Ambivalence toward Formalizing Customary Resource Management Norms among Alaska Native Beluga Whale Hunters and Tohono O'odham Livestock Owners

Article excerpt

Indigenous communities are increasingly asked to develop formal resource management plans, which often require them to codify implicit, norm-based management systems. We compare the experiences of two indigenous groups that attempted to develop such management plans for beluga whales and arid rangelands, respectively. In both cases, progress was slow or plans did not meet design criteria such as clearly defined spatial and social boundaries. We found that the social and cultural costs of formal planning may outweigh the benefits for some indigenous communities. Community members favored education as a solution to current management challenges, an approach that resonates with traditional ways of perpetuating norms.

Key words: common pool resources, common property, co-management, community-based resource management, natural resource planning

The unwritten laws are written in our hearts.

-Alaska beluga hunter at the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee meeting, November 2003


Natural resource management planning has become a central activity in the management of state-owned and privately held resources, especially in the developed world. Increasingly, management plans are being called for to secure rights to and guide management of resources used or held by indigenous people in less developed regions. In the context of common pool resources (CPRs) used by indigenous communities, the development of resource management plans often involves formalizing customary resource use norms or "unwritten rules" by documenting them in a format recognizable to non-indigenous professionals and government resource management bureaucracies as a management plan, a local resource management code, or a local ordinance. The study of CPRs and common property management regimes has helped to advance understanding of indigenous and traditional resource management systems by recording and analyzing informal rule systems that govern resource use and management (Berkes and Folke 1998; Colding and Folke 2001), and by proposing "design principles" associated with successful management regimes for CPRs (Agrawal 2002; Baland and Platteau 1996; Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern 2003; Ostrom 1990). Concurrent with these advances, the past 20 years have witnessed a trend towards devolution of management to local communities through community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) institutions (Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Western, Wright, and Strum 1994) and comanagement by resource user groups and the state (Pinkerton 1989; Singleton 1998). Institutional design principles for CPRs, including clearly defined spatial and social boundaries, ease of monitoring, and graduated sanctions for enforcement (Agrawal 2002; Dietz, Ostrom, and Stem 2003), in turn have been used to guide the development and evaluate the success of emergent CBNRM and co-management institutions, often with an emphasis on formalizing property rights to protect collective rights of access and management (Bruce 1999; Swallow and Bromley 1995).

The institutional design approach has been extremely powerful in advancing understanding of CPR management regimes (Ostrom 1990; Ostrom et al. 1999), yet it has also failed in a number of instances to adequately account for success or failure, particularly in some indigenous communities using highly variable or mobile resources where social and spatial boundaries are inherently vague (Campbell et al. 2001; Fernandez-Gimenez 2002; Quinn et al. 2007). Some have criticized this approach for neglecting the social and cultural dimensions of common property, especially the ways that use and management of the commons are embedded in social relationships and in cultural systems of symbol and meaning (Cleaver 2000, 2002; McCay and Jentoft 1998; Peters 1987). Others have pointed out that the rule-based approach to analysis and design of common property institutions fails to grasp the nature of management regimes that are based on more loosely constituted, implicit, and dynamic norms of behavior, rather than explicit rules for resource use. …