Institutions: Tackling Environmental Challenges In Developing Countries

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Institutions represent a system of an established set of rules or guidelines that governs the social, communal and political inter and intra group interactions. Institutions are largely understood to construct rules that constraint actions, but they also act as a dam to streamline the flow of information to enable behaviors towards a common outcome. Institutions can take a formal or informal approach to its constitutions and because they simultaneously constraint and mold the actions of the individual or group through a positive feedback loop, they tend to evolve in a self-perpetuating pattern.

In theory of political sciences, institutions are looked as ‘market’ or ‘the state’ that govern the conservation and dissemination of resources in the hands of the people. Ostrom (1990) demonstrated that many institutions represent a mix of features of private and public governing bodies and institutions do not adhere to strict dichotomy when it comes to achieving efficient outcomes to solve problems of ‘free riding’. In recent times, the role of institutions is considered vital in development theory and policy. Institutions are believed to play a vital role in natural resources management which sits at the heart of the environmental challenges of our time.

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Environmental management and Institutions – Story of the developing countries

Institutions have a very relevant and critical role in the effective management of natural resources. Over the course of last 2 to 3 decades, with the impact of climate change is clearly felt across the world, the role of these institutions has become even more important to ensure that resources are managed in a manner where the harm to the environment is minimized. Current times do not only demand the institutions to be effective and efficient but also innovative and flexible in their approach and governance.

Institutions that largely impact the natural resources management can be categorized under the ones managed by the government (State), and those that promote common pool resources (CPR) and community-based natural resources management (CBNRM). All these types of institutions have their own idiosyncratic styles and the way in which they have evolved. They all come with their own merits and demerits but most importantly the relevance of these institutions highly depends on the geography and cultural history and economic realities of the people in the region that the institutions govern. In developing countries, environmental resources were historically managed by people and communities in villages and remote areas. Post-colonial era and early part of the 21st century saw a growing population and connectivity in these regions along-with centralizations of power over natural resources.

State governed institutions have exhibited that they have the resource capacity to create legal authorities such as property rights that create access to natural resources (Sikor and Lund, 2009). In many ways, by controlling the access, these rules protect the abuse of natural resources such as by corporations in the mining and logging industry. It is also strongly evident that in the absence of established rights for forests and land property, there is a high chance of exploitations due to their open access nature in developing countries (Hardin, 1968). States that adopt a more pragmatic approach to resource-related rules, tend to create a more conducive situation towards environmental protection. States forcing rules and actions that are not compatible with the socio-political situations of the society might also lead to failure as in the case of Ujamaa village policy in 1973 in Tanzania (Ergas 1980). In recent times, the authorities in developing countries are leaning more towards Environmentality (Agrawal, 2005) and using soft power to work with people towards goals, instead of resorting to forceful policies.

In many developing countries, environmental organizations are not adequately represented at the local level and this leads to weak enforcement of rules. To overcome the challenge of enforceability, common pool resource theory with economic underpinning has exhibited that local communities are able to successfully manage the natural resources over a long span of time (Bromley et al. 1992). CPR is based on an economic model of rational choice with clear rules and institutional hierarchy at the local level, which drives the utility-maximizing behavior of the community. Introducing local participants in the governing process of resources leads to the improvement of livelihoods by making them part of the ecological and economic development process. Inclusions also result in renewed empowerment and opportunities which were earlier not available to them and this results in an increase in their income levels which incentivizes them to protect and conserve their natural resources (Agrawal 2001). Ostrom (1990) highlighted that common property resource system have exhibited sustainability and efficiency under numerous situations. Communities have been known to establish a complex and sustainable system of managing resources related to fishing, agriculture, water bodies, and even cultivated lands.

As CPR provides a design framework of local participation, a popular version of institutions and an evolved application of CPR can be observed in the community-based natural resource management system (CBNRM). CBNRM combines the natural resources conservation goals with community objectives by effectively changing the ownership rights of resources from the hands of the government to local communities. A key feature of the CBNRM institutions is that it looks to build self-governance through localized institutions to manage common pool resources. In many cases, the primary benefits of these institutions are to conserve the bio-diversity along with empowering local communities by providing higher livelihood security (Fabricius & Collins, 2007).

Community-Based Institutions: Conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa

In my view to evaluating the true performance of these institutions, it would be best to look at a region where environmental challenges are strongly coupled with socio-political environments. As highlighted earlier, as much as these institutions are enablers to environment protection, they have also evolved to become socio-political change agent impacting the lives and livelihoods of the communities. We will look closely on some of the examples of community-based institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa in societies that are under diverse political regimes to understand the impact of the action of these institutions on the environment. Countries in post-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa have been characterized by strong centralized power and the concentrated authority (dictatorships) extended control over much of the natural resources. In this light, CBRM institutions in the region represent a transformative approach towards governing land, forests and other natural resources.

In Central African Republic (CAR), game reserves were historically managed by the government with little involvement of the community. The government on its own was ineffective in stopping illegal hunting. Upon a joint initiative, the state and the local community started to co-manage the hunting reserves in CAR. The initiative led to the local community working together to stop illegal hunting, create revenue from game safaris and other tourism activities Mbitikon (2005). In an example from East Africa, Tanzania has traditionally had centralized management of forest resources, In the Forest Act of 2002, the country decentralized the governance and allowed flexible institutional arrangements such as village land forest reserves and community forest reserves. These forest reserves along-with local communities started owning and managing the conservation of forest land and property and this substantially led to increase in the forest cover area as well as community farms in the designated farming areas inside the forests. (MNRT, 1998).

In sub-Saharan African countries, CBNRM focussed towards wildlife conservations are common and many of them have seen fair success but there are quite many examples related to other natural resources in the region as well. Water scarcity and inequitable distribution is a major problem in some regions of Cameroon (Ntouda et al., 2013) and the problem is only exasperated on account of lack of political will and inadequate investment in water infrastructure by the government. The situation clearly demanded an alternate way of management and distribution of water resources in rural Cameroon. The above situations led to the creation of a community-based organization (CBO) that became the change agent in water management in Cameroon. These community-based organizations are structured around the village and its cultural demographics. These CBO have the capacity to manage micro projects related to the construction of water supply distribution points as well as community halls for gathering and management. The CBO has their own elected members and they work with the guidance of village councils and chiefs to ensure harmony and cooperation with other local bodies. Working with other traditional village councils not only ensures effective and fast water allocation but also plays a huge role in conflict management between village authorities (Tantoh & Simatele, 2017)

In the context of Sub-Saharan Africa, the last few decades have seen a gradual evolution of the institutions that focused hard on the problem of resource scarcity, equitable distribution, and overall environment conservation. The broad analysis of community-based institutions in Africa reveals that these institutions have prevented huge growth in emissions from a change in the pattern of land use and local woodland management. Further maintenance of the semi-arid land for the primary purpose of wildlife compared to agri-based systems by local institutions have led to higher ecological benefits. CBNRM activities have directly contributed to the conservation of existing wildlife and its habitats which has led to the recovery of previously known extinct species.


There is a little doubt on the role and need of institutions to manage the natural resources of the world. In the history of this planet, there has been no time when the world had to sustain the kind of population and consumption levels that it has to sustain now. What is important is to identify the kind of institutions that will help keep the sustenance of the world and its inhabitant and ensure that earth replenishes what has been taken away for consumption. We have seen that state can play a critical role in creating property rights that provides a systematic way of managing land, in many cases, the local communities know the best way to manage and use the local resource in their ecosystem and institutions designed around CBNRM can work in a diverse, innovative manner to overcome the tragedy of the commons.


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