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Legalize it!: Community participation in natural resource management

P. E. Wynter

Pauline E. Wynter is a senior project manager with Tropical Research and Development Inc., Florida. She was formerly a lecturer in ecology at Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique.

In many countries in Africa, constitutional changes to open the way for democratization are providing an opportunity for local practices and institutions to enter the administrative and legal frameworks that determine natural resource management. If national forest services are to devolve management responsibilities to the district and village levels, then village institutions need to be recognized and strengthened legally and administratively. This article describes an example of village land-use institutions on the small island of Inhaca in Mozambique and draws some conclusions regarding the future of the country's resource management.

Attempts to legislate new tenure systems in postcolonial Africa have focused on establishing mechanisms for individual ownership of freehold property. The objectives appear to be narrowly restricted to providing a legal framework for encouraging economic development and market production. As a result, the wide variety of indigenous tenure systems, which govern the use of natural resources for subsistence, have generally remained poorly understood and outside codified law.

The economic argument for providing a clear title to land and full hereditary rights is that this will encourage long-term investment and greater productivity. Land-use managers define investments in terms of the capacity of land to produce over the long term. However, in reviewing a series of comparative studies, Bruce and Freundenberger (1992) found that countries with legal systems that provide secure tenure through formal titling to land with full hereditary rights do not exhibit ipso facto more improved land-use practices than countries without a codified land tenure system. Long-term investment both occurred and did not occur under both legal regimes, independent of formal legal security. Bruce and Freundenberger (1992) concluded that tenure insecurity under customary or indigenous legal frameworks are exaggerated. This finding suggests that there is more than one legal path to tenurial security and that it is worth looking again at indigenous legal institutions as a source of strategies and prescriptions for the sustainable development of forest resources. To this end, this article examines local resource management practices on Inhaca Island in Mozambique.

Inhaca Island

Inhaca Island is situated 40 km off the coast of Maputo. The island has a land area of 44 km: and a population of about 7 000 people who live in villages grouped into three bairros. One-third of the island is designated a protected area and consists of terrestrial forest and mangrove swamp forest. In the protected area, the islanders are permitted to harvest timber for houses and other plants for medicinal or culinary purposes but they are not allowed to clear the forest for cultivation.

Fishing is the major occupation - it is the sea and the tides that determine the island's rhythm of life. The most intensively exploited area is the intertidal zone. The landward edge of the intertidal zone on the sheltered coasts is covered with mangrove swamp forest while the seaward half of the zone is the recipient of mangrove litter and nutrients. Thus, Inhaca Island has a fishing system that is dependent on a forest. Or, put another way, Inhaca's most valuable forest product is shellfish.

Mangrove use

The islanders harvest three types of product from the mangroves themselves: non-wood products, including marine invertebrates and succulent plants; construction wood; and fuelwood for processing fish products. A 1990 study of mangrove forest use shows that specific forest resources are being harvested by distinct social groups (Wynter, in press). The use of each species is guided by slightly different sets of rules while new needs for mangrove forest resources are guided by the community's concepts of forest use.

Non-wood products. Inhacan women are the main intertidal hunters. They collect many mangrove products, including shellfish (both for home consumption and commercial sale), edible plants and mud for the floors of their houses. The women use the mangrove that is nearest to their village but, if several villages are all within walking distance of the same mangrove, they will divide it spatially among each village. All women of one village may collect any species for home consumption but only a few women may collect species for commercial purposes. The delineation of collection areas minimizes conflict between the villages and the distinction between collection for home consumption and collection for commerce provides a safety net for everyone while still protecting privileged access.

The mangrove swamp ecosystems is essential to village life on Inhaca Island

Timber. The most important timber product is construction wood, cut by men. The tannin-impregnated mangrove species are highly valued for their resistance to termites and other borers. Two species, Rhizophora mucronata and Bruguiera gymnorhizza, grow to a size that is suitable for use as building poles. A third species, Ceriops tagal, is small in stature and has pliable branches which are used as lathes to tie the posts that form the traditional house frame. Only C. tagal is abundant, and there are virtually no mature specimens of B. gymnorhizza left.

It is noteworthy that, although the cutting of timber is men's work, it is the women who visit the mangroves more frequently and it is they who indicate where large trees can be found. Therefore, construction wood also tends to be harvested in the area of people's own villages. Those living in villages where suitable timber is not to be found in nearby mangroves usually purchase mangrove poles from the mainland (Wynter, in press).

Fuelwood. Although scientific studies and general East African perceptions indicate that Rhizophora mucronata is a good choice for fuel, Inhacans do not use this preferred mangrove species for domestic fuel (Costa, 1988), choosing instead Avicennia marina, a species of significantly lower caloric value (Bunster and Karlberg, 1988). Nor do they use R. mucronata for drying fish or sea cucumbers. Apparently, they deny themselves the short-term advantages of using certain species for fuelwood in order to ensure the sustainability of the resource.

The key management strategies of the Inhaca system are summed up in the Table below. The single most important concept is the limit placed on the number of people using one area of forest or beach or one well. The other point to be taken from Inhaca is that villagers do not put boundaries around forest, agricultural or fisheries resources to divide them into separate systems. Every family, although not necessarily every person, has time and labour allocated for each activity. The key to making the system work is the relationships between the groups and subgroups of users. Kinship relations and relationships to village leaders are used to gain and maintain access to specific resources and places. Standards of behaviour are internalized and presented as inviolable, while inappropriate activities are socially condemned. The system is based on a mix of private and group ownership.

The next question is whether and how this sustainable system of village resource management fits into the overall legal framework and how it might be institutionalized.

Land tenure in Mozambique after independence

In 1975, the year of its independence, Mozambique took two momentous decisions for indigenous land-use systems. All land was brought under the control of the state and could only be leased, not purchased outright. The government also removed its support for local traditional authorities chiefs - in an attempt to terminate the local colonial administrative system which was perceived to be corrupt and backward. Although this latter move was not aimed at changing the tenure system, it did so because the chiefs were at the apex of the indigenous land-use system and were also the ultimate arbiters in the allocation of the community's land, water and forest resources. Their relegation to official limbo left a vacuum in the land distribution process (Wynter, in press). Decisions were taken in the capital city and the newly appointed local administrators, often from another province, had neither the skills nor the background to judge what was happening in the countryside and often could not even provide adequate feedback.

At the same time, although the chiefs were officially stripped of their power, in the village reality they were still extremely important. For example, Inhaca's population increased dramatically after 1979 when the number of contracts available for Mozambicans to work in South African mines was reduced and a consequent Mozambique Government policy to repatriate the unemployed of the city of Maputo in 1982. Inhaca's population grew from 3 500 in 1979 to 7 000 in 1983. Pressure for arable land grew, especially in the two bairros which had lost some of their land in the creation of the protected areas. Inhacans were cultivating protected areas despite indications from a survey that, at least in one bairro, there were large areas of uncultivated, non-reserved land. The mayor of the city of Maputo, to whom the Inhacan village management rules administrator of the Inhaca reported, came to the island and officially distributed this vacant land. Weeks passed and the rains came and went but the land was not cultivated.

Inhacan village management rules

Village action



Entry to forest areas limited to residents of a village

Number of users limited to the size of the village

Limited entry

Large forests are divided between villages. Each village has a portion for its exclusive use

The open access common is closed

Group ownership

Harvest of commercial species limited to a subgroup of villagers (Wynter, 1993)

Reduction of pressure on the resource

Limited entry

Collection of certain scarce species limited to specific periods of time(Wynter, 1992)

Each member of a user group has an equal opportunity to harvest a scarce species and the species is protected from persistent harvesting

Closed seasons

Selective harvest of species for different uses

Preservation of forest or other habitat qualities

Selective harvesting

Individual ownership of fruit-trees not growing on individually claimed land

Exclusive access to the fruit of a tree without owning the land on which it grows

Usufructuary rights

Knowledge of a group's interest in specific species is circulated even though the reason for the interest may not be clear

The community is alerted to the fact that a species is useful and needed by a subgroup

Information flow

A village rule insists on the absolute necessity for using or not using certain species

Protection of species from wanton use

Societal norm

Imbuing some species, such as Sclerocarya birrea, and places such as burial sites with spiritual significance and hence need for protection

Absolute protection from felling

Sacred/religious beliefs

Women and men use different species and different production niches. Changes in approaches to management and land law tends to disenfranchise women

Gender-specific use of species and places

Gender differences

A further investigation found that no one used the land distributed by the mayor because the villagers perceived this land to be under the control of the chief, and his permission had not been granted. Nor would they ask the chief's permission because they felt he would want some form of recompense. Inhacans were more willing to risk clearing land in the protected area than clearing the chief's land.

The signs in the reserve area and the presence of a park ranger were enough to indicate that it was no longer under the chief's control but not enough to indicate that the state would retaliate if they used it. For the islanders, clearing state land carried a smaller risk of retribution than using the chief's land.

By creating the reserves, the state had turned a closed access system into an open access system.

In 1990 Mozambique adopted a new constitution based on a multiparty electoral system. It paves the way for the growth of a professional administration and an institutionalized decentralization of the decision-making process away from the national and provincial capitals to the district level and below. In addition, between 1975 and 1990, Mozambique developed a national legal code but provincial judges interpreted the national code in the light of local perceptions of justice. As a result, a heterogeneous body of judicial opinions has been developing. The new constitution does not specifically recognize these heterogeneous opinions, nor does it forbid them. Thus, there are two avenues through which local legal concepts about land and its products may enter the written code - the legislative route and the courts.

Institutionalizing local participation

For resource managers to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the political changes, the following issues must be considered:

· the capacity of provincial civil servants to address resource management concerns adequately in a context where they will have to consider demands both from the top and from their local constituents;

· whether the legal framework can adequately protect the traditional property rights of villagers;

· how local participatory approaches can be monitored to assess their continued sustainability.

Local participation from the top down

In order to find responses to these questions it is useful to consider other experiences in the region. A close examination of two well-documented attempts to devolve resource management to the village level is instructive: the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) in Zimbabwe and Administrative Management Design (ADMADE) in Zambia (see Murindagomo, 1992; and Lewis, Mwenya and Kaweche, 1990). The premise of both programmes was that wildlife degradation could only be stemmed if local populations had an economic stake in its conservation. In Zambia the objective was to protect the animals from illegal hunting, and the key to local participation has been the support given by the local chiefs to protection activities the chief gained stature by having wildlife under his control. In Zimbabwe the objective was to hold on to the land for wildlife. Under the CAMPFIRE programme, local participation is secured by the transfer of the lucrative hunting safaris to people living in the wildlife grazing areas in return for their not cultivating open rangeland grazed by wildlife. In each case, local participation is used as a tactic to fulfil national conservation objectives. Conservation institutions developed at the national level are inserted into the existing administrative framework at the village and district levels. Essentially, this is a top-down approach.

Restructuring rural administration

Another approach is not just to shift certain ministerial programmes but also to strengthen the provincial administration's position to take a broad range of decisions. In 1992, the Government of Zimbabwe restructured the administration of rural areas. The express objective of this measure was to ensure that planning would begin "at the lowest level and not [be] imposed from above" (Government of Zimbabwe, 1990). One of the aims has been to devolve to the rural district councils (RDCs) the power to take decisions regarding the use of land, water and forest resources within the district, but it is helpful to see the context in which the RDCs have to work.

The new RDCs are faced with the initial problem of creating a working relationship out of the two administrations which were amalgamated to form the RDC in each district: the District Council and Rural Council for White and Black farmers, respectively. Success would appear to be dependent on the ability of each RDC, and hence the professionalism of its staff, in responding equitably to distinct ethnic communities with disparate economic resources. It is not that RDCs have to achieve racial harmony to function but, rather, in the process of their functions they should engender harmony. Social and cultural diversity is also a feature of most provinces of Mozambique and the professionalism required to reconcile such diversity will necessarily be as great a factor. The continuing training of district and provincial civil servants must be one of the points of intervention for resource management agencies. Civil servants need not all be trained as foresters or fisheries biologists but those in rural districts should be able to discuss resource problems with such technical experts. Furthermore, if local participation is to be an objective, technical training as well as that of civil servants must reflect this new approach, consequently including the skills required to discuss and appreciate the needs of village systems.

Legal instruments

The rights sought by rural dwellers such as the Inhacans concern the use of specific species, which overlap in space, for discontinuous periods of time. In other words, each space can generate as many rights to harvest as there are harvestable products, and each right may be held by several people simultaneously. The problem is how to recognize those claims and avoid the free-for-all situation of an open access system. In Botswana, certificates were used to give secure and negotiable use rights to squatters (Dickson, 1990) and they may perhaps be adapted to apply to overlapping forest resources.

Women are the main Intertidal hunters and collect many mangrove products

No one property form, be it leasehold or freehold, will be adequate for the variety of legal rural relationships to natural resources. The relationships described for Inhaca Island represent rural concepts of species, space, social relations and justice. As the Inhaca case demonstrates, many of these concepts are analogous to those that underlie so-called modern management of natural resources. Furthermore, the social relations, kinship groups and gender roles of the village and the power of the village leader are the means by which the concepts become operational.

Limiting entry to an area of forest to one village is a first step towards closing access and reducing pressure on the resource. The fact that the concept of limiting entry already exists is very useful and village leaders can increase their power by refining the concept with devices such as licences or certificates; the duration of these documents can be limited to the time required for specific management objectives.

Village leaders mediate decisions about a wide set of land uses. Some concern usufructuary rights while others are for secure individual rights to land for cultivation. As village leaders are incorporated into the hierarchy of administration through the district and provincial authorities, their activities must cease to be obscure and become explicit instead.

Devolution and decentralization suggest that power, which was formerly central, is being returned to the local level. However, it must not be inferred that the sold requirement is a shift in the decision-making locus. If the process is intended to be democratic, the shift has to be more than a geographic one. The decisions that were previously taken (or thwarted) regarding the forest, fishing and grazing systems need to be taken after devolution with the full knowledge of the central authorities as well as with the possibility of feedback and technical advice from the central management institutions and, sometimes, with the mediation of legal tribunals. They need to be taken in the context of local practices, with the benefit of research and other experiences provided by resource managers.

As Mozambique considers the restructuring of its local government, there are opportunities for foresters and other resource managers to help fashion a system based on the strengths of local communities and the capacity of their institutions to achieve national objectives for sustainable resource use. For this to happen, however, community resource management must be a bottom-up process in which management principles mesh with community principles. Village notions of the distribution and harvesting of natural resources need to be at the base of community resource management relations.


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