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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Sharing Power: Sustainable Management of Natural Resources

The call for action at the local, national, and global levels

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.

In a broad sense, everyone on Earth partakes in the management of natural resources. “Via the physical cycles of water, air, and energy, the movements of living organisms and people and the expanding global exchanges of goods and information, powerful linkages are established among distant ecosystems and the human and animal populations living therein. The most impressive example may be the enormous consumption of fossil fuels in the industrialized North, which is altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere and influencing the climate all over the globe. As a result, nomadic pastoralists in Niger may find that drier seasons will exacerbate their conflicts with sedentary [farmers]. Mozambicans may find themselves hit by exceptional flooding. And Maldives islanders may even lose their basic “living ground” because of the melting of Arctic ice.” Thus, the residents of Niger, Mozambique, and the Maldives have legitimate concerns about natural resource use patterns in faraway industrialized countries. “In practice, however, most people and organizations are principally concerned with the status and management of a specific, and usually local, natural environment.” Aligning the different spheres from local to global for better governance of the planet’s natural resources is one of the greatest challenges of our time.

The complex relationships between different spatial scales make it difficult to coherently promote the sustainable management of natural resources. “Environmental degradation and inequitable access to natural resources are, to a large extent, the result of political choices and processes and cannot be addressed without making significant and durable changes in the distribution of power in society. Thus, making co-management “work” at the local level requires overcoming constraints on local conservation and development that have to do with the regional, national, and international contexts and are shaped by a variety of forces, processes and instruments.” This can be done by creating a policy environment that enables the empowerment of local institutions and allows for continuous adaptation and change.

In light of these issues, this brief focuses on what is at stake locally, nationally, and internationally as far as natural resource management is concerned. First of all, the sharing of power over territories and natural resources within national boundaries is discussed. Next, the negative and positive outcomes of global actions on local co-management contexts are discussed. Lastly, policy options and directions that facilitate and strengthen the participation of local actors in co-management are presented. Throughout this brief, it is argued that the ensured participation of local actors is essential in order to meet the challenges of globalization in the natural resource sector.

I. Why should local co-management initiatives be of national concern?

Co-management agreements make good use out of the strengths of actors at different levels. For instance, local and indigenous communities may contribute their understanding of and proximity to the territory in question for appropriate management while government agencies might contribute financial and organizational capacities. When local, regional and national actors pool their resources, management solutions that are well adapted to the ecological and social environments can be found. Thus, dialogue between local communities and government agencies can lead to arrangements that enable dynamic natural resource management schemes capable of responding to changing circumstances. However, the viability of such a management partnership is influenced by political decisions made at the national level. If local actors have little or no say in how wider policies are designed and implemented, then the agreements that they make may not be able to withstand change and the partnership could fall apart. Thus, the sustainability of a natural resource management system is directly related to the distribution of power in a society.

Co-management partnerships work best in the long run when the interests and concerns of all the relevant social actors are addressed. “Perhaps the most fundamental matter for agreement and acknowledgement in co-management documents is the relationship of the indigenous peoples and local communities to the land in question.” “One of the most important benefits sought by indigenous peoples and local communities in a co-management agreement is an acknowledgement of their customary ownership and rights or affiliation with the land and resources at stake.” Obtaining a legal title to the land or resources in question can be a way to ensure continued access to and use of the resources contained in it. When legal recognition of customary ownership is not possible, local communities seek acknowledgement of their most important rights concerning the resources in question. For example, local communities seek to ensure that they will have continued access to resources for economic, nutritional, cultural, and spiritual reasons. This could mean that an indigenous or local community may want to have their customary hunting and fishing rights acknowledged and secured. Or, they may desire that certain spaces of spiritual significance be kept off-limits to outsiders. “Many conservation agreements refer to land and resources that belong, or belonged to, an indigenous party or a local community or one or more private landowners. On this basis it is agreed that there should be some financial compensation for their loss, and/or that the land should return an ongoing income to its customary or legal owners. Agreed financial outcomes may take the form of rent paid by the government, a proportion of income or profits, guaranteed employment, and financial compensation.” Furthermore, “all parties may wish to exercise a degree of control over commercial activities such as tourism”. (For more about natural resource management agreements, see brief 1A).

Co-management arrangements can be effective, concrete ways for government agencies to work together with local communities to pursue legislated objectives and policy aims. The main concerns of government agencies dealing with natural resource management—good stewardship, public access, heritage protection, rehabilitation, “conservation”, control of weeds and pests, fire and flood management, and avoiding damage—can be acknowledged and respected through a co-management agreement. To give an example, “access for management purposes or for the public to visit a notable feature may be negotiated with the relevant customary or legal owners. A community or landholder may agree to allow access across a relevant property that is essential for, say, fire control, if the fire authority does a little annual maintenance on the road.” Open, respectful dialogue between local communities and government bodies can lead to true partnerships within which both parties work together for mutually beneficial initiatives.

Co-management requires a policy framework that enables this process of recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of various actors and institutions. This means that local power and capacity need to exist and succeed in order for co-management to function. The implementation of a broader policy principle of “subsidiarity” can facilitate the participation of local-level actors in management. “Basically, this calls for a government to decentralize, delegate or devolve authority and responsibilities to the lowest level with capacity to take responsibility for the relevant tasks.” The specific institutions to which power is devolved vary between countries and regions. In most cases, the institutional landscape of local governance is composed of not only local government bodies, but also “a wide range of organizations and institutions, both formal and informal, all of whom have a role to play in the allocation and use of rights and responsibilities at the local level.” “Devolving rights and responsibilities in natural resource management, enhancing local autonomy in defining landscapes and seascapes, managing natural resources and planning and implementing development and conservation initiatives are powerful means to awaken the capacities of civil society.” Thus, decentralized administrations and the devolution of authority to local actors are potentially positive trends for increased local governance, which can lead to the creation of sustainable natural resource management partnerships.

II. How do global actors affect the conditions for natural resource management at the local level?

National policies that allow for shared governance between spatial scales can thus facilitate the formation of long-term partnerships for the sustainable, shared management of natural resources. At the same time, national policies that are based on extremist approaches to governance, such as state-dominated models or the free reign of liberal market forces, work against co-management efforts because local participation in natural resource management is not ensured. A shared national vision of social development and natural resource management is difficult to achieve when local communities are not given the chance to partake in the process of analyzing what is at stake and making appropriate decisions.

The global political economy influences the possibilities for local governance. “For instance, neo-liberal policies such as trade liberalization, privatization and the predominance of competitive market forces in the regulation of access to resources impact negatively on co-management, as they favor the more powerful economic interests at the expense of poor people and communities. An important economic phenomenon that impacts on the outcomes of co-management is the increased commoditization of goods and services, accompanied by rapid changes in production, information and communication technology. This means that many resources critical to people are now easily governed by market rules and placed outside of the control of their primary users. Globally defined rules such as the WTO-TRIPs agreement (e.g. patents on seeds and medicinal plants) and privatization (land, water, forests, public services) are undermining the control that local resource users have over their environments, knowledge and institutions.” Furthermore, international production standards proposed by transnational corporations are often serious obstacles to co-management. “For example, in the name of food safety, many international rules, such as the [World Trade Organization’s] Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards and the Codex Alimentarius, have enforced an approach to food processing that works directly against local and artisanal food producers, whilst favoring the global trans-national corporations. Among other things, they require irradiation of certain products, pasteurization, and standardized shrink-wrapping of local cheese products. Such rules tremendously increase costs for small producers as these homogenized global standards primarily benefit TNCs that trade on global markets. Where co-management schemes seek to retain wealth closer to where it is generated, there is a strong case for food production standards (and other NR standards) to be localized, with every nation permitted to set its own high food safety and other standards related to natural resource management.”

Clearly, there is a need to regulate the actions of international firms and initiate new policies that represent the social, economic, and environmental interests of local communities. “Newly emerging initiatives may help governments regulate activities for the public good. For example, an increasing number of corporations are working towards a ‘corporate responsibility agenda’ through such instruments as codes of conduct, certification, reporting, stakeholder dialogues and partnerships.” Companies are taking small steps toward assuming responsibility for the environmental and social costs incurred by their business activities. Although these are steps in the right direction, such “voluntary initiatives” are insufficient means for corporate monitoring and control. Certain United Nations organizations such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the UN Development Program, as well as the International Labor Organization would seem to be well positioned for the coordination of activities aimed at checking the power giant firms. These international institutions should not shy away from critical research and policy analysis on transnational corporations and their social, environmental and developmental impacts, and on regulatory initiatives at both national and international levels. And yet, with few exceptions, the current vogue in most international agencies is to appease international firms with policies and programs that integrate private sector interests. We are far from seeing the UN agencies play a critical supervisory role. International organizations ought to step up to the challenge of regulating the global governance of natural resources.

Although there is a clear lack of checks on the power held by corporations on the global scale, some progress has been made through international policy agreements and institutions that promote enabling contexts for co-management. As they affect the conditions of and capacities for resources use at the local level, international instruments and agreements have a direct impact on co-management at the local level. “In many respects, the most fundamental international instrument in support of co-management remains the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, the Declaration is not legally binding but is considered as an international instrument of tremendous political and symbolic importance. After the adoption of this Declaration, the UN Commission on Human Rights began drafting legally binding documents. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were adopted in 1966”. These two covenants uphold the right of all peoples to self-determination and to development, the basis upon which co-management practices can be built.

“Other international conventions are of particular relevance to marginal social groups who live in areas rich in biological diversity, and who may engage in co-management processes”. For example the 1989 Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (“ILO 169”) specifically stresses the need for the participation of indigenous peoples in the decision-making process regarding resources and lands on which they have claims of dependence. Similarly, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples pushes for the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights over land and natural resources and Agenda 21 calls for effective participation in all the elements of planning and development. “One of the most significant developments that have taken place recently on the international scene in the field of natural resource governance is the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This significance lies in its focus on traditional knowledge and practices, in the fact that it is legally binding, and in an approach that goes beyond indigenous groups and includes all local communities. The Convention stresses the need to involve indigenous and other local communities in the conservation of biological diversity and in the sharing of benefits derived from the use of these resources”. More recently, the Convention has approved operational guidelines that stress the need for societal choice and decentralization of management to the lowest possible level and has begun a program promoting equity, benefit-sharing, and the full participation of indigenous and local communities in the establishing and managing of protected areas. In addition, the recent trend of governmental, non-governmental, bilateral, and multilateral organizations adopting a discourse on communities and participation could pave the way for co-management regimes. Some would say that granting the right to participation is the same as recognizing a basic human right. International agreements and institutions that help to guarantee this basic human right thus effectively increase the possibilities for locally grown partnerships for the sustainable management of natural resources. (For more about participatory approaches, see Brief 4).

III. What can be done to increase local communities’ level of participation in managing natural resources?

As stated in some of the international agreements mentioned above, indigenous and local communities’ participation in the management of land and natural resources is crucial for good governance and sustainable development. In order to ensure the involvement of local-level actors in the process, certain obstacles presented by the context of political, economic, and cultural globalization must be overcome. In pursuit of creating a favorable environment for co-management, policies that address the economic, political, and social impediments to full participation of indigenous and local communities need to be implemented. The success of such policies depends on the involvement of actors at different spatial scales, from the local to the global and in between.

As discussed above, the global neo-liberal economic context has introduced new powerful and trans-national actors in the natural resource sector. In light of this, “widening economic democracy and equity appear as a key overarching condition for the mainstreaming of co-management. For instance, co-management initiatives would be strengthened by policies that protect local interests, placing selected resources beyond the reach of competitive bidding processes, and protecting local markets whenever necessary. In this manner, co-management agreements backed by proper legislation could become instruments of protection of special local needs and interests. National governments, acting alone or in groups, may also need to introduce specific policies to protect domestic markets for natural resources from cheap imports and the negative impacts of competition in international trade. Subsidized imports have often destroyed environments and sustainable livelihoods throughout the South, and many people now working for poverty wages in factories are refugees from local economies based on fishing, farming, pastoralism or forest-based livelihoods. For instance, India‘s domestic edible oil industry (i.e. oilseed crop producers, millers, processors and retailers) has been undermined as highly subsidized soy from the US and palm oil from Malaysia have flooded the market. Moreover, the dominant paradigm that exports from the South to the North are a major route for economic development ignores the inevitability of adverse competition between poor exporting countries and its hijacking of national priorities to the provision of the cheapest exports. To reverse this trend, countries could develop international trade rules that allow them to introduce constraints on their exports and imports.”

“Trade rules that favor export production and dumping of cheap imports can be replaced by rules that permit the use of trade tariffs and quotas to regulate imports of food, timber, fish, fibers and other natural products that can be produced locally. This means applying the principle of subsidiarity: whenever production can be achieved by local social actors, using local resources for local consumption, allures and benefits should favor that option, thus shortening the distance between production and consumption. This is not to suggest that there should be no trade at all in food, fiber and other natural resource based products, but to recognize that trade should be confined to whatever commodities cannot be supplied at the local level, rather than trade being the primary driver of production and distribution.” Regulating trade by applying the principle of subsidiarity is one way that governments can attempt to level the economic playing field in order to give local actors more chances to forge economically viable livelihoods based on the wise use of natural resources.

Promoting the devolution of power and setting up viable local institutions are trends that level the political playing field. On the whole, the more traditional and customary organizations are involved in managing natural resources, the more effective the process. As managing natural resources requires the capacity to develop and enforce appropriate rules in the local context, the traditional know-how and cultural legitimacy held by customary organizations are often the keys to success in co-management. However, nowadays such local organizations often have weakened if not perilous political standings in this age of increasing globalization. A major issue for the promotion of co-management is therefore recognizing and strengthening such traditional institutions. One response is through adopting policies that stipulate and ensure indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination. In a way, indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination can be interpreted as their ability to decide what kind of development will occur in their communities and to retain control over their lives, which is intimately related to their land and natural resources. “For many indigenous peoples the right to self-determination thus appears a fundamental condition towards re-assuming responsibility for natural resource management. This would imply that national governments discontinue their integrationist policies and related practices. . .and rather provide scope for people to make informed decisions about their future through a variety of participatory processes for assessing, planning and evaluating development and conservation initiatives.” A starting point can be to support communities as they demarcate their territorial or marine boundaries. “Either as a precondition for legal recognition of ownership and access rights, or as a provisional alternative to it, area demarcation is a central requirement for tenure security of indigenous and local communities engaged in co-management.” Policies that facilitate participatory mapping processes thus foster the secure recognition of local communities’ various tenure rights. This can be an effective way for governments to increase the political standing of traditional and customary organizations so that they may participate more fully in designing and implementing natural resource management systems.

Although traditional authorities offer a high degree of legitimacy and advanced ecosystem knowledge in some settings, it is often a good thing to promote the involvement of both local governmental agencies and traditional authorities in co-management bodies. Local administrators and government agencies are important actors in co-management for a number of reasons, such as the fact that local administrators provide a measure of local representation since they are elected. This is an important point because traditional organizations may not be representative of the local community in its entirety. Furthermore, local government agencies are expected to provide a measure of public accountability and to advance “fair rules” in institutional arrangements. Therefore, national policies that delegate authority to the local level coupled with policies that support the recognition of traditional and customary organizations can lead to a distribution of power that is propitious to co-management.

However, it is not enough to work for the increased participation of local actors. The “representativity” of local actors involved in co-management agreements needs to be assessed simultaneously to ensure that the higher goal of equity remains in place. As indigenous and local communities are not homogeneous wholes, but on the contrary comprise different categories of actors with diverse interests and concerns, imbalances of power within a community may jeopardize the sustainability of a co-management agreement. An indigenous leader may claim to speak for her peoples, or a chief may claim that his decision represents the interests of the entire local community. “This can cause problems, when, for example, protected areas authorities claim to have “consulted” with indigenous peoples or a local community, but the community does not in fact feel that it was fairly represented in the planning process. As a matter of fact, most if not all co-management arrangements involve some form of representation in governing bodies and management organizations. Legal instruments for natural resource management must therefore specify the mechanisms by which the representatives of people and civil society organizations are selected. These mechanisms should be as much in line with participatory democracy as possible, for instance by involving some form of open discussion of issues followed by an election and/or a selection through customary community decisions as well as mechanisms for follow up and accountability.”

Moreover, proactive (“affirmative action”) national policies can be a way to strive for equity. Assisting marginalized or weaker actors such as women, ethnic minorities, and poorer social groups to regain some power and status within their communities and co-management bodies is in line with the goal for lasting natural resource management solutions. Concretely, this can be carried out by creating spaces where disadvantaged actors can safely voice their interests and concerns and achieve representation at the local level. As the capacity to recognize opportunities and risks relies on the ability to thoroughly assess the situation, relevant information must be available to everyone potentially concerned. “Moreover, only a political arena open to new ideas and offering the concrete possibility to meet and discuss conflicting views and interests allows new key relevant social actors to emerge and their entitlements to be recognized. In other words, a measure of political openness and participatory democracy is needed for new subjects to be socially accepted.” Recognizing traditional and customary organizations in a decentralized framework can be a preliminary step for enabling co-management. To be sustainable, however, an open situation in which power is distributed equitably among all relevant social actors is essential. This allows for adaptation as the social and environmental contexts change through time, and is thus the key to sustainability.


In conclusion, guaranteeing that all local actors are able to make informed decisions that define the futures of their communities is essential for the sustainable management of natural resources. Unfortunately, this ideal situation is uncommon. Authoritarian, centralized governments and the unchecked influence of powerful international economic actors create real challenges for local participation in the design, implementation, and evaluation of policies affecting natural resources. National policies for decentralization and the implementation of subsidiarity can be a means for overcoming these obstacles, especially when accompanied by measures for recognizing the legitimacy of traditional and customary institutions. Often, this legitimacy springs from recognition of entitlements to land and natural resources held by indigenous and local communities. Recognizing traditional tenure can be the starting point for co-management agreements in particular and greater participatory democracy in general.

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 :