Three-quarters of the poorest households in the world live in rural areas and are dependent on shared access to natural resources for their food security and livelihoods. However, certain features of these natural resources make their management problematic, especially the high degree of interdependence among resource users, creating incentives to overuse resources and underinvest in their sustainability. Hence, much research has focused on the role of collective management of natural resources in supporting sustainable rural livelihoods. This focus has also influenced the design of rural development and conservation programs, assuming that local people who use and rely on natural resources are in the best position to manage them. Yet interventions to promote collective management of natural resources have often failed due to excessively top-down, prescriptive approaches that ignore local institutional contexts. Hence there is a need to understand better the processes of local collective action.
These issues are especially relevant in Bangladesh’s coastal zone, where pressure on land, water, and other natural resources is intense and increasing. The coastal zone plays an important economic role through crop production and aquaculture, and supports the environmentally-significant Sundarban mangrove forest. Yet it is also highly vulnerable, facing problems of salinization, waterlogging, flooding, riverine erosion, erratic rainfall, sea-level rise, and cyclone-related disasters. Development interventions in this zone have also had mixed consequences. The complex, interrelated nature of land, water, fisheries, forests, and infrastructure, the high degree of interdependence between resource users, and the shared exposure to natural hazards and climate trends mean that local processes of collective action play a crucial role in sustaining lives and livelihoods.
The aim of this research was to explore the nature and role of local collective action in managing natural resources and enhancing the livelihood security of rural households and communities in coastal Bangladesh. A version of the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework was used. This provides a general set of interrelated variables to systematically examine a diversity of cases, while allowing for different theoretical explanations in each case. The elements of the Framework are: (1) contextual factors (attributes of resources, attributes of resource users, and governance arrangements); (2) the action arena or “action situation”, in which various actors, using their assets and governed by “rules in use”, engage in patterns of interaction to pursue their goals; (3) the outcomes of this interaction for (a) resource status and trends, (b) livelihood assets and adaptive capacity, and (c) institutional arrangements and governance. The Framework can be applied to different scales and time-frames, encompassing both one-off local episodes of collective action and repeated, long-term interactions leading to institutional change.
A qualitative, case-study approach based was used. Four cases of collective action were examined in two villages in Dacope Sub-District, Khulna District, in the vulnerable south-west coastal region. Mixed methods were used during two periods of fieldwork, including group discussions, key informant interviews, personal narratives, direct observation, photography, and informal conversations. The cases were different “action situations” in which some or all villagers acted collectively, whether on their own initiative or in response to an external intervention, to better manage their resources and sustain their livelihoods: (1) locally-initiated collective action to end large-scale shrimp farming and return to smallholder cropping; (2) collective water resource management through locally-formed committees; (3) a social forestry activity initiated by the Department of Forestry; (4) collective response to cyclone-related disasters, organised through the government-initiated Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP).
The cases were analysed using particular theories relevant to each one but within the overarching structure of the IAD Framework. The analysis of shrimp farming drew on concepts of exclusion, counter-exclusion, and the powers of exclusion. The water resource management case was analysed in terms of the tension between formal and substantive approaches to economic institutions. The social forestry case was assessed in terms of the “community-based resource management” paradigm. The cyclone response case was analysed using the Pressure and Release (PAR) Model. The IAD Framework was then used to conduct a cross-case analysis and evaluate the outcomes in terms of the impacts on resource sustainability, livelihood security and adaptive capacity, and shifts in institutions and governance.
The analysis showed that certain features of the action situations contributed to successful collective action in the shrimp farming and water management cases, and helped explain the failure of the social forestry initiative and the partial success of the collective response to cyclones. Locally-initiated collective action that accommodated different interests, roles, and social norms was more likely to have positive and sustained outcomes, while external interventions that followed centrally-conceived templates (though they mandated local participation) were unlikely to achieve desired outcomes. Yet the analysis concluded that local collective action was more complex than suggested by the quest for “design principles” in mainstream institutionalism, and that a substantive, socio-historical approach consistent with critical institutionalism was more reflective of local realities.