Strengthening Democracy Through Participatory Natural Resource Management: Three Opportunities and One Challenge


In the late 1980s, the Bugis and To Lindu communities of Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, faced a resource crisis. During the preceding decades, the migration of Bugis fishers into the area and their use of fine-mesh nets and other illegal fishing practices had all but wiped out tilapia stocks in Lake Lindu. Another community, the Indigenous To Lindu rice farmers, relied on the lake fish to feed their communities. The Bugis fishers resisted efforts to change their practices, and the To Lindu expressed resentment toward the Bugis migrants. Conflict seemed imminent.

Fast forward roughly 10 years. The lake is stocked with fish, providing a sustainable food source for the Bugis and To Lindu communities. Both communities are participating in local management councils, providing a space for the needs of each community to be represented in decision-making. Bugis fishers are using sustainable fishing methods, following the regulations agreed to by the councils. 

How did the Bugis and To Lindu communities resolve their disputes and avert this resource crisis? 

The case of Lake Lindu illustrates the potential for participatory natural resource management, or PNRM, to achieve positive outcomes for natural resources and democratic systems.

The promise of PNRM

The USAID Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance states that programs should “prioritize participation and inclusion to empower reformers and citizens from the bottom up so they can have a greater say in how they are governed and have a stake in the process.”

PNRM is a form of collective action that brings natural resource users and communities together, interacting with local governments to make coordinated decisions about resource rights, responsibilities, and stewardship of natural resources. PNRM can provide better outcomes for natural resources and people by working to reflect the needs and values of local resource users in rules and regulations. Including people in the management of resources thus results in stronger support for those rules and better compliance. 

But like most tools and approaches in sustainable development, sometimes it works well, and other times it falls short. What are the conditions and actions that make PNRM work?

USAID’s Integrated Natural Resource Management activity (INRM) recently published several resources that provide insights into this question. Here are a few opportunities and one challenge identified by this research.

Bridging differences between formal and traditional governance

One of the main governance challenges in countries with large rural populations is integrating Indigenous and traditional systems of natural resource governance with formal government institutions. PNRM provides mechanisms for communication, dialogue, and learning that help negotiate power distribution across governance levels. And it can help to bridge differences in cultural outlooks and values.

In the case of the Bugis and To Lindu communities in Sulawesi, the Indonesian government worked with NGOs and the local communities to find a solution. The government designated a broad area around Lake Lindu as a national park. Lindu communities worked with NGOs to create Community Conservation Agreements led by local customary councils called adat. The government passed regional legislation that gave adat sanctions more power, making it easier to restrict harmful fishing practices. 

Lake Lindu was restocked with tilapia in 2001. Communities then repurposed a traditional Lindu practice of restricting fish catches during times of mourning, converting it to a more general rule to sustainably manage fish stocks. Bugis fishers agreed to the periodic restrictions on fishing issued by the council. When Lindu was designated a conservation district, Bugis migrants received official recognition as potential local council members. These actions effectively bridged the gaps between local and national governance while including both communities in the governance processes.

Using social capital for collective action

PNRM produces structural changes in power that increase the negotiating power of local communities and the capacity for collective action. When communities can form political alliances to support their interests, they exercise greater voice, advocacy, and agency. They become more capable of making things happen to benefit their communities.

In the state of Acre, Brazil, multistakeholder forums were created in the early 2000s to engage Indigenous and traditional peoples’ communities (ITPC) in a territorial planning process called Ecological Economic Zoning. This process determines the rights and restrictions for forests, protected areas, and extractive reserves. Over the previous two decades, Indigenous groups in Acre had faced increasing encroachment from surrounding farms, contributing to the loss of 40 percent of forested lands. 

During those years, local ITPC groups established relationships with environmental NGOs and took advantage of the ascendance of the Workers Party. ITPC groups developed group solidarity around a sustainable forest management approach called florestania. They gained government recognition and support in their resistance to deforestation. In the state-sponsored forums on zoning, which included government and private sector representatives, ITPC representatives used their accumulated political capital to exercise “great influence” in establishing the state’s territorial planning goals. 

Contributing to conflict management

When PNRM is based on transparency and accountability, community members are more likely to trust the system, allowing it to serve as a platform for dispute resolution and conflict management. PNRM offers methods for participation, dialogue, information-sharing, and problem-solving. These methods increase the likelihood of resource users engaging on resource management issues. In weak democracies, PNRM provides one of the few platforms with the potential to consider diverse perspectives within different communities and grievances about the implementation of policies. 

For example, in Ghana, wildlife management actions at Mole National Park produced conflict due to the enclosure of traditional hunting grounds, farmlands, and sacred sites. These actions led to a loss of livelihoods and increasing resentment against park authorities. 

A local NGO worked with community wildlife co-management groups to address the conflicts. The NGO conducted focus group discussions in 10 communities surrounding the park to determine the role of co-management in resolving disputes. Community members judged strategies that used co-management to be successful, as these approaches facilitated “open and transparent dialogue” and other benefits. Communities that were not within the co-management system continued to express hostility toward park officials. 

The role of local NGOs

In each of the preceding examples of PNRM with positive outcomes, local NGOs played an important role as a bridge between governments and local communities. Without them, these outcomes may not have been possible. A well-chosen local NGO can be a catalyst to empower PNRM and make it more effective.

Gender inequality and marginalization

Thus far, the examples above describe situations where PNRM worked favorably for communities and the resources they depend on. However, despite the participatory design and intended effects of PNRM, interventions can often reflect local power asymmetries in ways that limit their democratic aspirations. Gender inequality is the most persistent example. In many communities, women are part of executive committees “in name,” but their actual participation is limited. They remain constrained by structural issues related to gendered norms, such as limited educational opportunities, lack of tenure rights, or increased responsibility for caregiving.

For example, bordered by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, Lake Victoria has been the site of extensive efforts to establish fisheries co-management through local Beach Management Units. Most fishers around the lake are men; women generally work as processors and traders. National guidelines in each country require that at least three of the 9-15 members of Beach Management Unit executive committees are women. The nominal representation of women on the executive committees is accepted and appreciated in most communities. For example, communities regard women as more honest, less prone to corruption, and better able to connect with social counterparts through their trading networks.

However, gendered norms and practical constraints limit women’s power and influence on Beach Management Unit executive committees. Women have fewer material assets than men, domestic and childcare duties place time constraints on their participation, social and sexual taboos stipulate they should not be near fishing boats, and some men presume that women’s lack of capital makes them susceptible to involvement in illegal fishing. Male boat owners effectively control decision-making in the Beach Management Units, and women are often reluctant to express their opinions. Mandated quotas for women represent an incremental improvement, but local gender norms and male domination largely take precedence over the participatory design of Lake Victoria’s co-management institutions.


A review of the evidence finds diverse and consequential links between PNRM and democratic outcomes. Integrating PNRM approaches into program design can also result in more equitable outcomes by providing a better understanding of local institutions and cultural dynamics. It can contribute to locally-led development, as in the case of the local NGOs that facilitate connections between communities and governments. And when done well, it can play a role in achieving USAID’s goals for inclusive development, taking into account the distinct needs and priorities of those affected by programs, including women, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQI+ people, and other marginalized groups.

Learn more about the outcomes, actions, and conditions that support or hinder PNRM in these three resources from INRM: