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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 41 - Thursday, 14 February 2008
Sharing Power. A Global Guide to Collaborative Management of Natural Resources
By Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, Michel Pimbert, M. Taghi Farvar, Ashish Kothari and Yves Renard (2007, Published by Earthscan, IUCN and IIED, London, UK)
What is crucial to livelihoods?  What is essential to human rights?  What is fundamental to conservation?  Talk with experienced practitioners in any of these fields and you’ll soon be discussing issues of power, responsibilities and accountability—in one word, issues of “governance” and equity— and governance of natural resources in particular. What do we know about improving governance of natural resources, about fairer and more effective ways of “sharing power”?  

“Sharing power” is about human communities and other social actors drawing from their own unique strengths, vantage points and capacities to understand common concerns, decide what to do, and take action. The quality of a particular power sharing (governance) setting is to be assessed by the criteria that each society may decide, such as participation, absence of discrimination, subsidiarity, shared vision, performance, accountability, effective recourse to justice…. And its sustainability generally depends on the capacity to fit the historical evolution of nature and society in the specific context. 

In recent decades, a form of governance called “co-management” has increasingly become an effective option for fisheries, forests, rangelands, wetlands, migratory wildlife and protected areas. It implies a process of negotiating specific agreements and setting up multi-party organisations that involve indigenous peoples and local communities and, in general, actors that are comparatively weaker. In this sense, but also because it openly fosters transparency and accountability, co-management is an explicit way of improving the governance of natural resources.

Co-management of natural resources and ecosystems - as distinct from top-down imposition of rules, or unfettered exploitation by private interests - is fast gaining respect as the fairest and most effective way for those resources and environments to be both used and protected for future generations. This substantial volume offers a detailed framework for such co-management, based on lessons learned from every part of the globe.

At the heart of ‘co-management’ of natural resources is a process of collective understanding and action by local communities and other social actors. The process brings about negotiated agreements on management roles, rights and responsibilities, making explicit the conditions and institutions of sound decentralized governance. De facto, co-management is about sharing power. When successful, it spells out the peaceful and intelligent ways by which communities overcome environmental challenges, take best advantage of nature’s gifts and share those in fairness and solidarity. When it fails, it ushers conflicts, human misery and environmental damages.

The “sharing of power” over natural resources in an immense variety of social and ecological contexts is so vast a subject that this book can only touch upon the wealth of existing experience and insights. Yet, this 473 page volume provides some important stepping stones— limited, but still needed in the current world of development and conservation practitioners, too often aloof from historical, political or moral considerations.  

The authors designed this book to support professionals and citizens at large who both wish to better understand collaborative management processes and develop and enhance them in practice. This book aims to inspire and promote action. For that the contributors offer a variety of vistas and tools, from broad historical and equity considerations to menus of examples, methods and practical checklists distilled from different situations and contexts.

‘Sharing Power’ is constructed in four parts. Readers will find in the first part an exploration of natural resource management at the historical interface between traditional and ‘modern’ societies and an illustration of complex combinations of the old and new devised by communities as a response to current challenges. The authors discuss issues of actors, entitlements and equity in natural resource management and offer a brief panorama of contemporary forms of co-management in different places and cultures, with examples from agriculture, agricultural research and the management of water, rangelands, forest resources, fisheries and coastal resources, mountain environments, wildlife and protected areas.

The second part of the volume analyses in some detail the co-management process. It summarizes the considerable understanding accumulated in recent decades on starting points for co-management, pre-requisites for successful negotiations (such as effective social communication and internal organization of the parties) as well as rules, methods and conditions of the negotiations themselves.
The third part of the volume covers the form and functioning of co-management plans, agreements and organizations, with examples and discussion about what makes them effective and sustainable. Full-length chapters then explore the experience of social actors engaged as part of co-management institutions in a variety of settings, learning by doing and improving the management practices on an on-going basis.

Finally, the fourth part of the volume is concerned with policy processes, contents and instruments. It discusses how a supportive and coherent policy environment can be built by concurrent actors at various levels, from the concrete initiatives of local citizens and leaders to the shaping of wordings of global conventions and national legislation. The emphasis is on ways to build and improve policy, with particular attention to social inclusions mechanisms within the complex and inspiring ways of participatory democracy.

Finding fairer and more effective ways of sharing power is indeed at the heart of what needs to be done to eradicate poverty, respect human rights, conserve biological diversity and deal with climate change in this century. As such, this book is a call for collective action and a source of hope for both people and planet.

Dr. Michel Pimbert
Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods
International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
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