Learning from Community-based Natural Resource Management

By Dr. Hannah Reid

A recent blog argued that “Ecosystem-based adaptation is a newly-defined activity in the quest to respond to climate change, but its techniques and theory are as old as humans.” In which case, the theory and practice of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) and its sister, community-based adaptation (CBA), should build more on learning from older natural resource management disciplines, such as community-based natural resource management (CBNRM).

CBA and EbA have gained traction over recent years, and policymakers are increasingly promoting ‘integrated’ EbA and CBA approaches. These can benefit the world’s poorest people, who are hit hardest by climate change because they live in vulnerable areas, have the least capacity to cope, and because they are disproportionately reliant on ecosystems and their services. But learning from older related disciplines has insufficiently informed practice and policy making. Below are some of the key lessons from CBNRM that EbA and CBA should address.

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  © Yoshi Shimizu / WWF-Canon

© Yoshi Shimizu / WWF-Canon

Adopting an integrated approach to CBA and EbA

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines EbA as “the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change as part of an overall adaptation strategy”. For example, coastal mangroves protect against storm damage, wetlands act as floodwater reservoirs, and well-vegetated hillsides reduce risks from erosion.

CBA is a bottom-up process that builds on local needs, capacities, knowledge, and experiences in dealing with climate variability and change. It builds on human rights-based approaches that target the most vulnerable people and fully includes them in adaptation planning and implementation.

CBA has traditionally been championed by development practitioners, and EbA by conservation practitioners. Substantial conceptual overlap exists, however, and local adaptation activities tend to combine both approaches. Adaptation policymakers and implementers are thus increasingly adopting ‘integrated approaches’. These build on the strengths of CBA and EbA to address the shortcomings of mainstream topdown, hard infrastructure-based approaches to adaptation.

Community-based natural resource management: Lessons for EbA and CBA

In the 1970s and 1980s, CBNRM was promoted as an alternative to conservation approaches involving national park establishment, fences, armed rangers, and the separation of natural resources from the local people who relied on them. It promoted bottom-up approaches to conservation arguing that if local people managed land and resources, both conservation and local development goals could be met. Conservation and donor agencies developed a range of community-based models and principles for linking conservation and development. Key lessons for CBA and EbA from these experiences include:

1.       Ensure vulnerable communities are central to planning

CBA and sometimes EbA are heralded as ‘bottom-up’ approaches to adaptation, as was CBNRM for conservation. In the 1990s, however, many observers claimed CBNRM had failed to deliver the benefits promised. Responding to criticisms, Marshall Murphree observed that CBNRM “has to date not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and rarely tried.”[1] He felt that many approaches labelled as ‘community-based’ were in practice externally initiated and used as a veneer for top-down management. Therefore, CBA and EbA practitioners must be careful not to re-label development work as CBA, or communitybased conservation projects as EbA. Genuine CBA and EbA interventions place communities and climate change risk and vulnerability analyses at the centre of planning and implementation.

2.       Demonstrate effectiveness

In the 1990s, some scientists argued that CBNRM’s focus on economic benefits and development had been a conservation disaster, stimulating rather than reducing demand for natural resources. They said CBNRM was politically motivated and unsupported by evidence. This forced its proponents to respond with evidence-based counter-arguments. Both CBA and EbA are relatively new and lack experience to learn from, and many practitioners work at field level. More objective analyses of CBA and EbA effectiveness in different circumstances is required, along with analytical rigour relating to benefits, costs (social, economic and environmental), and limits.

3.       Address the institutional, governance, and policy context

CBNRM was initially seen, in part, as a response to an environmental problem. It is now viewed as an institutional or organisational development programme central to which is: space for direct community involvement, policy and law recognising and devolving rights and management authority from central government to communities, collective community natural resource ‘ownership’, and mechanisms to ensure tangible benefits reach communities. Engagement with effective legitimate local institutions that incorporate appropriate traditional forms of governance is also key.

CBA and EbA should do more to address the institutional, governance, and policy context in which initiatives operate, as this is pivotal to their ultimate success. This is as true for local institutions as for the higher level institutions and policies on which communities depend. CBA and EbA often engage with institutions operating at community or ecosystem levels and surrounding social and administrative structures, but they must broaden their horizons further, because external factors, such as political commitment to large-scale irrigation, forestry, or livestock ranching can dramatically affect vulnerability to climate change. CBA emphasises the importance of participatory tools, but should also build local practitioner capacity to engage with higher political structures.

4.       Widen benefits by scaling up

Scaling up is essential to ensure the benefits from planned adaptation reach the millions of poor people facing a climate change-constrained future. CBNRM placed empowered local institutions in a broader institutional and policy framework that supported devolution of wildlife management rights and responsibilities to local people. Land ownership was often central to this. This approach facilitated replication and diversification to other sectors.

Many CBA and EbA initiatives are project or programme-based. They must now focus more on the broader institutional and governance issues needed to secure impact at scale. Mainstreaming local adaptation approaches into local, regional, and national government structures, policies, laws and planning processes is usually the best way to scale-up. But governments can be out of touch with realities on the ground, so care must be taken to retain direct and genuine community involvement.      

5.       Provide incentives

Under CBNRM, communities received long-term non-cash benefits from sustainable resource management. But these less tangible benefits had to be complemented by more visible, direct, short-term household benefits to incentivise sustainable behaviour. Without similar short-term benefits (such as provision of food from EbA interventions) or compensation for short-term losses (including the time and resources spent on CBA activities), community motivation to adopt longer-term adaptive practices in the face of uncertain local climate change impacts will also be weak. Funding for this might come from schemes involving microfinance, payments for environmental services, or revolving funds. Unfortunately, most international and national systems for financing local adaptation are either absent or in their infancy.

[1] Murphree, M. W. (2000) Community-Based Conservation: Old Ways, New Myths and Enduring Challenges. Key Address at the Conference on African Wildlife Management in the New Millennium. College of African Wildlife Management, Mweka, Tanzania 13-15 December 2000.