Since the 1980s, there has been an increase in the integration of communities and civil society in terms of environmental planning and management of natural resources throughout the world. These experiences are usually called community, participatory or shared (co-management) management of resources. In co-management, the authority over and responsibility for the management of natural resources is shared between the government and local communities. Pomeroy identified three levels of degrees of co-management, from less to greater community participation. Consultative, the most common form, implies that communities are consulted before decisions are made. Collaborative implies an association (partnership) for collaboration between the government and local participants. Delegation includes community management and implies nearly total control of the decision-making process by the community. Few cases in the Caribbean rise to this level, although the model is common in other parts of the world, such as community management of forests in Mexico.

Interest in community participation arose after decades in which it was thought that the only viable alternatives for managing natural resources were total state or government control (such as, for example, through protected marine or forest natural areas) or privatization. Various influences have changed that perspective. On one hand, more evidence has been amassed showing cases of communities that manage common natural resources in a sustainable form, with social and economic benefits. Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, was a pioneer in this field. There is also more evidence of the negative impacts of privatization and nationalization of natural resources both on ecological sustainability and in social and economic terms.

Community management and co-management experiences in the Caribbean

The Caribbean region has a wide range of natural and cultural resources of global importance. Unfortunately, the dominant discourse about regional development, focused on export agriculture, industry, tourism, etc., ignores natural resources and the local users of them, as it is assumed that they have a minimal contribution to the islands’ development. However, the failures of protected natural areas to achieve their conservation goals, the negative impacts that those areas have had on local residents, and the conflicts that they have generated or exacerbated — such as the case of the nature reserve Los Haitises in the Dominican Republic — have led to the adoption of more participatory models for managing natural resources in various settings. These experiences have been supported by regional and international organizations such as the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI,, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

Marine and coastal resources

One important example of a community organization involved in marine and coastal resources is Nature Seekers in MaturaTrinidad. This organization arose in the 1990s through a government initiative to involve the community in protecting sea turtles in the area, which were then hunted for food. Since then, the organization has successfully stopped the hunting of turtles and has also developed research activities, community beach and forest tourism businesses, reforestation activities and a plan for an organic agricultural forest project.

Another notable example is the Soufriere Marine Management Area on St. Lucia. There was a lot of competition and conflict related to coastal resources among fishermen, hotel owners and aquatic sport businesses. Additionally, fishing had begun to decline due to lack of resource management. An 18-month consultation process that involved representation of these groups led to an agreement that essentially established a zoning system for various uses and set the foundation for creating the Marine Management Area. After including other sectors that had been excluded from the original process, the management area has been a success. Recently, an Ethics Committee was created.

Other well documented cases are the protected areas of Belize’s coral reefs (the Caye National Park and Gladden Spit reserve) co-managed by the NGO Friends of Nature, the Fishing Advisory Committee in Barbados, the Rosario and San Bernardo Natural Coral Park in Colombia, the coastal zone of the Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic, the Sabana-Camagüey archipelago in Cuba, the Folkestone Marine Reserve in Barbados, the Negril Environmental Protection Area in Jamaica, and the lobster fishery in the town of Sauteurs in Grenada. Some of these projects have evolved from community enterprises that not only protect resources, but also generate jobs and income and promote environmental education.


An outstanding example of co-management of forests is the Cabeza de Toro community in the dry tropical forest of the Dominican Republic. For many years, community residents depended on the dry forest for wood, charcoal and other products that supplemented their income from agriculture. In 1975, the government declared the area a protected zone and disallowed charcoal production that was causing deforestation by people from outside the area. With the help of a regional planning institute and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ, for its acronym in German), the community established a Committee to Protect the Dry Forest and a group of volunteers to educate the community, woodcutters and charcoal producers. They reached an agreement with the government through which the committee was responsible for selecting monitors, controlling woodcutting, and managing transportation services for products from the forest. The government paid the monitors. This experience led to the formation of 31 similar organizations in other communities in the region which are today united in the Federation of Dry Forest Producers.

A notable case in Puerto Rico is that of Casa Pueblo, which is internationally recognized as a successful example of community management of forests. The organization began in the 1980s as a movement against a proposed open-pit mine in the island’s central mountains. With the success of that movement, the organization changed its focus to promoting community organization and self-sufficiency and the protection of the region’s natural and ecological resources. Today, the organization works to promote local culture, environmental education, science and research, and community businesses. At the same time, Casa Pueblo has successfully influenced forest policy and helped create the Mountain Biological Corridor. The organization has an agreement to co-manage part of the Corridor.

Other documented experiences include nature tourism projects in Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, participation in setting public policies in the case of Dominica, restoration or protection projects for rivers and watersheds such as Water for Life in Grenada, the Enfield/Fort Stewart plant nursery in Jamaica, the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project (FACRP) in St. Lucia, the Talvern Riverbank Rehabilitation Project in St. Lucia, local participation in the management of national parks and reserves in Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba, and the management of mangroves and forest fire prevention and remediation in St. Lucia.

These experiences have generated important benefits. In environmental terms, some of these efforts have been able to control excessive exploitation of resources. In economic terms, they have improved sustainability for people who rely on these resources and in some cases have generated employment.

Conclusion: the success of community management of natural resources

While the evidence shows that community management of natural resources is a viable alternative, it cannot be seen as a panacea for solving all resource management problems. Success of this approach is not automatic and it depends on many internal and external community factors.

Previous analyses in the Caribbean have concluded that successful projects require public policies that support co-management but do not encourage dependency. Other essential factors include the inclusion of all interested parties and respect for their objectives, well defined membership and clearly defined rights and responsibilities, collective recognition of the existence of the problem (excessive exploitation of resources), clear objectives for managing the resources, clear and proportional benefits to all parties for their contributions, clear management rules, mechanisms for conflict resolution and dialogue, committed and sustained leadership, and the participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as agents of change.

At the same time, other factors limit the development of co-management, such as a lack of resources, negative attitudes toward co-management, policies that tend to maintain centralization of government power, a lack of capabilities in the community, and the community’s economic dependence on the government. To overcome these barriers, it will be necessary to mobilize civil society, search for economic and organizational support beyond the government sphere, and disseminate examples of co-management efforts that show the positive impacts of this model.

Author: Gustavo García Lápez
Published: March 20, 2012.

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