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Life, Fish and Mangroves

Melissa Marschke

Conclusion: Resource Governance at the Margins

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  • 19 Resource governance reforms are not working out as envisioned in Cambodia or and at a regional lev (...)

1Policy reforms promoting local resource governance are not working out as envisioned.19 Although people do engage in resource governance in creative ways, there are many failures along the road. The broad appeal of local resource governance may, in part, explain why it is so difficult to enact. Government actors, as an example, support resource governance for multiple reasons including to promote roll-out, neo-liberal policies (McCarthy 2005), to work toward greater political consolidation (Hughes 2009) or to support community involvement in resource management (Ostrom 2009). Since these actors are likely to advance diverse aspects of any particular resource governance policy, it can hardly be surprising that implementation will be chaotic and confusing. Even if government departments wanted to support the processes necessary for genuine decentralization, it would be difficult since specific departments dealing with natural resource conservation do not have large budgets and may also face capacity challenges. Moreover, it really takes time before policy processes are systematically taken up and people begin to buy into notions of local resource governance and “co” models as ways to govern natural resources.

  • 20 Specific resource management initiatives appear to have been driven by local government officials (...)

2It is no wonder that resource governance results are patchy at best and that this is a difficult agenda to pursue. In some ways, pursuing this type of governance experiment in a place like Cambodia seems almost unrealistic, given its historical roots and emerging reality. After all, this is a place where business entrepreneurs boast about Cambodia’s frontier status, while others argue that Cambodia’s natural resources, particularly future oil revenues, are its development curse (Le Billon 2002; Un and So 2009). Moreover, the notion of locally driven resource governance does not have particularly strong roots in Cambodia, particularly in rural, lowland villages.20 Yet donors, policy-makers and village members alike have seized upon an opportunity to create policy that does give more voice to citizens and allows them a role in contributing to village governance, even if only in a few cases. After all, few policies existed in the 1980s and early 1990s, post-Khmer Rouge, and the past fifteen years have been a chance to reconstruct and to get things “right,” or at least “better.” This is an appealing idea, which helps to explain why such a novel resource governance experiment is underway in a context like Cambodia’s.

3Considering the landscape where this research took place, a Wild West-type of area that held, until quite recently, lush forests and healthy fisheries, and continues to hold other valuable coastal resources like sand, seagrass, corals and oil, the successes are rather impressive. In many ways, communities have beaten the odds with their successes, for they have done so in the absence of much external support. As Sovanna (2008), the head of Koh Sralao’s resource management committee, notes, “[W]e have learned a lot by working on these issues. We are now better organized, can deal with certain conflicts ourselves and know what the law says. We can deal with many small issues just not the big issues.” Undoubtedly, communities participating actively in resource governance have gotten something out of the process; if nothing else, confidence has been enhanced (Marschke and Sinclair 2009). To do nothing was not an option for members of these communities. Nonetheless, the protection of natural resources in and around these villages is not particularly easy and is not always proving to be fruitful, particularly in cases where there are large amounts of money to be made (large-scale fishing, sand mining). With every success that can be celebrated emerges another issue that is cause for serious frustration. It will be worth following up on the committee’s work in the years to come, to see if sand mining has indeed proved to be the tipping point for resource-dependent villagers, or if those that remain are able to recover and harness their leadership and community organizing skills toward other forms of resource governance (i.e., certification schemes, avoided deforestation, payment for ecosystem services or finding ways to halt fisheries declines). Perhaps an even bigger question is if villagers will see this as worthwhile.

4Let me end this story with a few final thoughts.

5First, local resource governance does not always make sense, even in resource-dependent villages. This is because declining resources are only one contributing factor in shaping people’s lives. People are further marginalized by their location, their limited access to education and a lack of productive resources available to them. This is not to suggest that resources in and around villages should not be protected, conserved and, where appropriate, governed. Rather, the burden of this effort should not always be shouldered by poorer, rural residents. Governments and other organizations need to recognize and plan for the buffering role that natural resources play, in the sense of providing a fallback strategy for households. Fish and forest spaces absorb unskilled surplus labour and provide a safety net, along with risk mitigation mechanisms for poorer households facing real livelihood insecurities (Béné et al. 2010). What is also needed is investment in solving resource-related conflicts, including patrolling efforts, a commitment to regional forms of resource governance, investments in health and education and working toward livelihood security, in addition to ensuring that common spaces exist for fishers and other local dwellers to access. When resource governance is pursued, there must be local leaders willing to pursue this agenda, particularly in cases where resource governance processes are designed and parachuted in by outside actors, along with appropriate institutional support that includes troubleshooting or backstopping. How this can work in an era of greater livelihood mobility, where people have not been rooted longer in just one place, is another pressing question.

6Second, decentralized resource governance as it is currently enacted will not work in Cambodia. Even with donor policies (and the resource governance literature) being strongly oriented toward decentralized resource governance, Cambodia’s problems of deforestation, aquatic stock declines and other forms of resource exploitation do not show any signs of abating. Many decentralized resource policies, which were designed with good intentions, do not support rural livelihoods as some policies are manipulated and others are ignored. Policy changes can be rather meaningless, particularly if the entrepreneurial elites do not themselves adhere to them or if such changes harm patronage networks (Burgos and Ear 2010). Cambodian elites do earn significant money from Cambodia’s natural resource base, channelling some of this money, in turn, back into their traditional patrimonial power bases (Un and So 2009; Chandler 2010). This ensures the continuation of some forms of resource exploitation, so long as it pays off for those involved (Cock 2010). Moreover, since resource exploitation often gets handled in the informal realm, it is hard to make sense of what has been negotiated and agreed upon, and it is even harder to know who is in a position or is interested to change this system. Even in cases where major protests have occurred, it is only small-scale resource problems that tend to get solved. This situation needs to change, with solutions being found for the most pressing natural resource issues, if the decline of Cambodia’s natural resource base is to be abated. Sustainable forms of resource extraction need to be given far greater consideration, to ensure that villagers will see greater benefits than they currently do and to work toward some form of ecosystem sustainability.

7This leads me to my third point: decentralized resource governance should not be the entry point to resource governance in Cambodia. Rather, a serious resource governance effort is needed at higher levels of the governance system. As Andersson and Ostrom (2008: 88) note, “[a] sophisticated governance system recognizes the multi-scale aspects of natural resource governance as well as the presence of countervailing incentives, and seeks to correct them.” There is a certain amount of artificiality in strongly promoting decentralization or co-management processes in a context like Cambodia, for this negates both how Khmer society functions and existing hierarchies (Hughes 2009; Gellman 2010). Shifting power relations and control toward subnational levels is not easy. This is not to take away from local governance mechanisms, since this case shows how part of the solution lies with local actors and those supporting them. Rather, it suggests that centralizing certain aspects of local resource governance may be more important in this type of context than what is currently promoted in many donor policies. For example, even with Cambodia’s recent policy reforms, people continue to manage the expectations and needs of their superiors (Hughes 2009). For these reasons, certain changes can only really begin with central technical agencies. Leadership is needed from these national agencies; only with such leadership will appropriate support be given to subnational levels within the system. Since there is respect for hierarchy and for informal networks, why not work with these norms to find solutions to the most pressing issues? As such, it may be that some contexts require centralized leadership, with elements of a top-down approach, if other forms of resource governance are to exist, potentially to flourish. This is an important point to consider.


19 Resource governance reforms are not working out as envisioned in Cambodia or and at a regional level. For example, decentralization processes in post-Suharto Indonesia have not halted deforestation practices and the Philippines struggles to manage its fishery in spite of excellent policies that support local governance (McCarthy 2006; Salayo et al. 2008). Cambodia’s experience, too, is far from ideal.

20 Specific resource management initiatives appear to have been driven by local government officials who were often responding to directives from higher authorities (Marschke 1999; Frings 1997). This may be linked to the relatively low population pressure found in Cambodia’s countryside, thereby avoiding a tragedy of the commons situation (à la Hardin) (Diepart 2010). This is not to suggest that people did not have a say in local resources, and certain forms of resource management do appear particularly around forest protection and charcoal production (cf. Marschke 1999; Evans et al. 2004). In terms of specific fisheries management activities, however, this appears limited to mangrove or flood forest protection rather than active no-take zones or gear restriction, from what I can tell.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2012

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