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Fonds documentaire dynamique sur la
gouvernance des ressources naturelles de la planète

Sharing Power: The sustainable management of natural resources is a political choice

What policy instruments create environments favorable to co-management?

Documents sources

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

« Social organization for the management of natural resources is a fundamental attribute of human communities. Not all social responses to resource management challenges, however, achieve appropriate or effective results. Violent conflicts, extreme inequities in access to natural resources, instances of people scrambling for resources in open access situations or major development schemes delivering environmental and human tragedies too often do occur. » The all too common tragedies of environmental degradation and exclusion from access to land and natural resources are the result of political decisions made in a country. Promoting the shared responsibility of sustainably managing natural resources is a policy option that a nation can choose. « Policy implies a purposeful course of action taken by social actors to address particular issues and advance toward specific objectives. It involves process, in the form of policy making, implementing, and reviewing, and it involves content, in the form of objectives, statements, and instruments. » Since policy making and implementation are processes that define a society and reflect its fundamental values and structures, truly supporting co-management goes beyond « protecting » the environment or regulating institutional partnerships. The way a society is organized and the decision-making process—in other words, the political environment—are of crucial importance for the management of natural resources. “Ideally, formal policy frameworks would stem from a broadly shared national vision and provide guidance and direction for the sound governance of natural resources. These frameworks should be the products of internally driven participatory processes that generate broad-based commitment and ownership. In an ideal policy environment, such laws and policy instruments would derive from, and be consistent with, a national vision of development, society and environment.” Specifically, policy frameworks that support co-management address ecological stability, livelihoods, democratic and accountable institutions, social justice and equity in the political and economic arena.

I. The sustainable management of natural resources needs to be supported by coherent policies

« Many would affirm that locally negotiated and implemented co-management agreements are likely to be ineffectual unless supported— or at least not impeded— by coherent legislation and policies.» In a national context that is not shaped by enabling legislation and policies, efforts to share the rights and responsibilities of managing natural resources seldom work in the long run. In order to overcome the numerous constraints on local conservation and social development that have to do with non-local contexts and processes, there is a need to align the different scales of power, from the local level to the international and in between. A coherent framework of national policy and legislation can play a key and guiding role in achieving such a concord. However, in the absence of supportive policies, a few local co-management experiments « have demonstrated a capacity to influence existing policy and to generate new and more appropriate ones. In this sense, even co-management experiments practiced on a small scale at the local level can serve as a vehicle for social change. They can, for instance, give a taste of empowerment to groups and communities that were previously marginalized. They can increase the accountability of organizations. They can build local capacity. And they can be motivating and inspiring for processes of decentralization and democratization at the national level. » Nevertheless, long-term power sharing for sustainable natural resource management needs to be part of a nation’s clear development objectives, which are formally expressed in public policy statements and legislation. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

One reason why there is often a lack of supportive policies is because many natural resource management policies are unfortunately made in a crisis context. In such cases, it is essential to respond immediately and act quickly to halt the very fast ecological deterioration of an area for instance. Because very rapid decisions are needed in emergency situations and it may be better to act unilaterally, there is not time to embark on new co-management processes or articulate coherent strategies. When the swift reaction to an extreme situation is at the foundation of a country’s natural resource management policy, it can be difficult to include long-term goals for social development and sustainable resource management.

The influence of powerful outside forces can likewise make it difficult to pursue a shared national vision of development, society, and the environment. « In many parts of the world and especially in the South, environment and development policies are directly influenced by external agencies. For instance, the most explicit statements of public policy on issues and sectors relevant to co-management can be found in such instruments as the World Bank-sponsored National Environmental Action Plans (NEAP) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP), some country strategy papers assisted by bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies, or policy statements developed in accordance with the provisions of international conventions (e.g. National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans).” Internationally influenced policy statements can sometimes present opportunities for co-management practices on the ground, but this pattern of external influence in policy-making raises questions about the ownership of policies. After all, the effectiveness of a national policy depends on a prior process of informed discussion about what is at stake and what form of action is proposed. When the processes of endogenous analysis and decision-making are missing, a national policy looses sense.

Moreover, economic globalization presents challenges for nations seeking the sustainable management of their natural resources. As transnational corporations involved in the natural resource sector (farming, suppliers of commercial inputs, timber, mining, tourism, etc.) increase their business activities and merge with other corporations, their yearly revenues exceed the Gross National Products of many countries. Along with their increased economic power comes unaccountable influence over public policies. In other words, as economic power is becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of a small amount of transnational corporations, there exists a parallel trend where the power to define the content and purpose of policies, institutions, and systems is being exercised by ever fewer economic actors. On the global scale, a small number of corporations are amassing such a great deal of influence over political decision-making that is difficult to hear the interests of other sorts of actors, notably local communities. “Also noticeable is the case of external agencies actively colluding with national elites and commercial interests to promote the interests of powerful actors.” Since corporations work for the interest of their shareholders rather than for the common good, they present a “major challenge for governments committed to an enabling policy environment for co-management based on a fair sharing of costs and benefits.”

Although it is more of an exception than a rule, some countries directly facilitate power sharing by fixing an enabling legal environment in their constitution. “One of the crucial ways in which constitutions and basic laws provide backing to co-management is by recognizing communities as legal entities, by allowing the devolution of natural resource management authority and responsibilities at the lowest effective level and by upholding a broader culture and system of participatory policy-making and governance. When such provisions are enshrined in the national constitution, they have the potential to inform and influence all policies and plans.” “In Argentina, for example, the constitution stipulates that Congress has the power to recognize the legal status of indigenous peoples and of community property rights over their traditional lands. In Colombia, the constitution states that the law guarantees the participation of communities in the decisions that may affect them. In the Czech Republic, the constitution includes protection for national and ethnic minorities, guaranteeing rights to development, culture, language diversity, participation and association. The constitution of Ecuador is, in many ways, remarkably progressive in its recognition of the collective rights of indigenous peoples.”

II. Three types of goals that are pursued in political environments favorable to sustainable natural resource management

Policies that create environments favorable to co-management seem to pursue three types of goals: sustainability, equity, and sound governance. Ideally, these goals should be pursued in an integrated and coherent fashion within a comprehensive framework of formal policy in the field of natural resource management. In the end, the reaches of these three objectives overlap.

Firstly, propitious policies will be guided by the goal to define human activities and resource use patterns that are compatible with ecological sustainability. Reconciling conservation and use, “environmental sustainability and livelihood security need to be pursued together if they are to be pursued at all.” For this reason, aiming to strengthen the identity and culture of indigenous peoples and local communities, whose livelihoods often depend on natural resource use, is an important part of any policy wishing to instill sustainable resource management. Concretely, favorable policies seek to guarantee or rehabilitate the legitimacy of customary rights regarding natural resource management and conservation. A crucial feature for ecological sustainability in any natural resource management system is a measure of elasticity. Because ecosystems evolve and societies transform, any resource management policy needs to be flexible enough to allow for modifications and adaptations. Moreover, natural resource policies ought to take into consideration the diversity of local situations. To best fit the specificities of local contexts that change over time and across territories, a maximum of decisions should be made at the local level. “Particularly significative in this sense are policies that decentralize, delegate, devolve, and secure control over natural resources.” Making policies that are sufficiently elastic for the sustainable management of natural resources therefore implies sharing power between the local and national levels. “While it is essential to establish an appropriate policy and legislative framework at the national level, the purpose of such frameworks is to provide an adequate policy environment, not to impose specific and rigid systems and models of co-management on the ground.”

Secondly, policies favorable to equitable natural resource management seek to secure the rights of people and communities, enhance social and economic benefits, and combat inequalities, such as the ones responsible for poverty and exclusion. This goal of equity is central to co-management. “Present-day rights that regulate access and tenure of resources among diverse social actors are extremely varied from country to country and within a country among different localities. Generally, the rules regulating the use of, and control over, land and other natural resources reflect the interests of dominant social actors at the time these rules were institutionalized by custom or law. These rules, however, are not static and immutable. They evolve in response to social change and it is not unthinkable that—as human rights hopefully become better understood, recognized and protected—the ones hitherto excluded from the control of natural resources will better come to the fore. Indigenous peoples, landless workers, small producers, mobile communities as well as low-income consumers and all others who are dependent on natural resources but without property rights over them, may hopefully acquire some form of rights entitling them to an equitable participation in their management and benefits.” In practice, the goal of equity can be conveyed by the recognition of communities as legal entities with collective rights. “If diverse social groups do not have a sense of security of their individual and collective rights over natural resources, they cannot participate effectively in their management. Novel legal arrangements can be explored and developed at the national level to provide that. For instance, some formal recognition of “primary” rights to land (property or permanent usufruct) could be provided to communities with a long-standing local history and practicing an ecologically sound model of sustainable resource use. This could help them re-affirm their rights versus newcomers and opportunistic users.” Making tenure rights secure enables communities to continue not only to manage natural resources, but also to derive a profit from their activities. The pursuit of equity can thereby guide policy instruments that safeguard local communities, institutions, and economies against the negative impacts of unchecked globalization.

Good governance is a third major goal of countries having political environments favorable to co-management. Policies that work to empower the civil society in the decision-making process and to democratize government institutions, structures, and markets can be said to promote sound governance.

The civil society can be understood here as being made up of non-market organizations that exist between the household and the state. Civil society may thus comprise non-governmental organizations, social movements, membership organizations and trade unions, and customary, informal organizations.” A nation can opt for political choices that awaken the capacities of the civil society. Notably, devolving rights and responsibilities in resource management, enhancing local autonomy in defining landscapes and seascapes, and planning and implementing development and conservation initiatives are measures that foster the coming forth of the civil society. Since the civil society needs to be organized in order to effectively participate, policies aiming to bring about good governance provide the legal framework for the constitution, registration, and operation of groups and organizations. Furthermore, there is a need for a legal basis for “the involvement of these organizations in specific management activities and programs, including planning, monitoring and research, information management, enforcement and sustainable resource use. . . While the legal frameworks are not sufficient by themselves, they can provide an enabling context. Such enabling legislation will often need to be combined, in mutually supporting ways, with reforms in economic and fiscal measures to regenerate local livelihood assets (natural, financial, physical, human, and social) and create safe spaces to express interests and concerns and discuss options for action.” For example, recent constitutional amendments in India are leading to empowered forms of local direct participation. The inception of the process of planning for economic development and social justice occurs in the gram sabha (village assembly) at the local level.

For policies aiming to foster good governance, populations are held to be at the center of development processes. Therefore, a major concern is to strengthen inclusive democratic processes at various levels while building upon cultural identities and customary governance systems. Embracing cultural diversity may mean “a radical transformation in the organizational culture of government departments and changes in professional behaviors, attitudes, and practice. For instance, the tendency to impose “rational” organizational models on local communities is often counterproductive, and even financial and technical “support” may leverage the worst rather than the best in them, spreading internal conflicts and corruption. Most communities can best organize by choosing themselves the models that best suit their culture and needs.” Respect for the values, institutions, and knowledge of communities belonging to different cultures is a precondition for any successful collaboration between peoples. The pursuit of good governance can guide not only policies for natural resource management, but also positive social change.

Good governance, equity, and sustainability are goals that shape a nation’s vision of development and guide the policy-making process. “Ideally, these goals should be pursued in an integrated and coherent fashion. In the real world, however, this is more the exception than the rule.” In some countries, policy statements that govern social development and natural resource management are disconnected from other public policies. Such a lack of coherence is sometimes the result of policies being made in response to crisis situations. In many other cases, participatory processes by which people make informed decisions about what measures to take are impeded by various forces and processes that have to do with the regional, national, and international contexts. Often, resource management policies are narrow and fail to provide a comprehensive framework to harmonize different sectoral policies. Co-management approaches can still be supported in such a situation, especially when one of the above goals is being addressed. Local successes in co-management may even spark wider change and inspire new policies. In the long-term nevertheless, an inclusive, democratic process involving the conception, implementation, and review of public policies is essential for sustainable natural resource management.

This paper is part of a file written on the basis of the book « Sharing Power ». It consists of four key issue papers that highlight its main ideas. Every issue is illustrated by additional papers that specify the analysis and provide concrete examples of co-management tools (see the links in the right margin of the page).

The whole file is available in English. At the moment, only some papers are available in French.

We invite you to discover the other three issue papers :