Transforming Traditional Institutions for Sustainable Natural Resource Management: History, Narratives and Evidence from Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas

by Dale Dore


A major question that has emerged from the research and discourse on community-based natural resource management in southern Africa is whether traditional rules comply with generally accepted principles of common property management. In other words: do traditional institutions offer a solution for the sustainable management of natural resources held in common? This paper traces the emergence of traditional institutions from the pre-colonial times to the present, and draws a comparison with one fundamental principle of common property management: exclusivity of resource use. Evidence from Zimbabwe shows that traditional rules governing natural resources contradict this principle. The study suggests that the gap between traditional institutions and design principles for sustainable common property resource management can be bridged by making small continuous institutional changes over an extended period of time. It also recommends that longitudinal studies – based on historical precedent rather than contemporary narratives – and cross-sectional studies are required for informed policy decision-making in order to transform traditional institutions.

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Dale Dore is a researcher and director of Shanduko, the Centre for Agrarian and Environmental Research. For the past few years he has been the advisor to the Research Committee for the Natural Resource Management Programme’s research into community-based natural resource management in the southern African region. His main interests centre on resource economics, institutional change and governance issues.