The Power of Local Natural Resource Governance in Conflict Contexts | Wilson Center

The Power of Local Natural Resource Governance in Conflict Contexts

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"Top-down government programs and top-down government policies and actions like protected areas" are not the only solutions to effective natural resource management (NRM), said Florida International University's David Bray, but "neither is community-based conservation…There are no panaceas. There's no universal remedy." Bray presented an overview of the links between NRM and conflict at a February 28, 2008, event sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) that examined how local NRM efforts can strengthen local governance and help prevent violent conflict from erupting. The event was the second in ECSP's "New Horizons at the Nexus of Conflict, Natural Resources, and Health" meeting series, which is funded jointly by USAID's Office of Natural Resources Management, its Office of Population and Reproductive Health, and its Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, with technical support from USAID's Asia and Near East and Africa bureaus.

Community Conservation: A Multi-Scale Process

The mismanagement of natural resources can spur instability or conflict: For instance, the creation of protected areas can displace people, prompting migration; profits from mineral extraction can be inequitably distributed, leading to protest or unrest; or farmers and pastoralists can compete for scarce arable land.

Local NRM organizations such as community forest user groups and wildlife conservancies can help improve governance and prevent conflict at the local level, but these organizations are not large or powerful enough to accomplish these tasks effectively without external support, said Bray. "For community-based conservation to happen, you have to have supporting actors, structures from all levels of national and international society, government, civil society. It's a multi-scale process." Without those multiple levels of support, "community-based conservation is not going to work," he said.

Corruption is the "elephant in the room," said Bray. Whether the perpetrators are powerful external actors—such as corporations or government ministries—or local elites, corruption prevents a community from managing its natural resources equitably and sustainably.

Nepal: Improving Natural Resource Governance, Equity

The Strengthened Actions for Governance in Utilization of Natural Resources (SAGUN) Program, which CARE Nepal has operated since 2002, seeks to ensure that Nepal's natural resources are managed democratically and distributed equitably. To this end, it endeavors to:

  • Improve governance in the governmental agencies that manage Nepal's natural resources;
  • Strengthen community forestry;
  • Help women, the poor, and Dalit (members of the lowest Hindu caste) improve their livelihoods;
  • Conserve biodiversity;
  • Expand hydropower and irrigation projects; and
  • Advocate for the development and implementation of better NRM policies.

According to CARE's Kent Glenzer, the SAGUN Program's NRM interventions have benefited local governance by:

  • Improving user groups' technical and managerial skills;
  • Increasing the participation of disadvantaged groups in NRM;
  • Institutionalizing public hearings and audits for the NRM user groups, thus increasing accountability; and
  • Raising literacy levels among members of disadvantaged groups, thereby increasing their access to information and their ability to advocate for themselves.

Moreover, the SAGUN Program has helped prevent conflicts over natural resources by:

  • Incorporating more pro-poor and economic empowerment activities into NRM efforts at the local and national levels;
  • Helping natural resource user groups abide by the principles of "Do No Harm" and "Sensitive and Effective Development in Conflict"; and
  • Mobilizing the community to share information about Nepal's Comprehensive Peace Agreement and upcoming Constitution Assembly.

Botswana: Increasing Community Management of Natural Resources

Botswana has been shaped by significant historical tensions over land use, access to resources, and protected areas, explained Masego Madzwamuse of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Many people were deprived of their land during colonial rule or following the passage of the Tribal Land Act of 1968 and the Tribal Grazing Land Policy of 1975. Denied access to land, they could no longer engage in their traditional herding, fishing, or farming activities, and "they had to depend on government handouts and…government social services for their livelihoods," said Madzwamuse.

The IUCN's Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Support Programme was founded on the principles of equity, natural resource conservation, and social development, and focuses on protecting wildlife, rangeland, fisheries, and transboundary water resources. It also strives to promote crafts and sustainable products from the forests and velds, as well as cultural tourism—which constitutes five percent of Botswana's GDP, according to Madzwamuse. The CBNRM Support Program, which has been operating in Botswana for 15 years, serves approximately 10 percent of the population and includes just under 100 registered CBNRM organizations, although only about one-third are active.

The program has achieved significant successes: For instance, poaching has decreased in areas with registered CBNRM organizations, but remains high elsewhere. In addition, communities with registered CBNRM organizations now recognize the importance of protecting wildlife, which provides livelihoods and economic benefits in the form of nature tourism.

The program has reduced the likelihood of conflicts over natural resources at the local level by increasing local communities' participation in—and thus support for—NRM, and by providing previously marginalized groups like the San access to natural resources. CBNRM "offers a framework for dealing with conflict in a participatory and equitable manner, particularly when you are dealing with conflict with regards to resource use and access," said Madzwamuse. "Natural resource-based institutions…are critical for conflict mitigation, especially in areas where there is a high dependence by the local or the rural dwellers on natural resources."

Yet many challenges remain:

  • CBNRM efforts in Botswana have largely ignored or excluded traditional leaders and institutions;
  • Communities have struggled to attract businesses that would offer new employment opportunities; and
  • National leaders have sometimes opposed CBNRM.

Madzwamuse helped found the CBNRM National Forum in an attempt to provide a venue for politicians, businesses, government development agencies, and local communities to facilitate and coordinate CBNRM efforts in Botswana. Unfortunately, the CBNRM Policy of 2007, which removes some decision-making power from local communities and reduces the proportion of natural resource-based revenues they receive, threatens to reverse the progress of the past 15 years. According to Madzwamuse, the challenge of influencing national policy has impressed upon CBNRM advocates the importance of making CBNRM "a home-grown initiative, such that the principles are shared by the government itself, such that the communities themselves are in a position to stand for CBNRM and fight for the continuation of the program."

Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar.


  • Kent Glenzer

    Director of Program Impact, Knowledge, and Learning, CARE USA; Research Associate, Center for the Study of Public Scholarship, Emory University
  • David Bray

    Professor of Environmental Studies; Director, Institute for Sustainability Science, Florida International University
  • Maksha Maharjan

    Director, Strengthened Actions for Governance in Utilization of Natural Resources (SAGUN) Program
  • Masego Madzwamuse

    Regional Programme Development Officer, World Conservation Union