Challenges in Effective Governance of Natural Resources


Wild Product Governance. Finding Policies that Work for Non-Timber Forest Products . Laird , S. A. , R. McLain , and R. P. Wynberg , editors. 2010. Earthscan, London, U.K. 352 pp. $127.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-84407-500-3.
Community Rights, Conservation and Contested Land. The Politics of Natural Resource Governance in Africa. Nelson, F., editor. 2010. Earthscan, London, U.K. 332 pp. $99.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-84407-916-2.
Institutional Dynamics. Emergent Patterns in International Environmental Governance. Young, O. R., editor. 2010. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A. 239 pp. $24.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-262-51440-8.

Given increasing global pressures on the natural environment, there is a mounting need to effectively manage natural resources to sustain livelihoods and maintain biological diversity. The issue of effective and robust governance systems is central to this task. In regions where natural resource governance systems are weak, biological diversity can quickly be affected by unregulated and unsustainable harvesting and changes to lands or waters that sustain it. Conversely, when strong and effective systems of natural resource governance are in place, protection and sustainable use of natural resources can benefit people by maintaining livelihoods and robust populations of species and ecosystems.

Over the past decade, there is growing interest in the question of how to build governance systems that result in successful management of natural resources. Dominating the conversation is a discourse about the advantages and limitations of different scales of regime, whether at the local, national, or international scales. Opinions are polarized about when community-based programs are preferable to national- or international-level programs. Emerging from these discussions is the sense that the appropriate scale of governance matches the scale of the resource to be managed and that a wide diversity of governance systems collectively can effectively steward many resources. What remains to be developed fully is the knowledge of why governance regimes at any scale can fail to effectively manage natural resources and the knowledge necessary to support the appropriate governing bodies.

These three books address the challenges of understanding governance of natural resources from vastly different perspectives. Laird, McLain, and Wynberg focus on a single type of natural resource governance—the management of nontimber forest products (NTFPs)—and present a series of examples from around the world that describe the details of NTFP policy. In contrast, the compilation by Nelson draws on examples from local and national governance of natural resources in eastern and southern Africa to build a case for supporting devolved management. In contrast to both, Young investigates effectiveness of governance regimes by describing commonalities in the temporal dynamics of governance systems and uses examples of international institutions to illustrate these patterns.

With 13 chapters packed full of details about extraction of and regulatory policy on NTFPs, Laird et al. present a fascinating collection of examples of governance systems that sustain or stifle these industries. This volume includes examples from both industrialized and industrializing economies in the Americas, central and southern Africa, Oceania, Southeast Asia, and Europe. A wide range of NTFPs are discussed, including those used as food, fodder, and building materials and those used to make alcoholic beverages, medicines, dyes, textiles, paper, gums, oils, crafts, and ornaments. Each account describes where NTFPs are used and traded, the legal frameworks governing their use, and the stories of the rural peoples affected by their governance. Perhaps hindered by such a broad scope, Laird et al. conclude with an unsatisfyingly general set of details about local and international laws, conventions, and regulatory bodies that affect trade in NTFPs and the overly simple conclusion that political interference and regulation is generally bad and that natural resource management would be better if left to local communities.

In Community Rights, Conservation and Contested Land: The Politics of Natural Resource Governance in Africa, Nelson brings together an impressive list of contributors predominantly affiliated with nongovernment agencies that help communities manage natural resources in Africa. The authors are unapologetically in favor of sustainable use of wild animals and decentralization of governance of natural resources—concepts that are central to much of the narrative in the region since the 1990s but not well established or sustained in practice. Despite this orientation, they provide honest descriptions of the challenges endured by community-based programs in an increasingly centralized political scene. This impressive volume provides a great amount of detail about governance systems in Africa and takes a broad, highly analytical view that will make it a significant and useful contribution to the field.

After a brief introductory section, the book begins with examples of four countries with national-level natural resource governance (Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, and Botswana), describing the meandering paths away from and back toward the highly centralized systems that were ubiquitous during the colonial era. These countries represent a range of governance regimes, from Kenya, which has the most centralized system, to Namibia, where rights over natural resources are fully devolved. The next section contains six cases that illustrate the instability or resilience of local-level governance structures to exogenous factors such as national-level regime shifts (e.g., Zimbabwe). The final two cases highlight examples of how marginalized communities engage with regional- or national-level governance to maintain their rights to manage natural resources on their lands.

In the penultimate chapter, the authors present an essay on the potential of the international policy Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) to provide unprecedented opportunities for local communities to benefit from their natural resources. In the last chapter, Nelson draws two conclusions. First, despite decades of rhetoric about the merits of decentralized natural resource management in Africa, the dominant approach in recent times has been recentralization of governance and the subversion of existing local claims and rights. Second, the causes of recentralization vary among countries but, in all cases, generally reflect the broader political patterns in Africa that are resulting in power shifts toward central governments.

In Institutional Dynamics, Young presents a system for classifying emergent dynamics of international environmental regimes (which the author describes as the social institutions or assemblages of rights, rules, and decision-making procedures that influence the course of human–environment interactions). His study of the behavior of those complex and dynamic systems results in five categories he uses to describe the progression of governance regimes and their occurrence. This refreshingly broad and simple approach may brush over the complexities, but it is a substantial contribution because it clarifies terminology and develops understanding of effective governance of natural resources.

The categories Young uses to describe the regime dynamics are progressive development, punctuated equilibrium, arrested development, diversion, and collapse. He presents a compelling argument for this classification by drawing on five well-known case studies in the history of international environmental law. Beginning with progressive development (the incremental progression of the regime without major setbacks), Young describes the achievements brought about by multilateral environmental agreements devised to protect the stratospheric ozone layer. He uses the Antarctic Treaty System to illustrate the pattern of punctuated equilibrium (i.e., the stuttering progression of regimes that encounter periodic stress and episodes of regime building). In arrested development, regimes are characterized by a hopeful start followed by unfulfilled expectations. Young illustrates this pattern with the regimes designed to deal with climate change. Diversion is typified by regimes created for one purpose that are later redirected in a manner that runs counter to the original purpose, for example, the regime for regulating and managing the sustainable harvest of whales that was later transformed to achieve a preservationist goal. Collapse describes regimes that, after a period of effectiveness, cross a threshold and become powerless. The four-party regime of Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States to govern the conservation and harvest of northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) exemplifies this pattern. Throughout the book Young discusses the consequences of external and internal pressures on fate of regimes and constructs a framework for examining the correlates of success and failure.

Each of these books advances the discourse on the effectiveness of governance of natural resources at different scales. They describe the tremendous challenges for, and reveal some of the similarities in, successful and unsuccessful regimes. But each gives only limited insight into designing and encouraging effective regimes, both of which remain substantial challenges