Polycentric Governance Across the World of the Commons, a System of Oversight and Monitoring at the Local Levels - Key to Effective Governance of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom, known for her work on the Commons (or common pool resources such as meadows and pastures, communal forests, among others) was in Nepal this week on the invitation of the Government of Nepal. In coordination with The Asia Foundation which facilitated her visit, ICIMOD invited Prof Ostrom to be its resource person in a Knowledge Forum on "Governing and Managing Forests and Other Commons in a Period of Climate Change".

Prof Ostrom was happy to return after eight years, to share the cumulative lessons of 50 years of work for which she won the distinguished award. The Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation, Deepak Bohara, welcoming Ostrom, described her winning the Nobel as, "like Nepal itself winning the award" because her work was partly based on field research which she and her team conducted in Nepal, including a survey of 178 forest users groups and research on communal irrigation systems in the western region of Nepal.

Her scholarly interest, which has led her to organise the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) research program, includes:

  • How alternative systems of governance and tenure affect social and ecological conditions,
  • What conditions favour collective action for resource management,
  • How people respond to and organise themselves socially and work together in response to changing ecological conditions, and,
  • How diverse actors which include forest user groups, local community associations, local and national governments, interact and jointly affect forest conditions.

The result of her work partly debunks Gary Hardin's earlier treatise, "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968) which summed up that people, left on their own, are incapable of protecting natural resources for the common good.
"We cannot totally reject the idea of self-interested people, individuals have incomplete information but can learn and more effectively manage their resources. Learning as a core part of what we're doing and how we enhance this learning to apply to grassroots conditions, develop community trust, are some of the important lessons that organisations like ICIMOD can apply," she said.

Ostrom led IFRI's work in research sites which included, in addition to Nepal, Kenya, Mali, Brazil and Ecuador, collaborating with research centres in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Uganda, Bhutan, Thailand, India and Madagascar, to find out what's going on on the ground from the local perspective, how tenure and other factors affect the forests and the commons and how people and communities themselves respond to and organise themselves socially, working together.

Her key theses include:

One, when collective action is high, when forest users themselves monitor regularly, forest conditions get better; and when local groups have long-term rights and can harvest from a forest, they protect its conditions more.

"Having rights does not mean taking all; if they have no rights at all, why will they have interest in protecting their resources? The crucial problem is how to match forests with the interests of the people, the communities and the environment."

Asked during an Open Forum what she thought of REDD and carbon finance, which were raising more questions than answers, she said: "A lot of the literature are presenting the problem incorrectly, that nothing we can do will make a difference. It's how we convey a variety of policies that will help people adopt less carbon-intensive practices. For the women of Nepal, it's investment in small-scale solar cooking and heating units and inexpensive appropriate technologies, and policies that will help small Nepali entrepreneurs promote these technologies - things that people can do on an everyday basis, that will make the difference."

On the kinds of governance arrangements she would recommend for Nepal's forests and commons Ostrom cautioned against cure-all panaceas; one-size-fits-all models and blueprints are potentially dangerous. What may apply to the terai may be different from what may be effective in the midhills. Specific conditions of forests and communities surrounding should be taken into account and rules tailored to the conditions and requirements of specific localities. There is a need to match governance arrangements to local ecological and social setting, traditions, economic and other interests of forest users and other community groups.

What she encouraged, and this goes true for issues of carbon finance and REDD, was what she called, a 'polycentric system of governance' across the world with no arbitrary proportion on governance between local communities and governments; the organisation instead of small-, medium-, and large-scale units - whatever turns out to be empowering people to work at a scale meaningful to them - that each unit and scale exercises considerable independence to make and enforce rules within a circumscribed scope of authority for a specified geographical area.

She underscored the importance of including a large system for oversight (she cites the system of grand juries in the United States of America which makes decisions at the local level as an example) and incorporation of scientific and local or indigenous knowledge of the communities. She acknowledged that the drivers of change - state, market, communities - can all make terrible decisions.

"It is how we keep our options open and understand and make use of them as communities and organise ourselves to our needs that will matter." She cites the assistance of intermediaries like the Wahacas of the hills in Southern Mexico as also an example where a local NGO based in a community assists these communities technically (they do not run it) with diversification of forest products (in this case, to include mushrooms and orchids) that the communities did not have to fell down trees to sell it. The NGO had knowledge of markets and marketing and helped the community export to Japan and other countries, out of which community income went to building schools and sending community members' children for higher education, later returning as college-trained community members contributing to the growth of the community.

She hopes to see over the long run, women attaining equal rights to property in Nepal. She also stressed learning as a core part of what we're doing and how we enhance that learning and develop trust. Solutions can be as simple as inventory of invasive species for some pastures and commons, documentation in photographs, the development of useful tools (the use of remote sensing, for example), and getting it out there where these knowledge are needed, to which organisations like ICIMOD can contribute.

ICIMOD Director General, Andreas Schild, thanked Ostrom and summed up his own insights and "take home messages" out of her talk. One is the role of intermediaries such as NGOs and organisations like ICIMOD; two, the grand jury concept which finds similarities to the information coalitions in India; and bringing the work of ICIMOD on remote sensing and others to the village level.

- Joyce M. Mendez, jmendez@icimod.org