Co-management: overcoming the tragedy of the commons

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Mongolian herders are maintaining the centuries old practice of moving from season to season to find new grasslands for their livestock, the primary source of their nomadic livelihood. Right now it is time to move to their winter camps and enter the most critical period of the year – the months of extremely cold weather.

The challenges of managing the risks that Mongolian nomadic pastoralists face are numerous and complex. Their livelihoods depend on a combination of individually owned livestock and collectively managed grasslands and other natural resources (water, wildlife and forest resources in particular) which remain State owned. Co-management, practiced in Mongolia for about 15 years, is a novel approach to deal with these challenges. Insights gained from the Mongolian co-management experience might be useful for other regions facing similar conditions.

Credit: Bioversity International/R.Vernooy The increasing degradation of the natural resource base, widespread biodiversity loss and climate change impacts in Mongolia require action at levels beyond that of the individual household or group of households. Photo: Bioversity International/R. Vernooy

Herders face new challenges

In many parts of the country, grasslands have become seriously degraded. After the ‘opening up’ of Mongolian society and economy in the early 1990s, herders have become both more independent (individualized) and more vulnerable as protection by the State was withdrawn (employment, social security, health care, education services were no longer certain) and the country moved quickly to a free market development model.

Parallel to significant societal change, the impacts of climate change have become more visible, first observed and felt by herders about a decade ago. In the last decade, severe weather events, in particular storms, drought, and extremely harsh winters have been on the rise. The unpredictability of such events, even for a largely nomadic society where vulnerability is a part of everyday life, has become a major issue facing many in the country.

Co-management provides a solution

To deal with these new challenges, a group on researchers came together in 1999 to introduce and test a novel natural resource management approach known as co-management. Traditionally, herders use pastureland according to certain kinship relationships, combined with the sharing of a common area that they move around in accordance with continuously evolving community arrangements. Co-management builds on these systems, but adds new features.

Co-management brings together formally organized herder groups, government and researchers. It is based on the observation that the limited capacity of herders and local government to sustainably manage pasture resources can be complemented by the participation of other stakeholders at various levels. Together, they can manage the resource base more effectively. The increasing degradation of the natural resource base, widespread biodiversity loss and climate change impacts — all observed in Mongolia — require action at levels beyond that of the individual household or group of households.

Everyday co-management activities include the drafting, discussion, negotiation and signing of co-management agreements with the district and local governors and its members to ensure access to the community land (pasture) areas throughout the seasons; using site-appropriate seasonal pasture shifting methods at the community level to allow the restoration of degrades grassland; protecting wells and rivers, or accumulating snow and rain water (in small reservoirs); clearing the forest, using stumps or dried branches of trees for fuel use, and forest restoration or transplantation of trees from densely wooded area; and creating salt-marshy area as a drinking source for livestock.

Lessons from Elinor Ostrom

Pasture management systems in Mongolia cannot be characterized as open access systems; rather, their features are more akin to those of a common property regime. In the context of Mongolia, Elinor Ostrom’s work on common property institutions has been instrumental used to introduce, put in practice and assess co-management strategies and community-based natural resource management. Common pool resources exist where one person’s use of a resource subtracts from another’s, and where it is often necessary, although difficult and costly, to exclude other users outside the group from using the resource.

One of Ostrom’s main arguments is that there are many indigenous institutions that have endured for centuries in the sustainable management of natural resources and that there is much to learn from them. As she argued, under the right conditions, the people in a community who enjoy an interdependent relationship with their natural resource base, can organize and govern themselves to continue to obtain joint benefits despite all temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.

Overcoming the tragedy of the commons

Our research in Mongolia effectively demonstrates that if all stakeholders strongly support co-management, then it can be a tool to overcome the “tragedy of the commons.” For this to happen, the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders need to be clearly established, regular face-to-face interactions are paramount, and both effective monitoring mechanisms and viable short-term livelihood improvement options developed.

But local level action alone is not enough. Legal and policy support is also critical in order to scale-up co-management (by involving more herders and stakeholders that operate at higher levels). Introducing sustainable management methods, such as pasture improvements, small-scale agricultural production techniques, water conservation methods, and community-based forest management, through a process of collaborative learning involving the active participation of all, can reduce the degradation of pastureland and cover the cost of environmental externalities.


Read More 

To read more about these experiences of co-management in Mongolia and other examples of common pool resource management, see the special issue 19 of April 2014 of the journal Policy Matters, entitled Remembering Elinor Ostrom: her work and its contribution to the theory and practice of conservation and sustainable resource management.