Local Environment 13(5): 385-391, July 2008
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.
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).
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 (
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:
Limited capacity of state institutions to develop partnership-based approaches to natural resource management within territories where their influence is tenuous;
Increasing social mobility as a result of globalisation, economic development and migration, and the impact of this mobility on local social networks and local knowledge; and
Marginalisation of potential participants in sustainable natural resource management from resource access and property rights.
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.
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
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 –
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
Also in this section, Sanae Yamamoto, explores "the mechanism of
norm-formation" on use of groundwater resources in a lakeside community in
In the final section on resource access and property rights,
Lotsmart Fonjong explores the critically important, gendered dimension of
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Abstract and Contents
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