The Importance of Local Traditional Institutions in the Management of Natural Resources in the Highlands of East Africa

Article excerpt

Traditional local institutions were studied in the highlands of Ethiopia and Tanzania to understand their role in natural resource management. Focus group discussions as well as individual interviews were conducted to identify the existing local institutions and their roles. Historical trend analyses were done to determine how the importance of local institutions has changed over the years. Results show that several local institutions with diverse objectives and varying levels of importance exist in the study sites. The article suggests ways in which local institutions can contribute to effective natural resource management for sustainable social and economic development of highland communities in eastern Africa.

Key words: natural resource governance, informal institutions, technologies uptake


For sustainable development, institutions, especially at local levels, are important for mobilizing resources and regulating their use with a view to maintaining a long-term base for productive activity (Uphoff 1 992). In terms of natural resources management, William (1995) adds that sustainable use is conditioned by the strength of local institutions to involve the user of that resource in its rational management. Rural communities operate within well-organized institutions that structure their activities and interactions with the environment in their quest to derive a living out of available resources. These include households, kin groups, hamlets, and villages (Singh 1994). Such structures provide the frameworks through which diverse community aspirations are fulfilled. They are highly path dependent (Olate 2003), dynamic, and develop with society according to the needs of its members. Local institutions may last for a long time, accomplish their objectives, fade out, or transform to capitalize on emerging opportunities.

Local institutions differ according to their functions and objectives. According to Donnely-Roark, Ouedraogo, and Ye (2001), they encompass many different types of indigenous organizations and functions such as village level governance, acceptable methods of mobilizing community resources, security arrangements, conflict resolution, asset management, and lineage organization. In Mozambique, traditional leaders such as headmen, lineage elders, and spiritual leaders were found to be important actors with responsibilities such as land allocation, conflict resolution, and mediation with spirits (Blom 2000; Serra 2001; Virtanen 2000), the latter being important where norms have been violated. Elsewhere, in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, Hilhorst (2008) noted that informal local governance practices continue to play an important role in natural resources management including defining access and management of natural resources and in sanctioning trespassers. Ultimately, institutions encourage people to take a longer-term view by creating common expectations and a basis for cooperation that goes beyond individual interests, and to the extent institutions are regarded as legitimate, people comply without (or with fewer) inducements and sanctions (Uphoff 1992).

Yet, it is also recognized that local institutions have their own weaknesses when it comes to sustainable practices that favor sustainability. It is critical, then, to examine their roles, their issues, and challenges, as well as their potential to accomplish the objectives of natural resource management. This article summarizes findings of a study on "informal" local institutions in three benchmark sites of the African Highlands Initiative (AHI) in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The study's objectives were to identify local institutions, as well as identify opportunities with which to build environmentally sustainable, economically viable, and socially acceptable natural resource management interventions. The study hypothesized that local institutions are important in mobilizing rural communities towards improved management of natural resources. …