By Amy Kessler, Team El Salvador
Each January, a group of graduate students from the Monterey Institute of International Studies travels to El Salvador with EcoViva. This group, called Team El Salvador, works with our partners to conduct research on local initiatives and is an example of the important role that technical assistance plays in our partnership. Amy Kessler was a member of Team El Salvador 2013 &2014. In addition, she spent the summer of 2013 in the Lower Lempa to continue her work. Amy is a 2014 candidate for a Master of International Environmental Policy and Business Administration.
As a student of environmental policy, I was familiar with the works of Elinor Ostrom** and the discourse surrounding environmental-governance before I began working with the communities in the Lower Lempa [region of El Salvador] in January of 2013. I recall first learning that Ostrom’s works provided the ideological foundation of the Local Plan for Sustainable Use (PLAS): while hearing this excited my academic side, my realistic (or perhaps cynical) side questioned whether that translated to anything tangible on the community-level implementation of the PLAS.
The Local Plan for Sustainable Use (PLAS) of the mangrove resources is currently in the fourth year of its five-year legal application. Based on the communal governance principles of Elinor Ostrom, the support for the PLAS grew in response to increasing exploitation of mangrove resources and conflict triggered over the use and title of such resources. As a locally constructed plan, it is based on self-regulation and communal ownership, which largely depend on residents’ identification with the community and their commitment to the long-term health and development of the area. Moreover, it requires a level of communal knowledge and organization guided by strong leadership and maintained through functioning lines of communication. Lastly, communal governance depends on well thought-out and implemented systems that enable regular feedback and revision.
Three years after the implementation of the PLAS, the Mangrove Association requested an evaluation of its functionality and impact on the local communities. The study, completed by a group of graduate students from the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), myself included, evaluated the critical components of a well-functioning communal governance system: community awareness of the plan, attitude towards the plan, and behavior in response to the plan. The study demonstrated the communities’ support for the protection of the mangrove forests and for a sustainable use plan. However, it further highlighted the need to improve communication of the PLAS as well as promote greater communal-ownership of the plan.
Since the PLAS was first implemented in 2010, several other communities have followed-suit by forming their own local management plans. The PLAS has thus served as a to tool to promote and guide locally adopted management plans. However, it is important to note that when the original PLAS was first written, it was an innovative tool based on an ideology. It was a first of its kind for El Salvador. Thus, like all prototypes, I expect it to have flaws and to need revision.
In response to the findings of the evaluation, the Mangrove Association, in collaboration with EcoViva, requested a team of MIIS students to work with the communities to strengthen the lines of communication and structural organization of the PLAS. In January of 2014, we performed a network analysis to understand how each stakeholder viewed their role in relation to the PLAS and to each other. Moreover, we solicited ideas from community leaders and park rangers for the design and implementation of a community-wide educational campaign, emphasizing the responsibility of community leaders as disseminators of information. Through various focus groups, we further discussed the role of community leaders as links between their communities and higher institutions.
We believe that strengthening the role of community leaders as educators and facilitators of bilateral communication will enable the communities to improve the structural organization of the PLAS and build effective systems for feedback. Moreover, that cultivating the shared knowledge of the PLAS and its community-based roots will support greater participation and patronage required for the functionality of communal-governance.
This past January was my third visit to the region since the beginning of 2013. With the words of community leaders, park rangers and members of the Mangrove Association still fresh in my mind, both my academic and realistic sides feel confident that the communities of the Lower Lempa have a strong support-base and understanding of communal-governance, leaving me entirely and optimistic and excited by the application of Ostrom’s ideologies.
** Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was an American political economist who pioneered the concept of protecting natural resources without formal regulations or privatized property. Her work to examine the role of local institutions and communities in protecting Common Pool Resources, such as forests, fisheries and cattle grazing lands, was recognized in 2009 with a Nobel Prize in economics. Her concepts also provide the theories that government of El Salvador employs as the basis for mangrove protections such as the Local Plan for Sustainable Use, discussed above. **