Co-Management and Nature Conservation

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Many traditional societies formed – and still form – relatively closed systems in which natural resources are managed through complex interplays of reciprocities and solidarities. Dialogue and discussion among interested parties – what could be referred to as ―co-management‖ – are still practiced in some of these societies. Forms of collective possession and local knowledge are crucial elements in the cohesion and sustainability of traditional systems. The historical emergence of colonial powers and nation states, and their imposed authority over most common lands and natural resources, led to the demise of traditional resource management systems virtually everywhere. Capitalist expansion weakened local systems, including those of customary rights, together with the domination of modern, expert-based, ―scientific‖ practices. Conflicts and mistrust between local communities and the state became widespread. Community-based management was largely substituted by practices imposed through state laws (e.g. land nationalization) or external actors. Following this situation, Borrini-Feyerabend et al. (2000) write that ―Whether honest dialogue and straightforward confrontation are the best strategy to protect the interests of the less privileged groups can be assessed only within specific contexts‖.

Some such groups opt for all-out confrontation with little to no space for compromise. This is the choice of some indigenous groups fighting for the basic recognition of their ancestral rights. Others attempt to find a place at the negotiation table with more powerful actors (business, the government) and encounter all sorts of obstacles and difficulties. In some cases, all groups and individuals with interests and concerns about a given territory, area or set of resources understand that co-operation is necessary for effective and efficient natural resource management, and agree to pursue that cooperation in the interest of everyone. This latter attitude may not yet be the most common, but it is spreading. It corresponds to what is referred to as ―co-management.

Constitutive elements

According to the leading conservationist Borrini-Feyerabend and her team (2000), co-management of natural resources refers to:

  • a pluralist approach to managing resources, incorporating a variety of partners in a variety of roles, to the end goals of sustainable and equitable sharing of resource-related benefits and responsibilities;
  • a political and cultural process: seeking social justice and ―democracy‖ in the management of natural resources;
  • a process that needs some basic conditions to develop, among which are: (1) full access to information on relevant issues and options, (2) freedom and capacity to organize, (3) freedom to express needs and concerns, (4) a non-discriminatory social environment, (5) the will of partners to negotiate, and (6) confidence in the respect of agreements.
  • a complex, often lengthy and sometimes confused process, involving frequent changes, surprises, sometimes contradictory information, and the need to retrace one‘s own steps;
  • the expression of a mature society, which understands that there is no ―unique and objective‖ solution for managing natural resources but, rather, a multiplicity of different options which are compatible with both indigenous knowledge and scientific evidence and capable of meeting the needs of conservation and development.

Joint Forest Management

Originating in the early 1970s, the related concept of Joint Forest Management (JFM) is the official and popular term in India and elsewhere for partnerships in forest management involving both the state forest departments and local communities. Although schemes vary from state to state, the system works with villagers agreeing to assist in the safeguarding of forest resources through protection from fire, grazing, and illegal harvesting in exchange for non-timber forest products and a share of the revenue from the sale of timber products. It was born in response to the many conflicts over forests, notably the Chipko movement of the 1970s in the Himalayas (Guha, 2009). The primary objective of JFM is to ensure sustainable use of forests to meet local needs equitably while ensuring environmental sustainability. The central premise is that local women and men who are dependent on forests at the village level have the greatest stake in sustainable forest management. The official ground for JFM was prepared by the Indian National Forest Policy of 1988 which envisaged people‘s involvement in meeting their basic forest related needs and in managing their local resources. While a valuable initiative, Bina Agarwal has pointed to the ―participatory exclusion‖ of some groups on grounds of gender or caste.


  • Borrini-Feyerabend, G., Farvar, M.T., Nguinguiri, J.C. and Ndangang, V.A., 2000. Co-management of natural resources: organising, negotiating and learning-by-doing. Heidelberg: GTZ and IUCN, Kasparek Verlag.
  • Guha, R., 2009. The unquiet woods: ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalaya. Expanded Edition. Delhi: Permanent Black.