Local institutions in common property resources: a case study of community-based watershed management in Northern Thailand




Wittayapak, Chusak

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The influence of the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin, 1968) polarizes policy on common property resources into bimodal prescriptions--the state on the one hand and the market on the other. This study of community-based watershed management (CBWM) in Northern Thailand examines local institutions as an alternative to solve free rider problems in the commons. Four different communities--Ban Luang, Silalaeng, Thung Khao Hang, and Ban Pae--were selected for study. Field data was collected by participant observation, interview, and household survey. It was found that community-based watershed management originated from the need for water of the lowland rice farmers. This dependence on watersheds for a sustainable livelihood brought the peasants together to form CBWM institutions to regulate joint use, sustain yields, and exclude non-members. The emergence and continued strength of a CBWM system is closely associated with variables such as a small watershed, a small number of clearly-defined users, clearly-demarcated watershed boundaries, close proximity of the watershed to the village, moderately scarce watershed resources, and charismatic leaders. The definite geographical and social units of village community, dyadic relationships, and traditional reciprocities, when reinforced by norms, beliefs, and operational rules, are the foundation for cooperation and compliance with the rules by the majority of resource users. The villagers were highly satisfied with the efficiency and equity in resource use under the common property regime, as they evaluate the outcomes in terms of sustainable livelihood security rather than for short-term benefit. Minimal conflicts between de facto rights defined by local institutions and de jure rights defined by laws are also critical to institutional stability and help secure government recognition in CBWM. The incorporation of local communities into the larger political economic system and the penetration of the market economy into the rural areas have changed traditional reciprocities based on dyadic relationships. Thus, community-based watershed management systems have evolved through the development of collectively-organized rules to govern the use of scarce watershed resources. Over time, the operational rules of CBWM have become formal institutions as the village community is transformed into a territorial organization, eventually integrated into the mainstream society. This study demonstrates that there is an alternative to solve problems of the commons beyond the state and the market. Local institutional arrangements have been successful in managing several watersheds as the commons in Northern Thailand. It is suggested that co-management in the watersheds between the state and local communities is feasible in Northern Thailand. One potential strategy is to legalize CBWM institutions and empower the local communities to be able to manage their local watersheds effectively.



Watersheds, Thailand, Northern, Watershed management