Conference Report

Appeared in: Developing Areas Research Group (RGS-IBG) Newsletter Winter 1997.


Environmental Entitlements: the Institutional Dynamics of Environmental Change


A workshop convened by Melissa Leach, Robin Mearns, and Ian Scoones at IDS, Sussex University, UK, 17th March 1997


by Simon Batterbury

At both of the major meetings of professional geographers held in the USA and Britain in 1997, interest was running high in the work of researchers attempting to develop revisionist environmental histories which stress the "new ecology" of non-equilibriating ecological systems, and also those who search back in time for the origins of environment "myths", "orthodoxies", and local knowledge systems. The work of Robin Mearns*, Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones, who together form the "Environment Group" at the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, is important and noteworthy in this regard.

A meeting in Sussex in March 1997 presented their approach to human-environment relations, which they term "environmental entitlements" analysis. In a series of publications and case studies, the Group at IDS are challenging "community based sustainable development" initiatives. These have been widely applied in wildlife conservation and resource management but, the Group argue, make dangerous over-simplifications about ecological and social variability. The environmental entitlements project is showing that the most important institutions for resource management exist at multiple scales, are not confined to the community, and represent a wide range of interests. Conflict and differences cut across and through communities in three ways; local ecologies are variable and diverse, reflecting human impacts; "communities" themselves are dynamic and internally differentiated; and the historical unfolding of human-environment relations also gives rise to uncertain and unpredictable impacts. Although their main complaint is directed to development practitioners, Mearns believe earlier functionalist models, like cultural ecology, fail to do justice to these issues and this has led to simplistic academic work as well as shortsighted development policies.

To do a better job of understanding resource access, the team have borrowed and extended Amartya Sen's famous work on food entitlements. Environmental entitlements can be seen as people's 'legitimate command' over environmental goods and services - what people actually get in practice from the local resource base. But, also, we need to look at endowments - the range of rights and resources that people have in principle (labor, skills, etc). The team has developed a model which begins with 1) assessment of environmental goods and services (ie, resources), 2) mapping peoples' endowments and entitlements to these resources using participatory exercises and surveys, and 3) showing how these combinations of environment, endowment, and entitlement give rise to particular social capabilities. Lastly (4), endowments, and entitlements, are strongly influence by institutions at the macro, meso and micro level, and they are recursive relationships between 'capabilities' and the environments themselves - people transform the environment. While much of this will seem like common sense, they argue that it is the complex institutional arrangements about resource access and use that have been particularly overlooked by many previous researchers. A detailed environmental history approach, already well represented Leach's work with James Fairhead on West African forests, is proposed to illuminate and understand these processes.

Three case studies have been carried out on the "extended entitlements approach", led by local scholars. These are on forest resources in the forest savanna zone in Wenchi (mid-west Ghana) where many ethnic groups and in-migrants coexist, on watershed management by an NGO in the Aravalli hills, Rajasthan and the management of the Wild Coast nature reserve in South Africa. The studies showed how institutions control the endowment/entitlement mapping of particular social groups and people. Entitlements were shown to be 'negotiated' in all three cases, not just 'given', and they are changeable over time. 'Institutions' themselves can be anything from the customary rules controlling access to forests, through to rules and formal land tenure laws applied by the state and local government services (as in Ghana).

At this meeting, a heavyweight group of rapporteurs and participants debated the relative merits of the environmental entitlements approach, and its utility for understanding institutional dynamics for research and policy. There was some confusion over the terminology used in entitlements analysis, with Des Gasper and Ben Cousins feeling "endowments" encompass much more than "rights" over environmental resources. Are entitlements and endowments, for example, just a re-packaging of the more familiar terminology of access and use of natural resources? Some pointed out that they need to know what to do with this work - if development fails when it does not recognise differential entitlements, then would the role of outside agencies merely be to support the process of "negotiation" over entitlements? What "goals" should be set and adhered to, or was goal oriented planning inadvisable? Also in terms of policy, some felt that the whole point of community development is actually to "level the playing field" so that all actors have some stake in redesigning community resource management - 'recognizing difference' under the entitlements approach is not the same thing as fighting for inclusive participation, as Camilla Toulmin (IIED) pointed out. Some communities have already overcome social differences quite well and, while the focus of the day was on criticizing "community resource management", it does appear to have worked in some cases! The methodological implications of an extended entitlements approach were not well spelled out at this workshop, partly for lack of time. It was a shame that Robert Chambers, present at the meeting, did not talk about his decades of work on understanding and identifying diverse social groupings, welfare differences and resource access. The audience was generally supportive of the long historical view taken by the IDS group, and liked "environmental history" as a research tool for unpacking the way in which entitlements to resources have changed over time, but they seemed worried that "environmental entitlements" goes too far in debunking community based approaches where these have had a degree of success. Ruminating after the event, I also wondered if the whole area of 'symbolic communities' had received enough attention. In many cases in West Africa, one finds community organisations that have been wholly invented by farmers, specifically in order to work with outside donors who hold some promise of funding. While these organisations conceal conflict, differential entitlements and access rules amongst their members, they can be a powerful force in attracting development to a community on its own terms. We cannot dismiss these pragmatic organisations, since they may dramatically increase individual entitlements - if, say, they are successful in attracting a new maternity clinic or a well to the village.

In general this was a useful meeting - well organized and with a lot of comments from the participants, to which the IDS team were responsive. The Indian, Ghanaian and South African groups have done an excellent set of case studies, although not all of them were quite as strong on the theoretical aspects of the environmental entitlements approach. The focus on institutions of various types does seem to provide one avenue to overcome the "impasse" frequently noted in development studies (by David Booth) and environmental research in developing countries (by Ray Bryant). But because the terminology is borrowed from Sen and others, I think it is still simplifying what Dianne Rocheleau terms "overlapping" and sometimes contradictory rights to crops, trees, wildlife, or water. A book on Environmental Entitlements featuring the three case studies will soon be available and, in the meantime, readers can purchase the following papers and look at most of the text on a web site:


Leach, M, Mearns R, and I Scoones. Environmental Entitlements: A Framework for Understanding the Institutional Dynamics of Environmental Change. IDS Discussion Paper 359, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, 1997. Web version and site

Leach, M, Mearns, R and Scoones, I. 1997. Community Based Sustainable Development: consensus or conflict? Special Issue of the IDS Bulletin, 28(4) 1-95.

*Robin Mearns is currently at the World Bank.

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