Public institutions Institutions

Posted February 1998

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations United Nations Capital Development FundInternational Fund for Agricultural DevelopmentGerman Agency for Technical CooperationSwiss Agency for Development and CooperationWorld Bank

16-18 December 1997
Technical Consultation on Decentralization

Decentralisation and Natural Resource Management: Issues in Rural Development

by M. Taghi Farvar
Chairman, Centre for Sustainable Development
Tehran, Iran

The following comments are based on the questions raised in the terms of reference of the Working Group VII: Decentralisation and Natural Resource Management (NRM) in productive and conservation projects.

Many experience now exist that can be looked into, assessed together with the local populations and communities, and adapted into principles and methods with wide applicability. The assumptions and statements below are based on experiences in a large number of countries and research and development programmes including Bangladesh, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Papua-New Guinea, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, and Zaire.

Question 1. What are the specificities of this sector?

NRM issues (particularly sustainable use) have, a priori, high priority with local communities

It is not true that local communities give a low priority to natural resource management and conservation issues. Most local communities have extremely sophisticated indigenous knowledge of NRM issues and have well-developed mechanisms for coping with them. This knowledge is often encoded in the person of traditional community elders of both sexes. In fact, in most traditional communities, traditional elders are people whose primary function is, inter alia, better use and conservation of natural resources. There are innumerable examples, including the following:

Most NRM problems started with the intervention of the state or of private enterprise systems

There are many examples of this situation, including the following: These are only a few of the many examples that show a worrying trend: everywhere the advent of state and private property and intervention has led to the demise of the ability of local communities to care for and use sustainably its natural resources. It is the modern disturbance of traditional NRM systems, rather than the tradition of local communities in resource management, that is responsible for the situation of threats to natural resource and environmental systems.

NRM in rural development is best served within the context of a community-driven approach, as opposed to government-driven, or individual, private interests

Modern solutions to NRM can best be based on traditional knowledge and its incorporation into any new system. The case of the recent evolution of the science of rangeland ecology and the art of its management shows that the best modern NRM systems are based on a profound understanding of traditional systems used by pastoral nomads, not by transferring western concepts into alien social and ecological environments. The examples given in issue 1, above, show that local and traditional communities have had very sophisticated knowledge- and wisdom- for NRM, which has often been destroyed by modern state and private sector approaches and interests, to the detriment of the natural resources themselves.

A corollary of the above statement is that law enforcement for NRM is nearly always best done through strengthening local systems and institutions of customary law for NRM, rather than through centralised or even local government agencies

The above three approaches correspond respectively to the following natural resource property regimes

Many official or donor-driven or -inspired programmes of development and NRM result in the erosion of indigenous knowledge and community institutions for NRM

Many donor-driven or -inspired programmes coming from the North are based on "Northern" concepts regarding communities. In the countries of the North a community is often taken to be the sum of its components called individuals. In many societies of the South, on the other hand, a community is much more than the sum of its individuals. In the rush to promote individualism and private property, many projects and programmes sponsored by the North have actually resulted in the erosion of community based and traditional systems of NRM.

There has been a corresponding negative impact of programmes inspired by socialist countries of the North, whose impact on government NRM thinking still continues even in many countries of the South whose system is essentially inspired by market-driven systems. The nationalisation of natural resources (forests, rangelands, water and land) is one such concept leftover from the heydays of state socialism.

Both Northern systems have contributed to the large-scale erosion of indigenous knowledge and community institutions for NRM.

Question 2. What are the optimal roles of government levels, community organisations, and NGOs in the design of NRM strategies and the formulation of projects?

Local communities

The role of the local communities is the most important one. Through their local NRM institutions and customary laws local communities, if assisted in suitable ways and trusted, can ensure the sustainable use and development of local resources. Local communities are always capable of identifying their own problems and needs, analysing and categorising them, and identifying priorities. They are also capable of programming and designing projects. Usually all they need, is some relevant and specially adapted methodological support to facilitate their expressing their needs and solutions in the language of donors, NGOs and government institutions.

There are many experiences in various countries of the South to support this claim.


NGOs have a primary role in the empowerment of local communities. The role of NGOs is a sensitive one. They are often much closer to local communities than any government institution. Many are in a good position to learn from traditional and indigenous knowledge and to engage in meaningful dialogue with local communities. They can introduce relevant concepts from modern scientific methodology and analysis, and attempt to cause a forging of the best of both. They can also help in bridging the gap between the government and policy levels with local communities. They can play a role of advocacy on behalf of local communities. Most of all, they can help to strengthen local community based institutions and give them a primary role in expressing and defending their interests.

One of the most important roles of NGOs is in training programmes adapted both to the needs of local communities and of local and central governments. These training programmes, in addition to developing the technical capacities of local communities, can concentrate on building the sensitivity of government experts and decision-makers to the potential of local indigenous knowledge and management systems. They can also help local communities to understand the ways and rules of government and other outside agencies, and how they can be used to defend their legitimate interests.


The main role of government with respect to the sustainable use and development of natural resource management systems is that of creating an enabling environment. This can include the following:

Question 3. How to determine and implement these projects?

  1. Participatory methods have been developed in recent decades for just this type of exercise. These include PRA (participatory rural assessment) and community animation techniques.

  2. PRA was developed originally based on RRA (rapid rural assessment) and it bears some of the shortcomings of its intellectual ancestor. These include the primary purpose of the two methods, which is based on the needs of investigators and outside agencies to know, rapidly and cheaply, all that is relevant to their purpose, usually in facilitating outside projects and interventions. Although the proponents of PRA are usually advocates of local communities, in practice, this method is often at the service of the outside agent or investigator, and gives precedence to research and learning from the local community- albeit with their own participation and awareness building- over any factor inherent or indigenous to the interests of the local populations. In short, PRA, too, can become a powerful tool at the service of the outside agent (including the various levels of government and the researcher).

  3. Community animation techniques have been developed in the context of a number of UNDP pilot schemes in Africa, Asia and South America, based on a great deal of work by others before. They tend to be a great deal simpler, faster, and more oriented to giving local communities control over the analysis of their problems and needs, and in taking control of the direction of planning and project design. Community animation techniques are not opposed to PRA. They are complementary. Techniques of one can be used to enrich the other as needed. In general, though, just as the names imply, PRA is more study, research, and assessment oriented, while community animation aims to build the capacity of local communities to take charge of their own development planning, implementation and M&E (monitoring and evaluation).

Question 4. How to determine the types and degrees of participation?

Participation is only a method for empowerment. It must be practised at all levels. Furthermore, participation requires clear and committed receptivity on the part of those who are proposing the projects. It should includes the following steps and stages:

Stage 1. Approaching the communities with a well-prepared team of field workers and social animators/trainers

These can be typically from outside the community, if necessary, preferably from capable NGOs. One of the functions of these initial teams is to train local community animators (CAs) who are people selected by the local communities to work for them, often on a full-time basis, on issues of local sustainable development and use of natural resources. It is important that the team of trainers be well qualified and sensitive to the issues of indigenous knowledge of natural resource management, and how to get local people to think about them. Initial meetings are usually held with the whole community (at least those who can be mobilised for the event), as well as with any existing local community elders of both sexes. It is extremely important to ensure that these external field workers are the "right type." There are many wrong types of field workers, including:

Stage 2. Organising community sessions for problem and need analysis

This will consist of four steps: With this four-step process, the community will have arrived at its own fresh vision of its problems and needs, without regard to any pre-existing list. It is important to note that this approach is extremely different from the "felt-needs" approach. In community animation, one starts with a diffuse universe of "felt needs" and goes on to their analysis into an organised and prioritised list whose objective, rather than being a fixed view of needs and priorities, is to instil in the community a sense of analysis and process orientation.

Stage 3. Looking for solutions

The solution sets are arrived at through steps such as: This shows that participation is a two-way process. Above all, the classical approaches to participation should be avoided at all costs. The most prominent of these include:

Stage 4. Designing specific projects

Once these steps have been covered, the community animators can be trained to elaborate specific projects with the participation of local community groups. Experience shows that local communities, with a bit of occasional technical assistance from the outside team can carry out all the steps of a professional process of project design. The technical assistance is primarily needed for the identification of alternative solution sets and technologies, and in extending the domain of preliminary feasibility studies carried out by local communities and animators.

Question 5. How to analyse preconditions, determinants and trade-offs for scaling up productive NRM and conservation efforts to sustain food security and rural development at the local level?

Once local solutions have been identified, a discussion of the ways in which the solutions for natural resource management can be scaled up to cover much wider ground (local, regional, national, international, multi-resource issues, cross ethnic groups), can be discussed. Some of the issues raised above have profound implications for styles of operation that will solve local, regional and national problems, including food security and rural development. For example: The discussion of preconditions, determinants and trade-offs involved can best be done locally by the communities involved once mutual trust and an analytical capacity exists.

Question 6. What are the implications for the design and sequencing of decentralised strategies?

Several direct and indirect implications can already be gleaned from the above approach. The statements below are intending to provoke an in-depth discussion on this issue: A useful sequence of events in programme design would be:
  1. Start with a series of demonstration projects in various provinces;

  2. Build in a process of training and adaptive replication;

  3. Build in self governance of development and natural resource management projects and programmes that lead to locally applicable wider systems;

  4. Evolve local government out of these experiences;

  5. Build in the cost of local government into local development;

  6. Where local government already exists, evaluate and assess its relevance and usefulness to development and natural resource management together with the local population;

  7. Revise and reform local government according to the findings of the step above;

  8. Build in the lessons of local traditions and resource management customs discussed before into local government.

Question 7. What would an appropriate monitoring and evaluation system look like? What are the key impact indicators?

In the presentation above, a model of development is elaborated, based on the experience of many communities, that leads to the creation of an infrastructure of locally controlled centres of planning, decision making, and reinvestment for natural resource protection and sustainable development. Once local communities and their community animators have learned to have their own analysis and management systems and styles, participatory monitoring and evaluation systems can be worked out. The important point is that the local communities should also develop the key indicators of impact themselves. The best way to start these is while developing the feasibility criteria mentioned above, under Question 4, which consist of financial, economic, social, cultural and environmental factors. Natural Resource Management Issues in decentralisation by M T Farvar, page 11

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