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What works in natural resource management and environmental governance: Insights from an expert

Natural resources and environmental management significantly affects pastoralists and other livestock keepers who live in drylands that cut across ecosystems. In such systems, wildlife and livestock move in and out of parks and community-protected areas with upstream-downstream effects along watersheds. How to incorporate these realities in an ecosystem management approach at a large scale is complex and not well understood because it involves not only dealing with a village or community, but also with larger institutions such as national park management agencies. How do the concerned institutions and stakeholders in these ecosystems relate to each other, if at all? How do these relationships affect the management of resources to ensure satisfaction for all pillars of sustainability? How well do community-based approaches of managing ecosystems work?

We spoke to Lance Robinson, a resilience and governance specialist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to hear more about this subject.

Lance RobinsonWhat does your role as an environmental governance and resilience specialist in ILRI’s Livestock Systems and Environment (LSE) program entail?

Some of the things we are looking at in the LSE program include climate change adaptation, vulnerability and resilience in relation to drought and other shocks and stresses, as well as potential for agricultural intensification. We are studying the key dimensions around institutions and governance in these ecosystems and even though some research has focused on these elements, a lot more is needed to better understand these systems.

Various technical interventions and innovations have been developed but these do not always work in new locations. One of the reasons for this often is because different ecosystems have different governance environments. I am trying to investigate and come up with data and ways of thinking about governance that are useful for policymakers and tools for making sense of complex governance environments. We hope this will lead eventually to improvements in governance, including specific recommendations, tools and ideas that policymakers and decision makers can use to improve their institutional governance environments for better technical interventions.

With respect to resilience, it is a concept that has come into the development, relief and disaster preparedness communities relatively recently and we are still figuring out what we mean by resilience. There are different theories around resilience such as whether we mean the same thing as what people in fields such as ecology have been saying for years or something different? We are at this time, just operationalizing the concept, what it is, what it means, how we measure it and what it means for development and disaster risk reduction programing. So some of my work focuses on conceptualizing resilience and coming with up approaches to assess and ultimately measure it.

Your work has centred around participatory and community-based approaches to environmental governance; how much progress has been made and what are the challenges and opportunities encountered? 

There is much progress around community-level governance that is resulting in a push towards community-based resource management. We have learnt a lot about the requirements for effective community-based resource management initiatives but there are still gaps including the biggest, which is looking at scales larger than the community. Other gaps include using landscape-level approaches to see how community-based methods fit into larger policy frameworks an looking at a larger-scale resource management across river basins or even whole countries.

Because of these gaps, there is disconnect between the policies and decisions made at large scale national levels and community-based approaches. For example, community-based water resource management initiatives at village levels are not well-integrated into environmental management at larger scales. This is particularly important in agricultural research where  ecosystems cut across and include parks and other protected areas such as community forest association or involve water resource management groups involved in, for example, catchment protection in an upper part of a river. Successful management of all these elements cannot happen in isolation.

We need to understand these inter-relationships and inter-linkages if we are to have an ecosystem management approach that protects these environments, meets stakeholders needs, increases agricultural productivity and helps pastoralists cope with drought.

Achieving all of those objectives at the same time is challenging but I think it can be achieved through good ecosystem-based management at a larger scale. That is one of the things I have been working on–landscape level ecosystem-based management which looks at agricultural landscapes, farmers doing crop agriculture and their interrelationships with pastoralists as well as the relationships of these groups with parks, forests and other protected areas.

Why the emphasis on community-based approaches?

Two main reasons: ownership and resources.

It has been realized in community-based resource management that communities are unlikely to support interventions if they do not ‘own’ them or see how are they benefit from them. This is one of the reasons why community-based resource management, when it is done well, is more effective than state-based approaches. Community-protected areas have often done a better job at protecting resources than national agencies.

The next challenge lies in how to replicate the strengths of community-based resource management at a larger scale, such as looking beyond your village as a livestock owner and thinking about bringing together several communities. Ownership from community members leads to buy-in and a better chance of community involvement.

In terms of resources, when you’ve got a top-down kind of governance system, the capacity of state actors to enforce the rules they create is sometimes minimal whereas the communities often achieve the same thing with fewer resources because if the communities accept rules and are involved in creating them they are easier to enforce. Community-based approaches are potentially a lot more resource efficient because local institutions also have resources in different forms including their legitimacy and authority at local level which can replace more tangible resources like staff salaries and vehicles.

What can be done to address the disconnect between policies and the decisions based on community based initiatives?

We need to look at how ecosystem-based approaches can be implemented and used to harmonize the existing synergies between the forestry, conservancy, wildlife and water sectors. For example, management approaches by county governments should bring on board community members for more integrated approaches looking across whatever sort of landscape-level units make sense in the area.

My challenges as a researcher are, a) to figure out practical approaches that help decision makers and county- and national-level governments facilitate integrated approaches and b) to come up with credible research approaches that help measure and assess these approaches objectively to give a true picture on the progress and impact of governance.

I am seeking a way of carrying out objective assessments of resilience so we can have a basis for a theoretical understanding of, for example, the importance of good governance or gender equality in resilience. An objective way of measuring these will enable us to give conclusive recommendations. Ultimately, we need to come up with more objective and quantitative or semi-quantitative approaches to provide the numbers to demonstrate we have improved resilience as well as a qualitative approach that explains the results.

What is in store going forward?

A new research study that is looking at linkages between local and landscape level governance and how policy is formed at national level is underway.  We are assessing the interconnections between policy, science and actual practice. This involves studies in Ethiopia and in Senegal which are multi-level cases looking at national level policies and policymaking processes, the realities of policy implementation and policy interaction at lower levels and how all of those influence adaptation at household level.

We also have a new research project under the CGIAR Research Program in Dryland Systems which is taking steps to implement a systems approach. The project is bringing together researchers from different disciplines, different areas of inquiry to look at the complexity of peoples local livelihood systems and interactions among ecology, agronomy, economics, social factors and peoples livelihoods and how these interact and the complexities and implications for further research including the kinds of crop research or livestock research that is most relevant to peoples’ livelihoods, needs and challenges. This research is in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

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