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Participatory Natural Resource Governance

7.5 ECTS Copenhagen Year 2 Semester 3 Compulsory Integrative/inter/transdisciplinary NIFK16006U


The challenge of governing renewable natural resources

Despite official policies of sustainable utilisation and conservation of renewable natural resources these often end up degraded or destroyed. This happens across the world but not least in developing countries where central government departments frequently fail to prevent deforestation, forest degradation, extinction or depletion of fish and wildlife, and degradation of pasture land or fail to secure enough water for agricultural irrigation. These natural resources are often commons before they are ‘harvested’ after which they become private property.  Another shared feature is that while these resources hold a specific market and/or subsistence value to people who ‘harvest’ them, they also represent wider values to society at large. Forests are, for example, habitats for a multitude of life forms and store vast amounts of carbon.

Accordingly, individuals, whose livelihoods depend on utilising common natural resources, often share an overall interest with the rest of society in sustaining these resources. Frequently, however, the combined effect of individual uses results in resource degradation. Such ‘tragedies of the commons’ have led policy analysts to conclude that privatisation or nationalisation is the only way to achieve resource conservation. However, privatising the commons is often politically impossible or dangerous because it would exclude groups who feel that their interests are as legitimate or even more legitimate as those of others.  Furthermore, a number of resources are, for biophysical reasons, inherently difficult to privatise in a meaningful way. This includes stocks of wildlife and wild fish as well as large pastures where erratic and localised rainfall makes the grazing value of a given parcel entirely unpredictable. Direct management by the state has also shown its weaknesses, perhaps most profoundly in forestry in developing countries where the reality of forest degradation and deforestation is glaringly at odds with official policies of sustainable utilisation and forest conservation for the benefit of current and future generations. Hence, the challenge is to design natural resource governance systems that simultaneously and in practice, not only in theory, cater for the economic interests of resource utilising individuals as well as the wider ecological and economic interests of society. Here, participatory governance of natural resources appears a promising option.

The focus of this course

Governing the commons includes a myriad of scales and resources ranging from greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere to irrigation of subsistence agriculture in a remote mountain village. This course focusses on the governance of renewable natural resources in developing countries and how participatory policies and approaches may promote rural development and resource conservation in an equitable manner. Central themes are:

1.       The theoretical foundation of participatory resource governance vis á vis the tragedy of the (unmanaged) commons as developed in particular by Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize laureate in economics in 2009.

2.       Identification of legitimate stakeholders:

  • Which stakeholders should become right-holders to specific resources and why?

3.       Institutional arrangements, policy, and legislation:

  • Which kinds of policy and legislative frameworks are needed to make sustainable participatory resource governance worthwhile at the local level?

4.       Institutional choice and different models of decentralising natural resource governance:

  • What kind of local-level institutions are most likely to genuinely represent the interests of all local-level stakeholders, how and to whom should such institutions be accountable?

5.       Science and power in participatory natural resource governance:

  • Must decentralised natural resource governors master the techniques of scientific resource management to prevent resource degradation?
  • What should be the role of government-employed technical experts in relation to decentralised natural resource governance?
  • Are technical arguments used to re-centralise otherwise decentralised resource governance? If so, how, and is that good or bad?

6.       Outcomes of participatory natural resource governance:

  • What evidence is available and how to judge whether participatory natural resource governance has delivered on its ‘promise’ of resource conservation and equitable improvement of rural livelihoods?

Throughout the course, different cases will be used to illustrate theory and to evaluate practical outcomes of participatory natural resource governance.

Relation to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The course relates to several of the UN SDGs:

SDG1. No Poverty: Rural development is a key criterion for ‘successful’ common pool resource governance in low-income countries.

SDG2. Zero Hunger: Sustainable governance of renewable natural resources in low-income countries sustain streams of products that local people can either consume directly (fish, mushrooms) or sell (timber, charcoal) and use the income to buy food.

SDG7. Affordable and Clean Energy: Fuelwood is the most prevalent source of energy in rural and poor sections of urban areas in low-income countries. Fuelwood from sustainably managed forests qualifies as a CO2 neutral energy source.

SDG8. Decent Work and Economic Growth: A sustained harvest and further processing of products from natural resources under decentralised governance offer employment and economic development in rural areas of low-income countries.

SDG10. Reduced Inequalities: Economic growth based on sustainable natural resource governance in rural areas can reduce the skewed rural-urban income distribution in low-income countries.

SDG13. Climate Action: Deforestation and forest degradation in low-income countries directly account for nearly 20% of human-made annual greenhouse gas emissions. Participatory forest resource governance is a prominent approach to promote forest conservation.

SDG15. Life on Land: The concept of participatory forest resource governance explicitly aims to conserve otherwise threatened or degrading forest resources in low-income countries.

SDG16. Peace and Justice Strong Institutions: Participatory natural resource governance is defined by the existence of robust (long-lasting) institutions. To promote biophysically sustainable resource use as well as equitable economic development such institutions must be responsive and accountable to the people who are affected by the rules of resource-use.

Recommended Academic Qualifications

The course draws on basic elements of economic theory, political ecology, and management of renewable natural resources all or part of which are introduced in a wide range of undergraduate programmes. The courses; LOJK10209 Applied Socio-economics in Tropical Forestry, LFKK10258 Qualitative Methods in Agricultural Development, and NIFK15004U Political Ecology offer useful but not critical additional background knowledge.

Academic qualifications equivalent to a BSc degree is recommended.

Learning outcomes

The main objective of the course is to give the students a thorough understanding of how and under which circumstances participatory natural resource governance may contribute to rural development, resource and nature conservation as well as good governance at the local level.

After completing the course the student should be able to:

• Describe the concept of participatory natural resource governance including the history, the theoretical foundation within common pool resource management, the importance of political, legal and institutional frameworks as well as how the concept may be applied in practice.

• Describe the potentials of participatory natural resource governance in serving the dual-objective of equitable rural development and resource/nature conservation

• Critically analyse and discuss the real-life feasibility of achieving the dual-objective of participatory natural resource governance including how and under which circumstances these objectives may conflict in practice.

• Apply the theoretical framework on literature cases and in ‘real life’ situations.

• Put the opportunities and constraints of participatory natural resource governance into a broader development perspective.

• Cooperate with fellow students on analysing and communicating (in writing) participatory natural resource governance cases from different developing countries.

Teaching and learning methods

The teaching mode is blended learning, i.e. a mix of classroom sessions, internet-based modules, and face-to-face group work that integrate literature studies, exercises, and presentations. Exercises relate to theory (multiple-choice and free text exercises) and case studies (free text only).

1. E-learning (e-modules): Internet-based teaching modules integrating literature studies and exercises. Exercises relate to theory (multiple-choice and free text exercises) and case studies (free text only). E-learning will be supported by online discussions in which students are expected to participate.

2. Classroom sessions with group work, presentations, and discussions of selected topics and cases.


  • Preparation                120 hours
  • Exercises                     65 hours
  • Guidance                     5 hours
  • Exam                            16
  • Total                             206 hours


All course texts will be available online through the course homepage in Absalon.

Type of assessment

  • Individual
  • Written assignment
  • Continuous assessment
    The examination form is a combination of continuous assessment and an essay. It includes the following elements:
    1. Individual exercises (questionnaires and e-tivities), which will be completed each week throughout the course.
    2. One tutor-marked written assignment at the end of the course.The final mark is based on a weighted average in which the exercises mentioned under point 1 count 30% while the tutor-marked assignment counts 70%.


  • Location : Copenhagen
  • ECTS granting : University of Copenhagen
  • Organisation : University of Copenhagen


Thorsten Treue

Pr Thorsten Treue

  • Full professor (PhD)
  • University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen Denmark