Monday, November 14, 2011

What is Krista doing in Mali?

You are all probably wondering what it is I am doing in Mali, so I thought it would be good to try to describe my research and the some of the problems/questions I am interested in answering. I’m sorry if this seems a little dry; while I’m passionate about it, I realize it can get a little boring and technical. Anyway, my research is generally focused on natural resource management policy. The main natural resources in Mali that I will be looking at are the ones that are communally managed including forests, pasture areas and paths nomadic herders use to move their livestock, and water resources like fishing areas and wetlands. Most of the population in Mali still lives in rural areas and depends heavily these communal natural resources for their day-to-day survival, which makes their management increasingly important to Mali’s sustainable development.  However, with an increasing population and changing environment conditions due to desertification and climate change, the pressure on these natural resources has increased greatly. This has resulted in many cases in overuse, degradation, and an increase in conflicts between resource users.
Fish traps in Niger River

Prior to colonization, communal natural resources were largely managed by local, informal (traditional) organizations, which were responsible for establishing and enforcing communal rules for resource use (for example when to pick fruit, which animals not to hunt, where to harvest firewood, etc.). With colonization and then independence, many of these local, informal organizations were weakened, as the central government was responsible for the management of all of the natural resources. In Mali (as well as many other sub-Saharan African countries), while there are informal means of owning property, the government effectively owns all of the land and the natural resources.  However, the formal laws developed by the government were often not followed by the local people or were not really enforced because of a lack of capacity. This lead to a situation of open access, where in many cases there was no legitimate body in charge of managing the natural resources. In 1991, there was a popular revolution in Mali, which overthrew the central government and initiated a process of decentralization of the government (establishing smaller, semi-autonomous administrative units with elected officials). In theory, the decentralized management of natural resources should be more successful than centralized management, because when the local resource users are in charge of designing and enforcing their own rules (through local organizations or locally elected officials) the rules are more likely to be legitimate, and therefore more effective and less costly to enforce. Currently in Mali, the framework for decentralization is in place, but the local administrative units (communes) have not yet been transferred the power to manage natural resources, so they do not actually have the legal capability to formulate and enforce local (hopefully more legitimate) rules at this point. So, in the meantime, centrally managed bodies, like the forest service, are still in charge of enforcing the national laws. Meanwhile, many communities have maintained their informal, traditional (and sometimes now illegal) organizations to manage natural resources or formed entirely new ones because of the void of legitimate management. In summary, currently in Mali there are many different organizations (informal, traditional, decentralized government, centrally managed forest service, etc.) that all have a stake in the management of natural resources and all have different sources of legitimacy. A very complex situation, indeed!
Trees on banks of Niger River
This is where the idea of a “local convention” comes into play. It is essentially an agreement between the local resource users (represented by the village chief or other local organizations), the decentralized government structures, and the forest service (or equivalent technical service), which establishes a set of locally negotiated rules for sustainable natural resource use. In theory, a local convention harmonizes local rules with national laws through a process of negotiation, and thereby formally establishes local rules where they did not previously exist or were not formally recognized. In theory, the process of establishing the rules should be both democratic and representative of all groups that have a stake in the management of the natural resources. Therefore, it should result in the empowerment of the local communities and the successful management of natural resources. However, in practice this is not always the case. It appears that some local conventions are more legitimate in the eyes of the local people, and others are more legitimate in the eyes of the government. Often the local government and technical services are reluctant to sign the convention because they do not want to give up their power to the local communities. Furthermore, even if they do sign it, it is still not entirely clear if the local government administrators even have the legal capability to do so, because there is no law that formally recognizes local conventions (although there are several that point in that direction). On the other hand, sometimes a local convention is signed by the government, but it is not widely accepted at the village level.
Riding in a fishing boat on Niger River
For me, the question of legitimacy is central to the success of local conventions and to natural resource management in general. If the management body and the rules it makes are not seen as legitimate by the local people, they will not be followed. And, if they are not recognized by the government, there will be continual conflict and confusion over who has the authority to manage natural resources. My thought at this point is that for a local convention to be successful it must be legitimate both in the eyes of local resource users at the village level and in the eyes of the various government institutions at the regional and national levels, and I am interested in understanding more about what factors impact legitimacy at each of the scales. For example, what impact does having a strong traditional organization have on the legitimacy of the local convention at the village level? Or, does having a more representative and inclusive management body make the convention more legitimate? What impact does the signature of the government have on the legitimacy of the local convention? What impact does the process of elaboration have on legitimacy? These are just a few of my initial thoughts and questions, and I’m hoping to have a much better understanding after a few more months here and hopefully some trips into the field. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions, though!

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