contractual approach offers the flexibility required for the implementation of both integrated conservation and development initiatives 1 and agreements that need to change in content and scope as relationships between social actors evolve and as natural resources are regenerated or better managed over time. For example, gender and equity concerns are increasingly reflected in agreements on natural resource management.

The actual subject matter of protected area management agreements can vary considerably. An example of such diversity can be seen in the agreements reached between conservation agencies and communities neighbouring protected areas in South Africa. Twelve protected area management agencies have developed innovative agreements with local neighbours to cover issues of access and use of different types of protected resources as well as benefit sharing arrangements.

Examples include:

1. Land use agreements. The 1620 sq km Richtersveld National Park is leased from the Nama for a period of 30 years with rights to graze an agreed number of livestock and to controlled harvest of natural products. The lease payments are paid into a Trust appointed by the community to manage the funds.

2. Revenue sharing. Twenty percent of the gross revenue for a reserve in Kwa Zulu Natal is allocated to a neighbouring Tribal Authority and fifty per cent of the revenue generated by the protected area is passed on to the Tribal Authority in Lebowa.

3. Fuelwood collection rights. In KaNgwane, people from the neighbouring communities are allowed to remove one head-load of fuelwood per week. The wood has to be from fallen trees or from areas shortly scheduled for burning as part of the range management programme. People from more distant villages may collect fuelwood only for ceremonial purposes, provided they have received the permission of the local Tribal Authority.

4. Rights to harvest medicinal plants. Tribal herbalists or Inyangas are permitted to collect plants or plant parts in Bophuthtswana and KaNgwane National Parks.

Whether formal or informal, simple or comprehensive, detailed or principle setting different agreements are shaped by the social and ecological context in which they are negotiated. An important aim of these negotiations is clarity of meaning and purpose, which should be reflected in the contents of the co-management agreement. This is important to avoid ambiguities and divergent interpretations and on-going conflict during the phase of implementation of agreements, and learning by doing.

1 A review of experience with integrated conservation and development projects that recommends the contractual approach is available in Larson et al., 1997.