Local Environment 13(5): 385-391, July 2008

"Communities, Natural Resources, and Environments: African and Asian Experiences"

David A. Sonnenfeld and Stewart Lockie

2008 Routledge


By the turn of the twenty-first century, notions of community participation had enjoyed at least two decades of widespread recognition as concepts central to sustainable natural resource and environmental management. The rise of participatory perspectives was partly related to the dissemination of beliefs in democracy and human rights (cf. Peet & Watts, 2004), but also to pragmatic concerns with the effectiveness of attempts to manage natural resources and build prosperous and sustainable societies (cf. Murphree, 2005). Participatory approaches were seen as an antidote to the perceived ills of top-down, command-and-control, regulatory regimes which had proven poorly equipped to deal with the social and spatial variability of environmental conservation and degradation issues in a timely and effective manner (see Blaikie, 1985; Rocheleau et al., 1996). Participatory approaches offered opportunities to utilise and enhance local knowledge while increasing scrutiny by state agencies and public officials. For donors and central governments, participation also offered opportunities to encourage local ownership of environmental problems and subsequent investment in resource conservation and rehabilitation. In short, participatory approaches were seen as ways to make scarce resources go further, and to make more people more accountable for environmental outcomes.

Accompanying the rise of community participation in natural resource and environmental management has been increasing scrutiny by scholars, civil society organisations, and various interested institutions, of the extent to which participatory approaches have actually lived up to their promise. Critical assessment of participatory approaches can be categorised into two broad themes: i) investigation of ways in which rhetorics of participation have been subsumed within realities of management regimes that remain centralised, hierarchical, and technocratic; and ii) evaluation of basic assumptions underlying participatory management in various contexts.

Participatory programs as window dressing?

In investigating ways in which rhetorics of participation have been subsumed within realities of management regimes that remain centralised, hierarchical, and technocratic, critics have argued that participatory programs are, at best, window dressing used to disguise the fact that, for the most part, business continues very much as usual (Tsing et al., 2005). Community surveys, stakeholder advisory groups, corporate social responsibility reporting, and other expressions of what might be called ‘minimalist participation’, appear to have proliferated at the same time that dominant patterns of development have accelerated. According to this perspective, the primary concern of centralised agencies is not with fundamental reform of decision-making processes but with securing political legitimacy by lending decisions a sheen of social and environmental responsibility (Higgins and Lockie, 2002; Hildyard et al., 2001). Consulting impacted publics and other stakeholders is seen as a cost worth bearing because of the potential it holds to build trust, thus reducing project delays, litigation, and other costs, down the line; not because such consultation might result in radically revised project plans (Hildyard et al., 2001).

Critics argue that, at worst, central governments, international agencies and others have used participatory management to absolve themselves of responsibility for dealing with environmental problems by pushing those problems back onto local communities (see Lockie, 2000), or to shift the focus of resource management away from environmental concerns and towards economic growth and development (Jessop, 2002). The primary concern for such powerful actors, this view suggests, is with maintaining political legitimacy rather than truly devolving control of natural resources or seriously considering ways to build the capacity of communities to solve their own, immediate environmental problems (see Lockie, 2000).

Defining communities and spheres of influence

By contrast, critics of the basic assumptions underlying community-based resource management are less dismissive of participatory approaches per se, but raise difficult questions about how (and by whom) communities and their legitimate spheres of interest are defined. Such questions are social, temporal, spatial, legal and political. They evoke debates about property rights and responsibilities; about the maintenance, re-capturing and/or transformation of tradition; about the empowerment of women, indigenous peoples, and other marginalised groups (Agarwal, 1994); about the value placed on social and cultural diversity within the locale; about local communities’ interactions with regional, national and global networks (see Pezzoli 1998); about the social capital, finances, and other resources that communities have at their disposal to implement their visions for environmental management; and about the interplay between lay and scientific knowledge (Shiva, 1989). Problematising the concept of community through consideration of these debates does not undermine the project of participatory environmental management. But it does suggest that implementation of participatory approaches may reinforce existing inequalities if careful consideration is not given to the diversity of values, aspirations, capacities, resource claims, and access to political influence found within particular territories (Borrini-Feyerabend and Tarnowski, 2005).

What way forward?

How do communities and institutions deal constructively with such complexity? One popular approach is to reflect on experiences in participatory management and thence to devise ‘best-practice’ guidelines and tips. These can be useful, but their application outside the immediate social and environmental context in which they were devised can be limited, for at least two reasons. First, the more generalisable such lists are, the more they tend to be based on vague statements of values and principles rather than statements of possible, locally contextualised conservation strategies (cf. Neumann, 2005; Carrier, 2004). Second, in many cases such guidelines rest on the over-simplified assumption that power is something held centrally by governments and large firms and which can be given to communities. Drawing on Arnstein’s (1969) ‘ladder of participation’, such guidelines portray the handing over of decisions to ill-defined communities as ideal. Involving communities in decision-making is portrayed as less ideal, but still a good thing to do; while simply providing information on resource management plans is caricatured as one step removed from authoritarianism. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to citizen participation in environmental management, however (cf. Brosius et al., 2005). Views differ on the appropriateness and effectiveness of participatory programs. Debate flares over who has rights of access to particular resources. Some stakeholders come to the table with questionable and ulterior motives; others don’t. And many situations remain in which resource-user communities influence environmental management outcomes, quite apart from attempts of centralised agencies to encourage or force them in alternative directions (Colchester, 2005; Lockie and Higgins, 2007).

Aims of this Special Issue

The approach taken in this symposium is to treat participatory approaches as a diverse and ongoing set of natural experiments in environmental and natural resource governance. By this, we include all attempts to organise activity in pursuit of some sort of environmental management outcome, whether conducted by and through government agencies or non-state institutions such as kin networks or traditional resource user groups. Such attempts to organise activity are, of course, fraught with difficulty. As Miller and Rose (1990: 10-11) argue, the programs put in place to address one set of social and political needs are usually the source of problems for others. This suggests that the legitimacy and durability of any program of governance is dependent on how well those involved adapt, compromise, and re-think their conceptualisation of problems and solutions in response to setbacks. From this, we would argue that – while at a very broad level, participatory approaches have offered a rather elegant solution to the apparently contradictory pressures facing resource management institutions to address social and environmental degradation while promoting fiscal austerity – additional challenges have emerged to which participatory programs must adapt or risk failure. As identified in contributions to this special issue of Local Environment, such challenges include:

Papers in this symposium examine the experience of community-based management of forest, fishery, and groundwater resources in a variety of sub-Saharan African, and South and East Asian locations. Taken together, it is hoped that they add fresh perspectives on solutions to governance issues faced by resource-based communities, local governments, and other interested environmental actors around the world, especially in the Global South.

Organization of this Special Issue

Contributions to this symposium are organized in three sections corresponding to the challenges faced by participatory programs identified above. In the first section, on state-community interactions in natural resource use and conservation, Frank Matose examines interactions between multiple levels of traditional and contemporary forest resources management institutions in Zimbabwe, conflicts between new immigrants and traditional resource users, and "the importance of contexts, resource values, identity and social relations in gaining access and control over resources". In light of this complexity and fluidity, Matose cautions against the imposition of new, intermediate-level institutional structures for community-based natural resource management. This is not to suggest that state agencies either should assume centralized control of resources or, conversely, simply leave their management to local communities. The point is, rather, that intermediate institutions do not automatically resolve conflicts and contradictions in resource management and care must be taken not simply to add additional layers of complexity that will heighten resistance and tension among resource users.

Robert Mazur and Oleg Stakhanov, in the same section, provide clues as to how this can be avoided. Comparing the experience of community-based forest management in four sub-Saharan African nations – Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania – based on what they term a "sustainable livelihood framework", the authors argue that sustainable, community-based forest management can be achieved "only through integrated approaches that simultaneously enhance household and local institutions' social capital, improve forest-edge resource productivity, and reduce economic vulnerability."

In the second section on social mobility, new networks, and local knowledge, D. S. Sunil takes up issues of fresh-water fisheries, analysing the roles of traditional, local knowledge and institutional resource management approaches in the Indian state of Kerala. In this context, local knowledge is complicated by the arrival and intervention of new migrants engaged in commercial fishing in inland river areas. Social capital differences among local resource users, in the form of knowledge of and access to high-tech fishing equipment, are key factors in this study. State resource management agencies must take both old and new populations, technologies, and 'local knowledge' into account in devising plans for more sustainable management of Kerala's fisheries resources.

In the same section, Minh Nguyet Le "addresses the challenges in understanding resource governance … in the context of transitional local and national economies and a diminishing [fisheries] resource base", drawing from her experience in field research and advocacy in Cambodia and the lower Mekong River basin. Utilizing what she terms 'benefit sharing analysis' Le finds that "successful community-based natural resource governance requires more than simply devolving responsibility down to lower levels, or sharing responsibility between natural resource users".

Also in this section, Sanae Yamamoto, explores "the mechanism of norm-formation" on use of groundwater resources in a lakeside community in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Again, there is a tension between the impact of modern technologies and resource management approaches, and traditional local knowledge and groundwater maintenance systems. In this context, the clash led to the formation of new, local norms, and the "birth of an alternative water management system" that allocated water to those both with, and without, legally-defined entitlements to irrigation water. A critical factor in the apparent success of this system was the dependence of those irrigators who held strong water access rights on additional resources provided by those irrigators who, on the surface, were potentially disadvantaged by their lack of legal entitlement to water. Specifically, as a resource that must, literally, flow through the landscape, effective management of water depended both on the capacity of downstream farms to absorb excess drainage water and on the participation of as many irrigators as possible in local resource management institutions facing the challenges of modernization and increasing numbers of part-time farmers.

In the final section on resource access and property rights, Lotsmart Fonjong explores the critically important, gendered dimension of natural resource management in Cameroon, west Africa. Arguing that "women are critical both as agents and victims of natural resource exploitation and management", he suggests that "ensuring gender equality in natural resource management is indispensable in achieving sustainable development."


This symposium had its genesis in a session on "Communities, Natural Resources, and Environments" at the XVIth World Congress Sociology, Durban, South Africa, July 23-29, 2006, organized under the auspices of Research Committee on Environment and Society (RC24) of the International Sociological Association (ISA); and a conference on "The Greening of Agro-Industries and Networks in Asia: Challenges and Opportunities," Bangkok, Thailand, October, 2006. David Sonnenfeld's participation in the ISA World Congress was enabled in part by the American Sociological Association's Travel Award Grant (SES-0548370), supported by the National Science Foundation; a Professional Development Grant from the Robert and Patricia Swizter Foundation; and Washington State University. The Bangkok conference was supported by Wageningen University's North-South Interdisciplinary Research and Educational Fund (INREF), the Netherlands. For their kind support and generous assistance in this endeavour, the Guest Editors would like to express their appreciation to Arthur Mol, Julian Agyeman, Bob Evans, Kate Theobald, Robert Mazur, Sarah Rickson, Barbara Pini, Bob Fisher, Thomas Rudel, Peter Reeves, Bob Pokrant, Simon Bush, Caroline Garaway, and Ashutosh Sarker.


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