In response to the CBNRM discussion started in SULiNews 5 by Robin Sharp's article CBNRM: Does it have a future?

In 2009, the late Professor Elinor Ostrom (1) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for her body of work largely devoted to examining the institutional and governance arrangements that enable groups of people to utilize and manage natural resources sustainably. Ostrom’s work over the course of several decades, culminating in the Nobel award, helped legitimize community-based approaches to natural resource governance, both theoretically and empirically, and repudiated Garret Hardin’s influential paradigm of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Although Ostrom was unquestionably the leading global scholar of community natural resource management, she did not use the acronym CBNRM in describing the local and communal regimes that she studied. 

The reality of Ostrom’s post-Nobel stature, and the absence of ‘CBNRM’ from her lexicon in a career largely devoted to community management of natural resources, provides a useful response to Robin Sharp’s question, as posed in SULiNews issue 5, as to whether or not CBNRM has a future.

The reality at the global scale is that community-based natural resource management is now firmly embedded in mainstream approaches to both development and conservation, even if the pace of social and institutional transformation, and the reach and adoption of reforms, remains patchy and insufficient. Local collective regimes are increasingly understood to be economically and institutionally efficient under a range of circumstances (e.g. by long-term research efforts such as the International Forestry Resources & Institutions program, which Ostrom helped establish), and have been documented to often perform better than state protected areas or other governance arrangements in sustaining natural resources.

During the past twenty years many community resource governance regimes have been documented all around the world, with much of this research collected by networks such as the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC); the ICCA Consortium- cited in Sharp’s article- has also emerged to document local community-based arrangements that have specific conservation objectives or outcomes. The Rights and Resources Initiatives has documented the expansion of the area of global forest under community tenure and ownership during the past decade.  

For the roughly 370 million Indigenous Peoples around the world, with their deep cultural, social, and economic associations with their collective lands and resources, it seems rather disconnected to ask if there is a future for community-based natural resource management, particularly as Indigenous People have been the leading constituency in global efforts to reclaim local rights over land and natural resources, as exemplified by the landmark 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Given the advancement of community-based natural resource management in these and numerous other areas, in both scholarship and practice, the question of whether or not ‘CBNRM’ has a future can only be understood in light of confusion surrounding that acronym’s meaning.

While community management of natural resources is ubiquitous in one form or another around the world, the acronym ‘CBNRM’ has  narrower origins and constituencies, as demonstrated by Roe in the CITES and CBNRM report, referred to in SULiNews issue 5. In  Southern Africa  it emerged from efforts in the 1980s to reform wildlife management by devolving rights and ability to derive benefits to local communities, as in Zimbabwe’s pioneering CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) programme. As a significant supporter of these efforts USAID has also widely adopted ‘CBNRM’ in acronymic form.

In that region it has, for the most part, focused primarily on wildlife and has taken an economically instrumental approach, focusing on generating economic- and financial- returns from wildlife based on the belief that wildlife conservation would best be served by maximizing the resource’s value to local landholders. Thus it has attracted a particular heritage and set of meanings  which are not outwardly apparent from the words behind the acronym.

The frequent use of such acronyms as ‘CBNRM’, with their hidden assumptions and conventions, tends to limit rather than expand possibilities within the broad realm of community resource management, and impedes communication and the sharing of insights and experiences which are elemental to generating knowledge and creatively solving problems.  Back in 2009, in a paper authored by Rowan Martin and produced through the IUCN/SSC  Southern African Sustainable Use Specialist Group, one of the conclusions on the state of sustainable use in the region was that the acronym CBNRM ‘had outlived its usefulness’ (2). The problem with ‘CBNRM’- or for that matter ‘CBC’, 'PFM’ or ‘ICCAs’ and various other acronyms which all deal with similar substantive concerns and issues- effectively prevent us from talking to each other and working with each other to advance common aims and interests.

Perhaps this points to an opportunity for SULi to add value, in line with its broad cross-commission remit around ‘sustainable use and livelihoods’- which covers even more ground than community natural resource management. SULi could attempt to play an integrative role around the crucial issue of community natural resource management, breaking substantive knowledge and experience out of acronymic traps and actor-network silos.

Can SULi encourage a common understanding of community-based natural resource management freed from acronymic hidden meaning and parochial interpretations, and which captures knowledge across the wide range of actors who actually work on community-based natural resource management?  Maybe then we could all talk to each other and work together more effectively.

Fred Nelson is Director at Maliasili Initiatives:


(1) See memoir in SULiNews issue 2

(2) Martin, R.B. (2009) [scribe] From Sustainable use to Sustainable Development: Evolving Concepts of Natural Resource Management. Conceptual Framework of the Southern Africa Sustainable Use Specialist Group. 54pp. Unpublished.