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Collaborative natural resource management

Collaborative management


This overview focuses on processes and practical aspects of promoting and supporting the collaborative management of natural resources, which is defined as shared decision-making over natural resources by the State and resource users (or communities). Collaborative management includes:

In recent years, co-management arrangements have emerged in various settings and under various titles, including:

In such programmes, stakeholders work together to manage a single resource (such as a park, block of forest, fishing area or irrigation scheme), or cooperatively address management issues of common interest (such as water conservation and delivery, reducing soil erosion, and eliminating pests) over multiple properties.

TRAINER'S NOTE: The rationale for promoting collaborative management is based on the assumption that effective management is more likely when local resource users have shared or exclusive rights to make decisions and benefit from resource use

The policy framework: are the circumstances right?

Many attempts to support collaborative management run into trouble because of problems that originate in the institutional policy frameworks in which they operate. The question is whether the policy framework and its institutional setting provide the legal/administrative basis and incentives to create an enabling environment for collaborative management. Box A provides an example of the sort of problems that can arise if the enabling environment is not understood.


An integrated rural development project in Bangladesh was not completely informed about government plans for economic development and water policy at the national level. As a result, they missed a crucial government decision to build a major weir upstream of their project area. The weir had a significant effect on the local water supply. Many of the collaborative efforts of farmers and the project were wasted because they were based on incorrect assumptions about the future availability of water. Participatory planning had to be repeated, and farmers' confidence in the project was badly shaken.

This section provides a broad overview of the enabling environment in the form of a checklist that illustrates some of the preconditions that need to be in place for collaborative natural resource management to work. The checklist is not exhaustive because many social, physical and technological factors are highly specific to locations and natural resources.

Basic needs

People have basic preconditions for living, such as food, shelter and health. If any of these is lacking or under threat, people will focus their attention on obtaining it and will have little interest or time to collaborate on anything else. Major disasters and other crisis situations create extremely difficult conditions in which to work on natural resource management, and many initiatives break down or are suspended until the crisis is over and basic preconditions of life are restored.

Conditions will be unfavourable when:

Natural resource management could form part of a response to a crisis. However, supporting natural resource management in times of crisis is a specialized area that falls outside the scope of this overview. It should nevertheless be mentioned that there is a grey area between what constitutes a time of crisis and what is normality. This grey area often coincides with relief efforts, when short-term coping strategies are supported until it becomes possible to engage in resource management initiatives later on. Local people's participation in relief situations is positive because it helps to move them from the role of victim to that of decision-maker. This change is a beneficial preparatory step towards engaging the same people in resource management (Wilde, 1997).


During the 1960s and early 1970s, many rural people in Lao People's Democratic Republic lived under the constant threat of aerial bombing and relocation as a result of the war in Southeast Asia. Villages were abandoned and many people moved, frequently over long distances, to establish temporary homes in caves and forests for protection. Normal commerce and trade were suspended, and economic development was severely disrupted. In the absence of social stability, rural people did not develop and maintain local systems of collaborative forest management. At this time, the boundaries between resource uses and user groups could not be determined with confidence, and there was little government effort to recognize and allocate forest use rights. Today, the Government of Lao People's Democratic Republic is able to allocate land and support collaborative forest management.

Is there political and legal backing from a competent government?

The government influences a large part of the enabling environment through its policies, laws and development plans, and through the actions of politicians and government agencies. The influence of government is increasing in some areas and declining in others. There are huge differences among countries and sectors, but some basic and common issues can be identified.

Policy: Collaborative management requires an appropriate national economic development strategy. Such a strategy may be based on ideology about the role of the State. Alternatively, a country's economic strategy may be dictated by fiscal crisis and the associated need for structural adjustment. Whatever inspires them, State economic development policies and plans have significant bearing on what can and what cannot be done at subnational levels. The designers and implementers of support programmes must always know what State policy and plans are in place, even if they do not expect much government involvement in their own programmes.

Some governments prefer development projects that follow a top-down approach. For example, they might prefer a project in which all the farmers in a particular village are forced to plant the same crop on a contiguous piece of land. This mentality probably arises because it is easier for the government to control, regulate and supervise such projects compared with small, varied and scattered activities.

Operation of the participatory process therefore depends on how narrowly the government prescribes its development policy and how narrowly the policies are interpreted and implemented by government staff (Alice Carloni, personal communication, 1997).

Clearly, flexible economic policies and open interpretation provide favourable circumstances for collaboration. Narrow definitions and rigid implementation are not favourable. Nevertheless, it is still worth pursuing a participatory approach even if the government is only partially willing to listen to the people. Development is better with participation than without it. Information derived from a participatory planning approach can be used to identify conditions under which government proposals will not work or will need to be modified. The information gathered by using a participatory approach can influence senior decision-makers and help create space for more participatory implementation at the village level (Alice Carloni, personal communication, 1997).

The next thing to consider is whether or not natural resource management is a priority area for the government. If it is, to what extent is the State willing to transfer or share control of natural resources with others? The answer to this question depends on whether the government plans to become a larger or smaller presence in the sector concerned. In some sectors, such as irrigation in developing countries, a limited government presence is a favourable circumstance (Juan Sagardoy, personal communication, 1997). In others, such as marine fisheries, a strong government presence may be desirable.

The legal basis of resource management: Collaborative management can work if stakeholders are confident that they will receive the anticipated benefits from resource use, in both the short and long terms. The following are the basic legal criteria for extablishing such confidence:

Customary or locally accepted rights are of limited use. Holding legal rights as well as customary ones can increase confidence, which in turn stimulates interest in collaboration with the government and investment in resource management. However, the legal situation is often complex, and laws can be interpreted or applied in various ways by government officials. Another problem might be that people do not know about the law or their rights.

Therefore, the following additional criteria are necessary for creating an enabling legal environment:

The enabling environment is complicated when current activities or uses are seen as illegal, or when there are major differences among stakeholders regarding the interpretation and acceptability of various formal and informal rights. Unhelpful laws can be changed, poor implementation of laws can be addressed, and disputed rights can be renegotiated, but this may take a long time. Such unfavourable circumstances may not stop a supporter if plenty of time is available and if the behaviour and views of stakeholders indicate that such improvements are achievable.

Policy implementation by government bodies: Supporting collaborative management involves working either through or with one or more government bodies. The following are some of the circumstances in which government bodies can definitely help the participatory process:

Do markets provide opportunities and confidence?

Markets influence resource management by providing (or failing to provide) economic and financial benefits to stakeholders. People will not participate in collaborative management unless they see some gain in doing so (Chambers, 1988). Among the numerous values and benefits of natural resources are products or raw materials that can be used for subsistence, barter or sale. Financial gains are a major motivator, and are determined largely by market opportunities and the associated risks.

If people feel certain about the gains and costs involved in resource management, they will be more inclined to invest in collaboration. Among other things, the interests of stakeholders in resource management depend on:

It is important to understand what opportunities resource managers have to benefit from production. Prices are fundamental to the concept of incentives. In many cases, producers of forest products do not have much information about realistic prices, especially in rural areas. In addition to the manipulation of prices by the private sector, governments too can alter prices and create incentives/disincentives.

Marketable resources are often scarce, and conflicts arise over resource use because of their potential value. Similarly, economic values can change over time, provoking new conflicts over use or access rights. The term "collaborative management" may imply harmony and working together happily, but economic and financial circumstances can create or encourage competition and reveal new or hidden conflicts over resources.

Infrastructure: The influence that infrastructure has on collaborative management depends on the needs of stakeholders and on what collaboration is setting out to achieve. The protection of a core wilderness zone inside an important national park might best be served by the absence of infrastructure. On the other hand, the interests of poor rural people who are using natural resources outside a protected area system might best be served by access to physical infrastructure such as roads, electricity and irrigation. Infrastructure development in a specific area may or may not be prescribed by government development policy and plans, and a support programme may or may not have the resources to create the required infrastructure if it is absent. In either case, infrastructure forms an important component of the enabling environment.

A support programme might choose to:

In simple terms, the decision depends on what infrastructure is required, what is already present, whether missing infrastructure forms a critical part of the development agenda of the support programme, and what the social and environmental impacts of establishing it are.

Do the philosophy and practice of collaborative management fit the culture?

People's behaviour occurs in the context of shared beliefs, values and institutions. Societies establish rules and sanctions for rule breaking, and assign various institutional roles to their members. Collaborative management of natural resources must somehow fit into this cultural setting. According to the definition of collaborative management, the basic requirements are that multiple stakeholders can share decision-making about natural resource use and will cooperate in implementing management arrangements. It might be difficult to identify the relevant cultural circumstances and whether collaboration can be promoted easily or not. To complicate matters, a number of different ethnic groups may be present in a given situation, each with different sets of shared norms and values.

A starting point for understanding the cultural environment is to explore whether or not:


This overview has shown that many circumstances can influence the enabling environment for collaborative management. There are usually many stakeholders with different interests and preferences for management, and it is not usually possible to engage every stakeholder in decision-making. There are often significant differences among people regarding their capacity to participate and influence outcomes. Conflict and numerous other problems can arise from the cultural, political, legal and economic circumstances.

As a result, a participatory approach to supporting collaborative management might be seriously constrained or fail for a number of reasons. For example, some of the stakeholders may not be in favour of collaborative management, and if these stakeholders hold significant power they can ensure that collaboration does not work. There is little to be gained from pushing an approach in an environment that is unsuited to it. This means that anybody in a supporting role should always undertake a stakeholder analysis and check the enabling environment, and should also reserve the right to walk away from an impossible set of circumstances in a specific location. Indeed, the act of walking away might stimulate stakeholders to rethink their positions, or to work through a particular problem in the enabling environment, so that collaboration has a better chance to succeed in future attempts.

This position is justified because supporters often encourage people to take risks and make investments that they might otherwise have avoided in the absence of the support. Mistakes on the part of a supporter and others during collaboration can be costly for both the rural poor and the supporter. The rural poor can lose time and resources, and the supporter can lose credibility. Supporters are responsible towards the people whom they are trying to help. This increases the importance of checking on stakeholders and the enabling environment at the start, and of reflecting and evaluating frequently so that problems and mistakes can be anticipated or revealed as early as possible.

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