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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. Forms of collective possession and local knowledge are crucial elements in the cohesion and sustainability of traditional systems. The historical authority of colonial powers and nation-states 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 nationalisation) or external actors.

Some less privileged groups opt for escaping into isolation. Others opt for all-out confrontation with 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 like businesses, the government, etc. 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 natural resource management, and agree to pursue that co-operation 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’. According to the leading conservationist Borrini Feyerabend and her team, 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 organise, (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’.

For further reading:

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.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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