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Is small really beautiful? Community-based natural resource management in Malawi and Botswana
Piers Blaikie
University of East Anglia

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges World Development (Volume 34, Issue 11, November 2006) as the source of this article.


Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) remains a popular policy with many international funding institutions, in spite of growing evidence of its disappointing outcomes. It is underpinned by theoretically justified benefits which serve to reproduce and market it. The paper explores approaches to understand and rectify these failures. The conclusion is that explanatory effort should be expanded from the ‘‘facilitating characteristics’’ of potentially successful CBNRM sites to include two sets of interfaces—those between donors and recipient states, and between the state (especially the local state) and CBNRMs at the local level. Illustrative examples in Botswana and Malawi are given throughout the discussion.

Setting up the argument

Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) is, in various forms, an established policy goal of rural development, especially in Africa. It is also a simple and attractive one—that communities, defined by their tight spatial boundaries of jurisdiction and responsibilities, by their distinct and integrated social structure and common interests, can manage their natural resources in an efficient, equitable, and sustainable way. The natural resources in question are usually, though not exclusively, common pool resources. In southern Africa, these are typically forests, open woodland or grasslands for livestock grazing, wood supply, medicines, and famine foods; farm land for gleaning, grazing after harvest, and crop residues; wildlife for game meat and safari incomes; fish in fresh water lakes; and aquifers, tanks, and irrigation channels for domestic and livestock water supply and irrigation (Adams, 2004; Adams, Brockington, Dixon, & Vira, 2000, p. 12).

In this paper, observations on CBNRM are illustrated with the findings of in-country research in two contrasting African nations. The first is Malawi, the rural people of which have endured decades of sustained dispossession by a neo-patrimonial despot and currently face serious food insecurities and extreme absolute poverty. Over 60% of the population live below the poverty line. Over 85% of the rural population live on customary land, illiteracy is around 50% and 30% of Malawi’s households are female headed (FFSSPPFWG, nd). The government has recently pursued a program of progressive legislation for forests removing restrictions to the access and use of woodland, and has specifically targeted women as key resource users (see the National Forest Policy 1997 and Forest Act 1997). It has only had a decentralization policy since 1998, approved a Strategic Plan for CBNRM as recently as November 2001, and has proceeded since with some CBNRM implementation especially in forestry and artisanal fisheries. However, policy reform has had to contend with decades of institutional destruction at the local level, and a rural population which had grown weary and wary of any further interventions by the government.

The second case is Botswana, a comparatively wealthy African nation, designated as a Middle Income country with a GDP per capita of around $9,500. It has been able to provide education, health and social security, and this has been important in guaranteeing a minimum level of welfare for its population. However, unemployment and rural poverty remain high (cf. 40%). Botswana has low population–land resource ratios and its government has taken seriously the devolution of powers to manage natural resources since the mid-1980s. This has involved CBNRM initiatives since 1998, following assistance from USAID (focusing mainly on wildlife and tourism). Malawi and Botswana have had very different histories of government, but many rural inhabitants of both have recently witnessed the growing interference into, and resulting dissolution of, local chiefly government, combined with territorial incursions by the state and private capital to establish plantations and state forests in Malawi, and private ranches, game and nature reserves in Botswana.

Although the term CBNRM was not generally in use until the 1980s, the notion that communities should, and could, satisfactorily manage their own resources according to their local custom, knowledge and technologies has a long history. The ideas of community have constantly been shaped and reshaped by different outsiders through time (from colonial Governor- Generals, political advisors, European settlers, and more recently rural development consultants and academic writers). Thus, the idea of CBNRM has evolved through time and been specific to particular countries, but over the past 15 years, there has been a convergence of various strands of meanings in the international development literature and in the practice of international funding institutions (IFIs). Today, for example, social and community forestry in India and Nepal and most countries of south-east Asia, and Natural Resource Management Committees in Malawi have some quite close similarities at a general level. These have resulted from similar strategic policy designs from IFIs. Still, at the level of the detail of administrative, legal and financial structures and of policy implementation, the term means widely different things to different people. In the colonial period in Africa, the practice of Indirect Rule was developed for which "native institutions" had been adapted and shaped for the purpose of rule by colonial rulers, dividing the rural from the urban and one ethnicity from another, and forming an institutional segregation. Africans were relegated to a sphere of customary law (or the harsh indigenat in francophone Africa), while Europeans obeyed civil law (Ribot, 1999, p. 23). These institutions, based upon "traditional" (usually chiefly) leadership, amounted to what Mamdani (1996) calls decentralized despotism. These institutions were essentially local and varied according to a great variety of cultures, ecologies and material needs, but usually underpinned by communal tenure and chiefly authority. They were in many ways neglected by administrators except for purposes of political and strategic control, labor mobilization and latterly for soil and water conservation, in the period before Independence. Otherwise, they were treated with disdain or neglect by most colonial writers, who assumed that processes of "natural evolution" would eventually lead to individual tenure, a market in land, and the commercialization of agriculture (Lugard, 1923). The assumptions behind Lugard’s thinking and his "dual mandate" had become standard development wisdom by the period of the winning of independence by most African states. It remains powerful today, even in the minds of many government officials who implement CBNRM programs (see Taylor, 2001). The assumptions were that individualization of land tenure with registration of title would encourage long term investment in natural resource management, would inhibit (what was later styled as) the "tragedy of the commons" (Hardin, 1968), help to provide collateral for production loans, and create incentives to shift production from subsistence to the market—a late colonial narrative with a very contemporary ring.

CBNRM remains a touchstone for much of rural development and sustainable natural resource management and has been promoted by most major IFIs since the early 1990s. Yet, I argue, it has largely failed to deliver the expected and theoretically predicted benefits to local communities. CBNRM has become and remains so popular to IFIs, but often so unpopular with target communities themselves. Faced with such disappointing results and so many critiques, it still flourishes as an important policy goal in all countries in central and southern Africa. In this sense, CBNRM succeeds! This paper examines why.

  1. The author wishes to thank colleagues from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom, involved in the LADDER Research Project, funded by the Policy Research Program of the UK Department of International Development, including Eddie Allison, Sholto Cross, Frank Ellis (Project Director), and Catherine Locke. Also, he wishes to thank members of the Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre in Maun, Botswana, especially Drs. Donald Kgathi and Lapo Magole. However, all responsibility for error remains with the author. Final revision accepted: November 10, 2005.

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