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Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

Dialogue of theory and empirical evidence:
A weighted decision and tenurial niche approach to reviewing the operation of natural resources policy in rural southern Africa

Alois Mandondo

Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) & Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

SARPN acknowledges permission from PLAAS and CASS to post this document.
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A strong tradition of research on community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) has taken hold and is evolving in rural southern Africa. A rich body of knowledge traversing different genres of research traditions across a variety of issues has emerged, including for instance: indigenous knowledge systems (Matowanyika 1991); decentralisation (Murombedzi 1992; Ntsebeza 2004); local governance (Conyers 1999; Ntsebeza 2003) management of commons resources (Murphree 1991; Rihoy 1995); co-management of resources (Nhira & Matose 1995; Kapungwe 2000; Kayambazinthu 2000); economic and equity dimensions of natural resource management (Brown 1993; Hachileka et al. 1998) gender dimensions of natural resource management (Flintan 2001; Nemarundwe 2003); and land reform (Kepe & Cousins 2002; Turner et al. 2002). The diversity of issues, theoretical perspectives, scales, sectors and resources covered defies classification into neat typologies. But for purposes of this study I employ a generic genres and generations typology1 to characterise cycles of research attention on the subject across time-scale.

Drawing mainly from moral and ethical traditions, the bulk of the initial literature appears to have been dominated by what may be termed a first-generation research focus, the central thrust of which was to de-marginalise the marginalised managers of natural resources2 (Berkes & Farvar 1989; Bromley & Cernea 1989; Murphree 1990, 1991; Rihoy 1995). Although this pioneering genre of research shows leanings towards the realm of advocacy it played a very important role in overcoming the hitherto existing barriers by popularising and arguing the case for CBNRM. With the benefit of hindsight, such leanings appear understandable – the sheer magnitude of the extent to which communities were marginalised in partaking of the benefits accruing from the management of nature required a strong, if non-compromising, argument for alternatives.3

The notion of CBNRM as a moral and ethical argument against the marginalisation of communities from the benefits of nature management still needs to be vigorously pursued. But, over time, need arose for analytical approaches that look beyond de-marginalisation. Hence the emergence of a second-generation research cycle focusing on interactive dimensions of decentralisations at the grassroots and other levels. Borrowing mainly from the pragmatic and realist traditions, the incipient second-generation cycle has begun to ask essential questions about the political economy of such decentralisations, such as: Who is the community? How is community defined? Where does the locus of power lie and with what effect? Who benefits most and how? Interactive aspects of decentralisation have begun to receive attention from a variety of perspectives, including on the themes of ethnicity and social exclusion (Madzudzo 2002), gender and inclusiveness (Nabane 1997; Flintan 2001), power dynamics across scale (Hasler 1993), benefit sharing and equity structures and the ways in which these become distorted (Shackleton & Campbell 2001).

A third-generation research focus also appears to be emerging. Based mainly on complex systems theoretical frameworks (Gunderson & Holling 2001; Ruitenbeek & Cartier 2001), some aspects of this emerging genre of research emphasise the transformational aspects of decentralisation, which they seek to meld with an adaptive function (Reason & Torbett 2001). Approaches that seek to harness the transformational aspects of decentralisation with a view to delivering livelihood and other impacts are more commonly classified under action research (Reason & Bradbury 2003).

From a complex systems perspective the question of scale provides another important thirdgenerational research issue that is gaining increasing currency, and it has been tackled from a range of perspectives. For instance, IIRR (2000) see ‘going to scale’ as ‘bringing more benefits to more people more quickly, more equitably and more lastingly’, a perspective that sees scale assuming an extension and dissemination character. However, Lovell at el. (2003) tackle scale largely from a completely different perspective of fitting the sum of parts into the whole – from both biophysical and social perspectives. Murphree (2000), in his article on boundaries and borders, sees scale as nuanced reconciliation of the top-down with the bottom-up in the operation of natural resource governance. In other words, Murphree’s model of scale considers the peculiarities of what exactly should be reconciled. This study extends on this model by considering the diversity of arenas in which trade-offs should be crafted in the operation of natural resource policy. The study achieves this by borrowing from social psychological traditions (for example, Reason & Heron 1995) to develop a theoretical template that entails reconciling diverse preferences that get variously asserted through decisions made for others, decisions made with others and decisions made for oneself. The study then employs the template to critically analyse the operation of natural resource policy across a wide range of contexts in southern Africa. The wide diversity of contexts is analytically acknowledged through the use of Fortmann and Nhira’s (1992) formulation of tenurial niches. The concept of tenurial niches recognises the biophysical and institutional heterogeneity of woodlands in communal and other settings.

In the next section, I consider theoretical perspectives that locate decisions made for others with those made with others and for oneself within a complex systems setting. I argue that reconciling preferences through the media of the above decision-making frameworks is an important dimension in the operation of natural resource policy. The following two sections apply the template in an analysis of the operation of natural resource policy in southern Africa at a range of scales, including the global, regional, national and sub-national. The final section draws the report together by situating the theory and empirical experiences within the context of issues raised in the introduction.

  1. Like all typologies, the weakness of this schema is that it compartmentalises phenomena that are interlinked and thus not mutually exclusive.
  2. Decentralisations are usually seen as vehicles for delivering on the de-marginalisation agendas.
  3. ‘Alternatives’ is, coincidentally the name of a journal that popularises ideas that challenge received wisdoms, and promotes alternative ways of looking at things.

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