Evolving Institutional Framework for Community-Based Natural Resources Management in Mozambique: A Case Study from the Choa Highlands


  • Pekka Virtanen


An increased role of local communities in natural resource management has recently been widely advocated as a solution to the problem of environmental degradation in the Third World. This conclusion is based on a broad debate on the role of endogenous institutions in which academics, politicians and practitioners working in southern Africa have participated. But, thus far, the debate has largely relied on dogma about the essential nature of rural communities: they are claimed to be clearly bounded, socially homogenous, and based on shared norms. In this article, the validity of these claims is studied in the context of the present administrative and legal reforms taking place in Mozambique. The analysis is based on field data from a case study from the Chôa highlands in Manica Province. In Chôa, exclusive territoriality is not considered a valid strategy, as the local population remains part of a larger socio-economic network, which extends to neighbouring Zimbabwe. The linguistic and cultural continuity has created favourable conditions for a dynamic process whereby the border has become an asset instead of a barrier. The open character of the border made it possible to benefit from both the more developed economy of Zimbabwe and the abundant natural resources under common property regime in Mozambique. In the study area in Chôa customary authority remains practically the only functioning institution at the local level despite adverse government policies. However, it operates without a firm legal basis and may be losing its efficiency, because the source of consensus – traditional religion – is being challenged by the penetration of new religions and the market economy. The most acute changes concern customary rules of land tenure, which are presently being redefined locally. Such emerging rule-systems are dynamic and adaptive. But they can also be perceived as a risk to national unity, and their compatibility with the principles of modern state administration remains a contested issue.