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The Concept of Community Ownership and Mobilization:
Experiences from Community-Based Natural Resources Management

Olekae Tsompi Thakadu
Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Botswana.


The history of natural resource management and conservation demonstrates a preference for programmes and strategies that alienated rural communities from the resource on which they subsisted. These resource conservation strategies, mainly characterized by top-down approaches, generated conflicts between rural communities and conservation agencies because the indigenous rural economies were directly linked to the same natural resource base. These strategies led to resentment and apathy by rural communities towards any conservation attempt and this resulted in conservation agencies presiding over declining natural resources. The situation required a transition from preservationist and state-driven strategies of natural resources management to a collaborative management approach with the same rural communities. This shift in conservation paradigm to a more integrated approach recognized the need to promote involvement and empowerment of rural communities by linking their economic and social development to natural resources management. The search for these vital linkages brought about the concept of community-based natural resource management programmes, which were implemented across southern Africa. The programme in Botswana, which is multi-objective in its approach, has incorporated a wide range of activities and development sectors such as wildlife, forestry, veldt products, tourism and enterprise development.

This paper aims to highlight the concepts underlying community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) and the strategy followed by Botswana in an attempt to be part of this new innovative conservation paradigm. The legal, policy and institutional environment allowing for co-management is discussed as a key enabling factor. The mobilization and facilitation approach followed in pursuit of community participation in natural resources management and conservation is outlined. Lessons learned and challenges met through the implementation of CBNRM programmes in Botswana are explored. Experience gained through years of facilitation and mobilization of communities in CBNRM programmes, mainly in northern Botswana, is drawn upon. The paper concludes by discussing lessons learned and key elements vital for the success of a community mobilization process that leads towards a genuine participatory and collaborative management initiative.


Initiatives regarding collaborative management of natural resources (mainly wildlife resources) with local communities date back to 1989, when a pilot project was initiated with Chobe Enclave communities in northern Botswana with the aim of demonstrating the applicability of community-based natural resources management (CBNRM). The successful initiation of the project persuaded the government to upgrade this to a programme, now called the community-based natural resources management programme, with countrywide coverage. The implementation of the CBNRM programme in Botswana has required the development of management plans with local communities, facilitation by district officials, the establishment of representative and accountable legal entities (RALEs) and the formulation of resource-governance by-laws and regulations.

Conceptual framework

CBNRM, a development approach that supports natural resources conservation, is based on the following key notions:

All citizens share an interest in conservation of natural resources as their livelihoods are closely linked to natural resources.

The people best placed to conserve and manage the resources are those living with the resources.

The people with most to lose are those living with or closest to natural resources and therefore, given proper tools and incentives, are those most likely to conserve the natural resources.

For sustainable and effective natural resources management, the benefits derived from management must outweigh the costs of conservation.

For communities to effectively take over control and management of natural resources for sustainable utilization and derive tangible benefits, an enabling environment must be created (support and empowerment).

People will only conserve and manage what they perceive will make a positive contribution to their quality of life.

The overall underlying concept behind this approach is to encourage the communities to manage natural resources in a sustainable way by transferring, in part, management responsibility, decision-making processes and the benefits of utilization from areas designated for local community use. Using this approach, it is anticipated that the involvement and participation of local communities in natural resources management and utilization will benefit conservation through:

a reduction in land-use and natural resource conflicts;

enhanced monitoring of the resource base;

the provision of cost-effective options for management of wildlife; and

the linking of natural resource conservation with development.

While a community may be viewed as a group of people bound together by social and economic relations based on shared interests, CBNRM is undertaken among groups of people with varied socio-economic interests and capabilities who share an interest in conservation and live within a legally defined geographic area. An entity representing the community’s interests and capable of making and implementing decisions is formed. This is called a community-based organization (CBO).

CBNRM implementation

Policy and legal framework

Two policy documents, the Wildlife Conservation Policy (1986) and the Tourism Policy (1990) created an enabling environment for implementation of the CBNRM programme. The two policy documents accepted the need for the involvement and participation of citizens in tourism- and wildlife-related industries. CBNRM was a tool for implementing this policy. The Wildlife Conservation and National Parks Act of 1992 facilitated community-based wildlife utilization and management programmes within Wildlife Management Areas.

Although these two policy documents were instrumental in the launching of CBNRM, a clear policy statement regarding CBNRM is not yet in place. However, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture are jointly drafting a CBNRM policy aimed at further guiding CBNRM and ensuring sustainable natural resources use. The two ministries are responsible for managing the natural resources utilized through the CBNRM programme. The resources include wildlife, forests, fisheries and veldt products, which are all closely linked in the natural environment.


Multisectoral and interdisciplinary facilitation teams consisting of wildlife officers, district officers, land use planners, land authorities and tribal administration officials were mobilized to consult local communities about CBNRM initiatives. The facilitation teams advised the communities on the concept of CBNRM and the policies and legal framework within which CBNRM existed. They also provided technical assistance. Communities were mobilized in communal gatherings and awareness meetings, and information workshops and seminars were organized for elected structures to build their capacity in CBNRM issues. The teams also sanctioned the election process for management structures to ensure that democratic principles were adhered to, that representative committees were put in place and that participatory decision-making processes were followed.

Formation of RALEs

Representative and accountable legal entities (RALEs), elected by the communities, facilitated the drafting and development of constitutions to guide the management and administrative operations of community-based organizations. District teams and non-governmental organizations offered technical and legal advice on drafting the legal instruments and gave advice on channels for registering the organizations and possible sources of funding. A community-based organization may take the form of a cooperative, company, society or trust, with the latter being the most common among existing CBOs.

Resource management guidelines and regulations

RALEs are empowered, through their constitution, to enact by-laws that govern the use of resources at their disposal. These procedures for control, management and utilization of resources are developed at community level through a participatory process. RALEs were empowered to make decisions on the running of their activities. This included the selection of joint venture partners with the private sector for photographic or hunting operations within the leased area designated for community use.

Determinants of success

The implementation of the CBNRM programme in Botswana has provided lessons that may be considered key factors for success in mobilizing communities to take part in collaborative management initiatives. Most communities were mobilized at the same time, but some have progressed faster than others, suggesting that there must be a set of factors at play that influence the speed at which each community adopts a collaborative management approach. Influential factors here are the degree, extent and nature of consultation, the willingness and readiness of the community, credibility and mutual trust, the resource base, perceived benefits, familiarity with the intended project’s benefits, levels of literacy, socio-economic factors, cultural and ethnic affiliations and political factors.

Broad-based participation

There is a need to broaden the consultative base during the initial community mobilization process so as to attract maximum participation and sponsorship for the envisaged projects. Other means of reaching community members, rather than focusing on traditional methods such as communal gatherings (which may not necessarily capture all opinions), should be investigated. The use of focus groups, interest groups, youth groups and other societal structures should be explored. This may help in broadening the consultative platform and guarantees maximum participation, cooperation and commitment - factors integral to the success of community projects and conservation.

Credibility and mutual trust

The consultative process undertaken by the government used to be more "mock consultation" than participatory and this gave rise to scepticism within local communities regarding participation in any new government-facilitated initiative. Natural resources conservation efforts in particular produced so many conflicts that local communities viewed conservation agencies with hostility. Time is therefore needed to establish credibility and build mutual trust with local communities that are still trying to recover from the setbacks of the conventional conservation approach. In collaborative management, implementing agencies should work with the community, rather than simply do things for them. This approach makes communities the owners of the project, so that they no longer perceive it as an outsiders’ project.

Willingness and readiness

Most communities, mainly those familiar with the financial returns of the intended project, may wish to start a project in haste, overlooking other factors such as the capacity needed to run such ventures and communities’ understanding of the concepts involved. There is therefore a need to maintain balance between communities’ willingness (i.e. their acceptance of a project and a desire to implement it) and readiness (an understanding of the concepts involved in a project and the capacity to implement it). If willingness is not balanced with readiness, communities run a risk of initiating projects that may not be sustainable. Some projects may be so politically driven that the general community does not actively participate, while a few elite community members run the show.

This is equally true for implementing authorities. Conservation or implementing agencies should not rush into programmes for the sake of being part of the new paradigm bandwagon or fashionable approach to an initiative before assessing their potential to sustain such programmes. Community mobilization can cost both time and effort and therefore there is a need to commit enough human and financial resources for capacity-building and facilitation, especially during the initial stages of project implementation. This also applies to donors in the sense that while results are paramount for them, processes yielding such results are equally critical. Therefore there is a need for a collaborative-management feasibility study prior to implementation. The feasibility study should assess the legal, political, institutional, economic and socio-cultural feasibility of the proposed initiative.

Perceived benefits and benefit distribution

Community-based initiatives in management and utilization of natural resources must be closely associated with immediate needs at the community level. These needs in practice have ranged from poverty alleviation, empowerment and cultural satisfaction to security of tenure and proprietorship. Meeting the immediate needs of the local communities provides incentives that link conservation of the resource with their basic survival. A case in point is the use of wildlife quotas to address the need for cash-based income in most communities participating in CBNRM, thereby providing an incentive to conserve the species (enhancement of the quotas for subsequent hunting seasons). In communities living within elephant range, the inclusion of elephants in the community quota has increased the amount of money accruing to the community through the sale of all or part of the quota. The perception that elephants are merely a nuisance has changed as communities now see the contribution they make to their quality of life.

Value-focused resource

There is an indigenous way of dealing with cost-benefit analysis within communities as opposed to what outsiders may perceive as "the way". Only when the value of a resource is focused to meet a particular need do people weigh the benefits of conserving the resource against the costs incurred. Conservation of natural resources and the issue of quality of life are intricately linked to such an extent that conserving a resource that impacts negatively on human life is next to impossible. If handouts are given in lieu of resource utilization, there is no direct link with resource use and the strategy may therefore be ineffective.

Familiarity with the intended project’s benefits

Some communities are more familiar with tourism-related ventures and their immediate potential benefits than others. This greatly affects the pace at which mobilized communities assimilate the CBNRM concept and may even make the cost-benefit analysis more abstract than real to communities where tourism is not the mainstay of the local economy.

Literacy level, socio-economic status and cultural and ethnic affiliations

These factors have proved fundamental in the implementation of CBNRM projects, but their impact may be minimized through a broad-based participatory approach. Most communities where CBNRM projects are undertaken incorporate groups with different backgrounds, historical origins and tribal affiliations, and individuals with different socio-economic status and literacy levels. This heterogeneity calls for broad-based participation so that every group’s interests are accommodated and not marginalized, especially when it comes to revenue-sharing. Communities with lower levels of literacy have shown that they take more time to assimilate, adopt or adapt to new policies and concepts than others.


The implementation of CBNRM programmes in Botswana, which involves collaborative management by the government and local communities, has proved that if communities are given incentives and proper tools for the management of natural resources, they can organize themselves effectively and take appropriate action to conserve those resources. Communities where CBNRM programmes are being implemented have spontaneously responded to the need for interaction with natural resources in a way that also ensures their well-being. Through benefits that contribute to their quality of life and the linkages between such benefits and the natural resource base, communities perceive the resource as belonging to them rather than to the conservation authorities. CBNRM shows that the future of conservation lies in the support of the local communities.


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