13. Co-management as a new approach to regulation of common property resources

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13.1 Enlarging the range of regulation modes
13.2 The broad nature of co-management arrangements or contracts
13.3 Co-management at work
13.4 Conclusion

13.1 Enlarging the range of regulation modes

The previous chapters have not led us to any definite, clear-cut conclusion. In Part I, some important shortcomings of private property of natural resources have been emphasized (Chapter 3). In Part II, attention has been drawn to the considerable problems raised by public ownership and centralized management of such resources (Chapter 11, sect. 1) while communal property has simultaneously been shown, on both empirical and theoretical grounds, to be problematic in some circumstances and promising in others (Chapters 10 and 12). Moreover, recent changes in the context in which rural communities operate tend to make village-level resource regulation more difficult than it was before (Chapter 11, sect. 2). Certainly, these results demonstrate that dogmatic attitudes based on the presumed absolute superiority of one form of resource regulation over the others are unjustified and damaging. Careful analysis of each particular case is required before any conclusion can be reached about the appropriateness of this or that form.

A more troublesome apparent implication of the analysis is that situations may be expected to arise where no viable solution is available. Thus, private ownership may be prohibitively costly (due to very high costs of fencing in the resource domain) and/or inequitable (if perceived as illegitimate, this solution may actually increase the attendant transaction costs). Direct state control may prove ineffectual for a variety of reasons including high information costs, lack of adequate monitoring devices, trained personnel, or financial resources, and subordination of environmental to shorter-term economic or political interests. In addition, the alternative approach of community-based management may be unrealistic because local conditions do not provide sufficient guarantee for effective CPR-related collective action, owing to recent changes in the rural scene and new challenges from the wider world, and/or to deep-rooted features of the social structure or to resource characteristics (the resource may spread over a large area; the evolution of its stock may not be visible; users may be highly scattered and reside far away from the resource, etc.).

Fortunately, the problem may be less intractable than it appears at first sight. This is because the distinction used so far between three well-defined resource property/ regulation regimes is far too simplistic to serve as a useful guideline for policy-making. In effect, the state-based and community-based modes of regulation can be combined in numerous and imaginative ways which open the door to many more solutions than the three standard approaches usually referred to in the literature. As observed by

Lawry, 'it may be useful to think in terms of policies for shoring up the respective weaknesses of states and communities in managing collective resources' (Lawry, 1989b: 15), an approach which points to 'co-management' arrangements between government and rural communities. Under this new approach, rural communities or user groups tend to be regarded as 'the primary base for resource management' (Zufferey, 1986: 91), yet this does not imply that they acquire complete or near-complete autonomy towards that purpose. Rather than the more conservative plea for the preservation of or return to traditional systems of resource management, the basic message of many socio-anthropological studies seems to be that people have to be involved in the development of their resources in some way or other. Decentralization of controls and active participation of rural residents are the key elements in the approach advocated by most social researchers but, to repeat, adhesion to such principles does not by itself preclude a critical role for the State in view of the limitations of local-level collective action.

To argue for a (user) group- or community-centred approach is therefore not tantamount to asking for a drastic retrenchment of state responsibilities in resource management. The basic concern is actually with reshaping state interventions so as to institutionalize collaboration between administration and resource users and end those unproductive situations where they are pitted against one another as antagonistic actors in the process of resource regulation. Enough evidence has indeed been accumulated to show that, when rural inhabitants come to view state agents with hostility and distrust, all state efforts are doomed to yield disappointing results. This is partly because villagers are bent on violating rules and resist programmes the rationale of which they do not understand, all the more so if they have the impression that those rules or programmes are clumsy or do not reflect a proper understanding of the specific problems and constraints confronting them. Given pervasive informational asymmetries and the high cost of centralized monitoring of highly scattered activities, the sanctions are bound to be imposed in an arbitrary way and they must be severe to effectively deter rule-breaking. Yet, as has been emphasized in Chapter 11, heavy fines and severe sanctions are likely either to cause a lot of social resentment which many governments are keen to avoid, or to breed active corruption of state agents with the result that rule-breaking continues unabated.

Clearly, to be successful, co-management must operate within a framework where the state integrates the populations concerned early on in the design stages of the resource-preserving strategy. Also, considerable effort must be devoted to explaining to them the objectives pursued and the benefits they will gain from restricted and careful use of the resource involved. Most importantly, trust has to be built between the two partners. In this respect, given the deep-rooted 'culture of distrust' that permeates relationships between the State and local resource users, development projects initiated by local or foreign donor agencies can play a useful role within a co-management framework of action. They may not only help user communities to gain confidence in their collective action ability and to build up or adapt local institutional arrangements for the management of their natural resources, but they may also help in gradually overcoming the 'trust' gap that exists between these communities and the state authorities. It is important to stress that this gap is more likely to be reduced and local institutions are more likely to be effective if traditional arrangements or mechanisms already operating in rural communities are supported than if they are ignored (see, e.g., Cernea, 1989; Bromley and Cernea, 1989; Swift, 1991; Colchester, 1994; Utting, 1994). At least, this is true as long as these traditional arrangements carry enough legitimacy for a majority of the resource users concerned.

13.2 The broad nature of co-management arrangements or contracts

We have argued above that, if more attention is given to the possibilities inherent in the comanagement approach, the range of situations in which direct involvement of user groups could be expected to increase effectiveness of resource regulation would presumably widen by a large margin. The question has now to be asked as to what is exactly the nature of complementarily between government and user groups or communities which could serve as a base for comanagement arrangements. The answer to this question is derived from the analysis presented in previous chapters and can be summarized in the following way:

  1. To the extent that the State is comparatively efficient in processing (rather than collecting) crucial information on village-level resources and the external effects they may produce as well as in designing efficiency-improving policies, it can provide technical assistance or guidance to user groups or communities. This is with a view to (a) helping them better assess the massive changes that have taken place in their environment during recent decades; (b) convincing them that effective remedial actions can be taken to redress ongoing ecological imbalances; (c) disseminating new practices aimed at ensuring preservation and sound exploitation of local resources; and (d) following up the application, and evaluating the appropriateness, of these new practices.
  2. Economic incentives to resource users might be provided by the government so as to induce them to shift from a shut-down path to a conservation path of resource exploitation. Such a policy is particularly welcome if the resource generates significant positive externalities or if the users are subsistence-constrained villagers who lack the wherewithal to build them up to an optimal level compatible with conservation in the long run.
  3. Government might help local systems of resource management by clarifying group territorial rights and by providing a legal framework which enables rural organizations 'to obtain legally enforceable recognition of their identity and rights and to call upon the state as an enforcer of last resort' (Wade, 1987: 232). This role is especially important given the fact that the viability of resource management projects may depend crucially on their receiving legal protection from encroachment by neighbouring groups or external intruders on the site of operation. In most cases, meeting the above requirement is obviously tantamount to giving customary users guarantees of exclusive group tenure and recognition of the importance of their traditional, limited-entry recruitment procedures (see, e.g. Cordell and McKean, 1986: 105; World Bank, 1992: 142).' Moreover, rural communities sometimes need to be protected by the State against the damages caused by broad-level forces and other economic sectors, such as when coastal fishing communities suffer from industrial pollution, harbour siltation, or touristic encroachments (see, e.g., Soysa et al., 1982). Such damage may actually do more harm to village-level resources than the harvesting efforts of the direct users themselves. The role of the State derives here from its ability to deal with externalities which, by their size or their nature, require a good deal of centralized intervention. Finally, the government might give support to the internal order of user groups by recognizing and enforcing their legal right to define resource-use rules and enforce sanctions on deviants (Swallow and Bromley, 1994b: 14).
  4. Formal conflict-resolution mechanisms might be supplied by the State to be used whenever conflicts cannot be settled at the user group- or community-level, or whenever disputes between contending user groups have to be adjudicated. Such mechanisms may also be required to resolve intersectoral conflicts, particularly those arising from negative externalities such as pollution (like when prime fishing-grounds are being degraded by industrial and domestic effluents).
  5. The Government might provide financial and technical support to decentralized monitoring when monitoring activities necessitate the use of costly technologies and equipment to be effective (for instance, quickly moving patrol boats intended for inspecting industrial vessels that have encroached upon inshore waters assigned to small-scale coastal fishermen communities).
  6. Efficiency could be improved by government promotion of competition among largely autonomous management units and by ensuring quick diffusion of information on best practices and working rules. This is an important role in so far as a major advantage of allowing considerable autonomy to design and reform rules in small units that are nested in larger (federal) systems is that more information may be generated from experience. Many more independent experiments can be carried out and, to the extent that self-organized units do not exist in physical and institutional isolation, they may learn a lot from one another by sharing their experiences (Weissing and Ostrom, 1992).

Of course, the above functions are a reflection of the weaknesses and limits of user groups or communities as resource regulators. On the other hand, the latter exhibit various strengths which ought to be advantageously exploited in co-management arrangements. In particular:

  1. They are well-informed about local ecological conditions even though they may possibly miss or misjudge recent evolutions of their environment or ascribe wrong causes to visible ecological processes under way (as when depletion of local fish stocks is systematically blamed on migrant fishermen who use different harvesting techniques; or even when a more or less prolonged decline in fish catches is a priori attributed to human overexploitation of fish resources).
  2. They are well informed about local technical, economic, and social conditions, about problems or constraints that characterize their micro-society, as well as about the cultural patrimony on which they can draw to meet new challenges. Consequently, they are in a good position to devise well-adapted rules, procedures, and sanction mechanisms that are susceptible of gaining broad support among resource users, especially so if prestigious or effective local leaders are available to take the required initiatives. In particular, because they can make location- or community-specific rules, they are often better able to allow for fairness or equity considerations. In addition, rules developed locally often result from extensive trial and error by the users themselves, which ensures not only that they are well suited to local conditions but also that they are well understood by the people concerned.
  3. Because their size is relatively small, they can easily adjust their local rules and procedures to changing circumstances.
  4. Not only do they often possess customary conflict-resolution mechanisms which can be used at low cost to solve numerous intra-community disputes on the spot, but they also have traditional techniques to minimize the incidence of interpersonal conflicts (for instance, simple warnings are frequently sufficient to deter rule-breaking).
  5. Self-monitoring organized by users themselves is likely to be significantly less costly than centralized control exercised through formal administrative channels.

A simple and evident principle is then the following: the weaker the rural communities or groups in one or several of the above respects, the fewer should be the responsibilities devolved upon them by the State within the purview of co-management arrangements. Moreover, the stronger the suspicions that local groups or communities are under the sway of special powerful interests ready to sacrifice environmental considerations to short-run economic or political objectives, the less control of environmental outcomes ought to be surrendered to these groups or communities. In the borderline case where user groups offer almost no guarantee that they can effectively participate in resource management efforts, the range of actions they are legally empowered to take ought to be restricted to a minimum. If there are doubts about the user groups' ability to regulate local CPRs, sequential co-management designs might be experimented with to test this ability, possibly in several progressive stages.

This being said, before concluding that local user groups have low ability to carry out the necessary collective actions, much caution is required. There have indeed been too many stories in which pessimistic conclusions have been hastily drawn without the support of sufficient knowledge regarding the priorities, social organization, decision-making structures, leadership, and survival constraints of these groups. Furthermore, such pessimistic conclusions are sometimes reached while the collective action ability of user groups has not been fairly tested because essential conditions for success that do not depend on them have not been fulfilled on the ground. In particular, one ought not to be surprised at the disappointing management performances of groups of intended beneficiaries when the State is reluctant to denationalize village-level natural resources and to clearly define and protect communal rights to rangeland, pastures, water, trees, and so on.

Local user communities must be given a fair chance to participate in the management of their natural resources. Yet, they ought not to be idealized as they tend to be nowadays in certain circles, journals, and conferences: just think of the present-day fashion about TURFs (Territorial Use Rights in Fisheries) considered by some individuals and organizations as the panacea for solving fishery management problems; or of the fad of many scientists and activists for community woodlot programmes conceived as the magic key to rehabilitate and conserve forests. Unfortunately, there is presently no conclusive evidence that user communities can be 'the solution' to problems of resource depletion and ecological destruction, even within a comanagement framework. The best-documented case illustrating such an approach, that of Japanese fisheries described in detail below, only shows that user communities can be made effective partners for resource management in certain circumstances. Today, there are disquieting signs that even such a well-conceived scheme of co-management becomes seriously stressed as market opportunities expand and cause an intensive commercial exploitation of certain natural resources. The destructive pressures come from both outside economic interests and internal centrifugal tendencies.

A last point deserves to be made at this juncture. In many cases, it is unrealistic to expect the State to deal with each user group because this would entail considerable transaction costs. There is consequently a need for intermediate organizations that represent the interests of multiple user groups. These organizations have to be built up and cannot typically be derived from traditional institutions. Whether such a challenge can be met is a question of the utmost importance that cannot be answered today. One resource domain where attempts are currently being made at establishing broad-based organizations designed to mediate between the State and community-level user groups is that of fisheries. More will be said about these attempts in the next section.