Community-Based Natural Resources Management

Over the last two decades the movement towards devolved management under Community-Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) has seen a paradigm shift from the old approach to conservation. Historically most land and the resources on it were the property of the national government. This situation was inherited from colonial times, when fences and fines prevented locals from making consumptive use of game, trees and other resources on the land around their villages.

There are several reasons why the old approach has failed. First there is the fundamental injustice of resource-hungry communities struggling to eek a living, while the land around them is rich in resources belonging to the government. Rural people are heavily dependent on natural resources, such as firewood for cooking, poles and grass to make their homes, and the protein in bush meat. Because they are reliant on these resources, this often leads to illicit use, which has been called ‘trespassing’, ‘poaching’ and ‘theft’. The result is that, at best, local people are apathetic about the state of their surrounding environment; at worst, they are resentful.

Second, and of increasing importance, is the sheer number of experienced, educated rural people who are in a position to manage resources, in comparison with the dwindling number of employees in most countries’ civil service. The value of their indigenous technical knowledge is also being increasingly recognised. While educated ‘town folk’ have some insights, their technical knowledge is complementary to the knowledge of villagers, who, since they could walk, have been collecting water and harvesting plants and animals. Many rural people possess a detailed knowledge of the land around their home and the resources it contains. Governments are dependent on formal costly surveys, fact-finding missions and inventories to get all their information, which is particularly lacking in remote, sparsely populated areas. Using local knowledge to formulate management strategies saves both time and money. However, communities usually need the support of others, for example government staff and NGOs, to successfully develop and implement natural resource management plans.

CBNRM encourages a change in power relations, giving real power to committees of villagers, power to make byelaws to regulate use, the ability to levy appropriate charges on those making use of resources and the authority to bring to justice those who do not obey the law. Successfully using revenues so that benefits are fairly shared by community members has proved key to the success of many projects. Many valuable lessons have been learned by those facilitating pioneering CBNRM projects, for example trophy animal hunting under Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE project, such that some potential pitfalls can be avoided. Other lessons have been learned by those working in fragile areas, such as the Himalayas, where water and fuel wood are scarce, and the survival of communities is dependent on conservation measures. Here it is local people, rather than outsiders, who directly use the resource.

CBNRM gives locals an incentive to invest in the environment to ensure it is not degraded and that resources are available for the use of future generations. It is difficult though to strike the right balance between the conflicting needs of hungry mouths to feed, liquidating assets to generate cash to meet current needs and investment priorities, and long-term sustainable livelihoods.

Despite many successes, introducing CBNRM, and getting it right, takes time and requires local flexibility. Imposing a blueprint management plan based on experiences elsewhere is inherently incompatible with the philosophy of local people making key decisions.

Although it sounds trite, any management of natural resources by a community is a learning process, learning to work together and make decisions based on the needs and desires of disparate stakeholder groups. However, this is a goal worth pursuing, as communities have a strong interest in securing the long-term future of the resources they depend on. CBNRM can be central to developing rural areas.