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Indigenous Institutions for Natural Resource Management: Potential and Threats

Indigenous institutions have positive capabilities in natural resource management which have to be considered along with the negative aspects of tradition and prejudice. A context specific assessment of the powers to be given to such institutions must therefore be done.


Indigenous Institutions for Natural Resource Management: Potential and Threats

Ashish Aggarwal

institutions can be simply understood as “rules and norms framed by the people, helping them in deciding what actions are required, permitted, or forbidden in society” [Poteete and Ostrom, forthcoming in Ghate 2004].

Institutions reflect power relations in a community, which shape the ways in which differentiated actors access, use

Indigenous institutions have positive capabilities in natural resource management which have to be considered along with the negative aspects of tradition and prejudice. A context specific assessment of the powers to be given to such institutions must therefore be done.

Ashish Aggarwal ( is with the Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

here is increased pressure on natural resources globally with the increasing pace of development. There has been significant improvement in development indicators (reduction in poverty, improvement in health standards, etc) but simultaneously ecological debt of the world has also increased over the last couple of decades. Tropical forests are being cleared with ever increasing rates, species are getting extinct every few minutes and there is increasing scarcity of ecological services like clean air, water, etc. In this grim scenario local institutions like sacred groves, jati panchayats and ‘gaon mokhi’ show some promise through their successful natural resource management. What is remarkable about these institutions is the fact that they have been able to conserve and manage natural resources much better than the usually externally imposed, technocratic, and resource intensive management systems. These local systems are resource efficient and effective. But most of these institutions operate informally at a limited scale. Can their success be formalised and replicated at a much wider scale? What are the characteristics of these local institutions? What are the opportunities and what can be the possible threats? This paper tries to explore these issues. First of all, institutions and indigenous institutions have been conceptualised. Subsequently, opportunities and threats offered by them in the management of natural resources have been discussed.

Conceptualising Indigenous Institutions

Institutions have been defined in various ways such as “rules of game in a society” [North 1990], “regularised patterns of behaviour between individuals and groups in society” [Leach et al 1999] and “structures of power” [O’Riordan and Jordan 1996 in Watson E E 2003]. However, and derive well-being from environmental resources and services. They play a critical role in sustainable management of natural resources through defining property rights. For example, institutions ascertain who can graze cattle on a particular pasture and who cannot, and also define one’s share [World Bank 1992]. Institutions promote stability of expectations ex ante, and consistency in actions, ex post, from different actors [Agrawal and Gibson 1999]. Hence, it is increasingly believed that “getting institutions right” is as important as and inextricable from “getting incentives right”, if sustainable resource develop ment is to be achieved [Barett et al 2004].

Like institutions, the term “indigenous institutions” has also been defined in many ways, which makes it difficult to understand what does it involve and what does it mean. Here for the sake of simplicity and clarity, a definition can be borrowed from Watson (2003), which defines indigenous institutions as “those institutions that have emerged in a particular situation or that are practised or constituted by people who have had a degree of continuity of living in, and using resource of an area”. These indigenous institutions can be traditional and non-traditional, and formal and informal.

Positive Characteristics

Indigenous institutions have a number of positive characteristics, which lead to successful natural resource management. Some of their characteristics are: social embeddedness, flexibility, cost effectiveness, ability to promote inclusive and holistic development. These characteristics have been elaborated below.

Socially Embedded

Indigenous institutions are multifunctional entities, which perform social as well as natural resource management


functions. They constitute an inextricable part of the social structure. They are established after decades of experimentation and use, hence are adaptive to the local context [de Boef et al 1993 in Watson 2003].

In case of Suali village in district Udaipur of Rajasthan state, an indigenous institution of Van Suraksha Samiti (VSS) manages the forest. Mokhi, who is the traditional head of the village, also heads VSS. It has formed rules for the protection and harvesting the timber and other forest products. Due to degradation of the forest, the VSS has closed the forest for timber harvesting for the last seven years. It has been successfully implemented through the institution of Kesar Chidkav (saffron sprinkling), which is a religious institution. Members of VSS brought sacred saffron from the temple of Kesariya ji and in presence of whole village sprinkled the saffron on the forest with other rituals and the forest was declared closed for the timber harvesting for the period of seven years. And locally, it is believed that anyone who trespasses this rule will have to face the wrath of the god and will also be socially ostracised by Mokhi. Belief in this religious institution and the fear of getting socially ostracised have reduced the possibilities of trespass and the forest is thus being successfully managed [Aggarwal 2004].

Likewise, in Borana zone of Ethiopia, ‘aba gada’ who is the head of the local governance system called ‘gada’, performs rituals and resolves the social conflicts and governs natural resource management system as well. ‘Aada sera’, is a set of laws for local people which they refer to all aspects of their life like dress, food, social relations and the use of natural resources [Watson 2003]. In the case of indigenous irrigation system instituted in Marakwet, Kenya, water rights are organised on the basis of institutions of village called ‘kor’ and clans termed ‘kapkei’. It is further arranged on the basis of gender and other complex social arrangements. Likewise, in the case of hill furrow irrigation system of Taita Hills, Kenya, it has been argued that social relations and natural resource management are tightly embedded in each other and “one cannot legitimately distinguish between the management of social relations and management of natural resources” [Fleuret 1985 in Adams et al 1997]

One of the most important reasons why these indigenous institutions work is their social embeddedness. It makes people stick to the rules as trespassing them means trespassing the entire social system.


Flexibility in rule structure based on collective decision-making is an important characteristic of successful indigenous institutions. Indigenous institutions operate on the basis of “working rules”, which provide them flexibility to be situation specific, and hence socially relevant [Adams et al 1997]. In the case of Marakwet irrigation system in Kenya, people who work during the communal maintenance of the furrow system have rights to take water from the same. However, if someone misses work for some genuine reason like being ill, the community still allows him to take water (ibid). Likewise, in the case of Borana in, Ethiopia, though water rights depend on social relations pregnant women are given privileged water rights [Watson 2003]. It is evident from these cases that there is a complex interplay of situation specific factors, which determine the distribution of water rather than social relations alone. So, there is an inbuilt mechanism, which allows flexibility to accommodate the situation specific requirements.

Cost Efficient

Social embeddedness and being adaptive to local conditions make indigenous institutions cost efficient for natural resource management. Resources can be monitored and decisions can be taken quickly and accordingly changes can be made in a less costly manner as compared to externally imposed institutional structures. Hence, available resources can be put to their most efficient and sustainable use with location-specific knowledge, which is best generated and interpreted locally [North 1990]. Likewise, conflicts related to resource use can be quickly addressed at the local level, whereas bureaucratic systems are generally unaware of the local situations and take a longer time to

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address these issues. Therefore, indigenous institutions can have an effect on the economy that constitutes an important link between collective action and development [Nabli and Nugent 1989].

Inclusive and Holistic

Conventional development models are top-down and benefits hardly reach intended people. Also, these models promote development in a sectoral way. Indigenous institutions, however, espouse local knowledge, culture, and work on the basis of social networks and associations. They are inclusive and reflect poor people’s true development needs. In case of Mendha village, for example, under the prevalent institutional arrangement, villagers hunted together and the catch was distributed equitably amongst all. Pregnant women got double their share and members who could not join the efforts also got their due share [Ghate 2004].

Indigenous institutions provide alternative approaches to development, which are holistic. A case in point is the Maori tribe of New Zealand, which has a holistic perspective on well-being. According to them “employment, economic development, learning, food production, health, natural environment, wisdom of ancestors, culture and vibrant social institutions are all interdependent and interrelated”. They do not recognise “sectoral demarcations between social, cultural and economic areas” [Durie 1998 in Loomis 1999]. In Maori custo mary lore, people are integrally related to nature rather than dominant over it [Loomis 1999]. This is true for many indigenous communities and institutions world over.


Even there are above-mentioned merits in use of indigenous institutions for natural resource management, similarly, there are some issues as well. Indigenous institutions have been criticised on account of being invented and manipulated, gender biased, for concentration and abuse of power and their role in changing socioeconomic environment.

If we go deep in the history of traditional institutions, we find that many of them were created by powerful forces (internal or external) to exploit local resources

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

for their own benefit. A large number of governance institutions created by colonial rule in Asia and Africa illustrate this point. Illife (1979) explains how new social identities were created by British to rule Tanganyika (now Tanzania). History was reinvented for the mutual gains of the colo nial rulers and chiefs of tribes. This was a ploy for indirect rule, which was replicated in other countries as well. Similar is the case of M’Punga, Mozambique, where indigenous institutions were invented, abolished and reinvented by the colonial administration and the political parties of the independent country.

These traditional institutions are forced upon local communities and hence do not represent local communities in the true sense. Institutions of ‘mokhi’, ‘pradhan’, etc, in tribal areas of India were created by British to collect tax from the local communities. These institutions worked for the benefit of the British till they ruled and later on for the exploited local people for their own benefits. Power in such cases is vested in one family and it is hereditary. Hence, there is little chance given to other members of community to share responsible positions. All these factors pose a big question on the legitimacy of such institutions. A legitimated institution or authority is more able to enforce rules through consensus than by fear; it is also likely to be more stable and longer lasting [Heywood 1990 in Serra 2001]. In other words, the level of recognition given to these institutions by local people is crucial to secure sustainable natural resource management and it is beyond doubt that institutions, which were invented for the political gains of a few, can ever be effective in this regard.

Gender Biased

Many traditional institutions provide little or restricted space to women. In an analysis of sacred groves (SGs) in India, Malhotra et al (2007) report that though majorities of deities associated with SGs are female, women are not considered for priesthood and generally do not have access to these SGs. Likewise, Adams et al (1997) after studying the access and rights on water in indigenous irrigation system of Marakwet region in Kenya reported that women did not have primary water rights. They could access it only through their husbands or any other male members of family. Due to sociocultural factors, only men were allowed to work on irrigation furrows, which gave them water rights. Such examples are aplenty. In a number of traditional societies, women are treated less than equal. Under such conditions, if local committees or existing indigenous institutions handle the responsibility of natural resource management then women get further disempowered.

Seva Mandir, an NGO working in tribal district of Udaipur, India, do not work with the already existing traditional institution of jati panchayat, which is based on caste system. This institution is an exclusive domain for men alone. Seva Mandir believes that working with such institutions will further strengthen the existing power difference based on gender and social status and hence, the organisation works with the democratically elected institutions called gram vikas committees (GVCs), which have representation from both men and women and other different social categories.

Abuse of Power

Indigenous institutions generally work by concentrating all social and administrative powers in one person or a small group of people. So, the functioning enitrely depends on the capabilities and intentions of this person or group. If they are more interested in personal rather than the community benefits, then the all merits of an indigenous systems are rendered ineffective. For example, in the case of M’Punga, Mozambique, local people were not happy with the chief and accused him of working for his personal gains. The chief was suspected of being more concerned with his personal benefits rather than those for the whole community. As one local person commented, “now, the chief is active in collecting tax, he visits the villages and ‘sagutas’ to make sure that tax is collected because he has benefits from this. In contrast, he never consults with members of the community before deciding about other programmes, from which he has no easy and direct benefit” [Serra 2001].


Indigenous institutions might fail to keep pace with the changing socio-economic and cultural values and can become irrelevant for the new generations. For example, in case of M’Punga, Mozambique, young people do not respect the traditional rules and find them irrelevant. They argue that consequences of breaking the rules, such as getting lost in the forest when traditional leaders did not authorise hunting, applied only to old people [Serra 2001]. Also, opportunity cost of the traditional activities has become high with the increasing availability of economic opportunities, which have further weakened the indigenous institutions. In case of indigenous irrigation in Marakwet, Kenya, Adams et al (1997) sums the situation thus: “As awareness of urban lifestyles and different economic opportunities spread, traditional farming activity (and with it furrow maintenance) is increasingly viewed as ineffective, time-consuming and unattractive”.


It is clear from the discussion above that use of indigenous institutions for natural resource management involves both potential benefits and challenges. On the one hand, these institutions are socially embedded, effective and offer an alternative model of development. On the other hand these could be gender biased, irrelevant in the changing environment and could lead to concentration and abuse of power. Hence, a situation specific assessment needs to be done before involving indigenous institutions for natural resource management and their potential and dangers need to be carefully examined. This assessment should be done in context of larger objectives of development based on the principles of equity, social justice and democratic values. If successful natural resource management is achieved at the cost of these objectives, then the overall purpose of development will be defeated and such develop ment could hardly be empowering and sustainable.


Adams, W et al (1997): ‘Water, Rules and Gender: Water Rights in an Indigenous Irrigation System’, Develop ment and Change, Marakwet, Kenya, 28, pp 707-30.

Aggarwal, A (2004): ‘Suali in Land, Community and Governance’, Seva Mandir, India, pp 63-81,

Agrawal, A and C Gibson (1999): ‘Enchantment and Disenchantment: The Role of Community in Natural Resource Conservation’, World Development, 27(4), pp 629-49.

Barett, Christopher et al (2004): ‘Institutional Arrangements for Rural Poverty Reduction and Resource Conservation’, faculty _sites/ cbb2/Papers/ BarrettLee McPeakIntro1.pdf.

Ghate, Rucha (2004): ‘Traditional and Non-traditional Indigenous Informal Institutions in Forest Management’, presented at EGDI and UNU-WIDER conference, September 17-18, Helsinki, Finland.

Illife, John (1979): A Modern History of Tanganyika, Cambridge University Press.

Leach et al (1999): ‘Environmental Entitlements: Dynamics and Institutions in Community-Based Natural Resource Management’, World Development, 27(2), pp 225-47.

Loomis, Terrence (1999): ‘Indigenous Populations and Sustainable Development: Building on Indigenous Approaches to Holistic, Self-Determined Development’, World Development, 28(5), pp 893-910.

Malhotra, K et al (2007): Sacred Groves in India: An Overview, IGRMS Bhopal and Aryan Books International, Delhi.

Nabli, M K and J Nugent (1989): ‘The New Institutional Economics and Economic Development: An Introduction’ in Nabli and Nugent (eds), The New Institutional Economics and Development: Theory and Application to Tunisia, Elsevier Science Publishers, Netherlands.

North, Douglass (1990): ‘An Introduction to Institutions and Institutional Change’ in Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press.

Serra, A (2001): ‘Legitimacy of Local Institutions for Natural Resource Management: The Case of M’Punga’, Mozambique, Working Paper No 3, School of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex.

Watson, E E (2003): ‘Examining the Potential of Indigenous Institutions for Development: A Perspective from Borana’, Development and Change, Ethiopia, 34(2), pp 287-309.

World Bank (1992): World Development Report, Oxford University Press, New York.

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