Interview

“A Message of Hope”: Esther Mwangi reflects on her mentor & advisor, Elinor Ostrom

"Ostrom emphasized how humans can and do interact with the ecosystem to create and maintain long-term resource yields."
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Esther Mwangi (derecha) entrevista a un anciano Maasai en 2001, como parte de su tesis de doctorado sobre el efecto del cambio de los derechos de propiedad de las comunidades hacia los individuos entre las comunidades de pastoreo de Kenia. (Foto: Archivo personal de Esther Mwangi).
Esther Mwangi (derecha) entrevista a un anciano Maasai en 2001, como parte de su tesis de doctorado sobre el efecto del cambio de los derechos de propiedad de las comunidades hacia los individuos entre las comunidades de pastoreo de Kenia. (Foto: Archivo personal de Esther Mwangi).

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Earlier last week, Nobel Economics Laureate Elinor Ostrom passed away. Here at CIFOR Forests News, we gained a more personal look at her life and work through Esther Mwangi, who completed her PhD dissertation under Ostrom’s mentorship and today is a Senior Scientist with CIFOR’s Forests and Governance Program.

Mwangi started the interview talking about how she got to know Ostrom.

EM: It was serendipity that I got to know about Lin [Elinor]. At the time I was working for the Kenya Wildlife Service, and we were conducting forest elephant surveys and speaking with affected communities in order to solve conflicts between humans and elephants. But I felt that the background work and evidence gathered were mostly not taken on board. As an ecologist at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what was happening and felt I needed to better understand the world of policymaking and politics. I was developing my proposal for a PhD and I came across an interesting article, whose content brought together the ecological and human dimensions of forest use and management. I wrote a letter to the lead author of the article, who passed it on to Ostrom.

 Ostrom is known for her seminal work, Governing the Commons, which came out in 1990. The treatise presented a strong argument in favour of communities, rather than government agencies and private companies, managing their natural resources. Beyond this book though, what do you think were some of the larger messages from Ostrom’s life and work?

Lin made a persuasive case, using evidence to show that communities are capable of solving natural resource management problems. She brought communities into an equation that related mostly to governments and the private sector as “the solution” to resource degradation. Her focus on communities as a part of the solution and not necessarily always the problem would mean that communities could contribute as much as the government and private sectors.

Ostrom emphasised how humans can and do interact with the ecosystem to create and maintain long-term resource yields, these common pool resources include forests, fisheries, grazing lands and irrigation systems.

Just last week, you edited what might be one of Ostrom’s last publications — the “Polycentric governance of multifunctional forested landscapes”— in the International Journal of the Commons (ICJ) she co-wrote with Harini Nagendra. This is a neat continuation in the change of your relationship with Ostrom. Once her PhD advisee, now you are editing her. Can you highlight some of the main points of this article for us?

Ostrom’s article argued that the drivers of forest change happened at multiple scales, and how despite this, most governance mechanisms were designed at a single level. Ostrom conveyed two messages:

The first message is that there are no silver bullets to the challenge of sustainability or to the challenge of sustainable management of resources. This is because the kinds of issues and the background or context in which we are embedded are actually diverse across the globe. The nature of forests, as well as the socio-economic histories of people living near them may vary, therefore the changes taking place there may also vary.

There have been many solutions proposed, but two have really stood out: Promoting governmental ownership of forests and government management or at the other extreme, promoting private ownership and control over resources. In between is community ownership and control, which is manifested in the decentralisation programs we have seen over the past decade. Each of these programs has seen success and failure. This means that none of them alone are a solution.

The second message speaks of the complexity of the ecological systems and to the complexity of interactions between ecological and human systems. Today this is reflected in many of the things that we at CIFOR are concerned about: The impacts of globalised trade and investments on people and forests, and the different forest restoration schemes that many governments are pursuing. I think the message here is that there is a multi-scale dimension to natural resource management and it is critical that we act, understand and recognise it.

Do you think the two messages from this—one of her final papers—speaks to the dialogue that international groups are engaged in at the Rio+20 event this week?

Yes, definitely. The article says that it is critical that we foster interactions among many different actors, from governments and local communities to civil society because all these actors have a stake in resources.

The world is increasingly becoming more linked. Villages in Africa are linked to policies that their own government is making and policies made by powerful organisations far from these villages. These policies have consequences for people and their forests, for example, on whether the community continues to have access to and rights to forests. Given these inter-linkages, it makes sense to think through what kinds of multilevel arrangements would provide incentives that would support the sustainable management of forests.

Elinor Ostrom was a great believer in our collective capacity to solve problems. I think that her message is one of hope. It is a message that is trying to harness the different capabilities that exist to help us learn and to be flexible in our decision making.

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  • Dear Dr Mwangi,

    This is great piece of reflections. Kindly share with me your email contact address. I am currently based a regional organization called ASARECA as the Programme Manager for Natural Resources and Biodiversity

    Hezron Mogaka, Ph.D