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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)

Variable relationship:

This theory describes a particular way of managing natural resources, as carried out by communities of natural resource users themselves. It contains variables that are generally seen to characterize this type of management, rather than listing the conditioning factors that enable such communities to successfuly manage resources, which have been the subject of several research projects (e.g. see Ostrom 1990 and the "design principles" theory).

Agrawal and Gibson (1999) summarize the argument for CBNRM in the following way:

"In light of the significant symbolic, theoretical, and intellectual resources available to advocates of community, it is somewhat surprising that claims on behalf of community-based conservation often retain a rather simple quality. One such form such claims assume is that 'communities' have a long-term need for the renewable resources near which they live, and they possess more knowledge about these resources than other potential actors. They are, therefore, the best managers of resources."

Agrawal and Gibson (1999) discuss several aspects of the theory of CBNRM, or those supposed features of communities that should make them effective and sustainable managers of natural resources. These are summarized here.

The essential elements of CBNRM are that local communities are fairly decentralized in their decision making structure, (Centralization), consist of comparatively small and homogenous groups (Actor Group Size; Interest Heterogeneity; Cultural Heterogeneity) living close to the commons on which they depend (Commons User Proximity; Economic Dependence). Small group size and joint proximity to the commons are seen to enable personal communications and lower the costs of decision making (Personal Communication; Transaction Costs).

With the help of these attributes, along with the use of local/traditional knowledge (Governance Knowledge Use) and a mix of common and private property (Property Regime) to manage resources in a way that ensures a fit between rules and social-ecological contexts (Social-ecological Fit), collective action is maintained (Collective Action), and sustainable outcomes for the commons are achieved (Commons Condition Trend).

It is important to distinguish CBNRM from a particular property regime. As noted in the variable list, communities generally use a mix of both common property and private property (Property Regime) for different aspects of a commons with which they engage. This distinguishes the CBNRM theory from the theory of Private Property Rights, which strictly advocates for private property. As Netting (1976: 140) states, in describing historic institutional patterns among farming communities in the Swiss Alps:

"Historical evidence is entirely consistent with the assertation that both individual and communal rights in resources have been present for at least 500 years, and that they have regularly associated private control with meadows, grain fields, gardens, vineyards, and buildings, and community tenure with the alp, the forests, certain wastes lands, and access routes."

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Natural Resource Unit, Natural Resource System


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
User-commons proximityUnderlying independent variableAn essential feature of communities managing natural resources is that they reside within or near the commons that they manage.Yes
Governance knowledge useUnderlying independent variableCBNRM makes extensive use of local knowledge, and this is seen as a primary way in which the institutions of a community are made to fit local social and ecological characteristics.Local/traditional knowledge
CentralizationUnderlying independent variableCommunity-based management is comparatively decentralized.Somewhat decentralized
Property regimeUnderlying independent variableCommunities almost universally use both common and private property arrangements to manage different aspects of a commons.Common and Private
Economic dependenceUnderlying independent variableCommunities are generally assumed to depend on the commons they use, which incentivizes them to steward this commons.Moderately to Very dependent
Actor group sizeUnderlying independent variableLow group size of communities lowers transaction costs and facilitates collective action.Small
Cultural heterogeneityUnderlying independent variableCultural heterogeneity is assumed to be low within communities, which contributes to group cohesion.Low
Interest heterogeneityUnderlying independent variableCommunities are assumed to share common interests with respect to their management and use of the commons.Low
Personal communicationProximate independent variableSmall group size and shared geographic proximity to the commons are assumed to enable extensive personal communication.Frequent (e.g. More than once a year)
Commons feedback visibility useProximate independent variableDue to their proximity to the ecological context of the commons being managed, communities are presumed to have better access to commons feedback on their use and management.High
Actor group trustIntermediate outcomeIn person communication increases trust among resource users.High
Social-ecological fitIntermediate outcomeDue to their proximity to the ecological context of the commons being managed and access to commons feedback use, communities are presumed to be better able to adapt their institutions to these contexts.High
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeHigh levels of cooperation and social-ecological fit ensure that the commons used by communities is maintained.Remained the same or improved.

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Decentralization and local capacitycontradictory
Political decentralization and fitrelated
Failure of centralized controlrelated
Decentralization and elite capturecontradictory
Centralization and corruptionrelated
Parametric managementrelated
Critique of fortress conservationrelated
Cultural heterogeneity and collective actioncontains
Communication and collective actioncontains
Roving banditryrelated
The tragedy of the open-access commonsrelated
Group size and collective actioncontains
Technical solutions and shifting the burdenrelated
Interest heterogeneity and collective actioncontains
Decentralization and leakagecontradictory
Natural resource dependencecontains
Social-ecological fit theorycontains

Related Studies


Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Netting, R.M., 1996. What Alpine peasants have in common: Observations on communal tenure in a Swiss village. Springer.


Berkes, Fikret. 1977. "Fishery Resource Use in a Subarctic Indian Community." Human Ecology, 5(4), 289-307.


Agrawal, Arun and Clark C. Gibson. 1999. "Enchantment and Disenchantment: The Role of Community in Natural Resource Conservation." World Development, 27(4), 629-49.