Participatory resource mapping as a way of community involvement in management. Photo Credit: Nyaga Kanyange

Is co-management a panacea for environmental pressures?

Understanding co-management

Co-management or collaborative management have a myriad of understanding in various sectors. Berkes et al. (1991) describes co-management as the sharing of power and responsibility between government and local resource users while Borrini-Feyerabend et al. (2000) views it as a situation in which two or more social actors negotiate, define and guarantee amongst themselves a fair sharing of the management functions, entitlements and responsibilities for a given territory, area or set of natural resources. The principles behind co-management are that of pluralism and subsidiarity (Plummer and Fitzgibbon, 2004). Therefore, co-management embraces a people driven or participatory bottom-up approach to resource management contrary to command and control or top-down approach. Therefore, co-management can be viewed as people driven or participatory bottom-up approach to resource management, contrary to command and control or top-down approach. However, bottom-up does not mean that the government is not involved, it implies that the needs of stakeholders are taken into consideration during decision making processes. Co-management was adopted in Kenya as a means of inclusivity in decision making, where stakeholders are given the responsibility (and not necessarily the power) over the use of their resources.

Co-management from an historical perspective

Co-management can be traced as early as 1296 in traditional and indigenous systems, such as in Asia-pacific where decision making in forestry and fisheries was a collective process (Brown, et al., 2005). In Africa and particularly East Africa, fisher communities, sometimes even clans or families, had user rights over specific resources and therefore were the main decision makers over the use of such resources. However, this was disrupted by colonial administration that viewed the entire resource as ‘commons’ for the purpose of state utilisation. This command-and-control regime resulted in resource decline as more problems and conflicts arose. This notwithstanding, Kenya has made strides in addressing marine environmental pressures emanating from illegal fishing along its coastline through establishment of Co-management Area Plans (CMAPs) for coastal fisheries and forest management plans for forest (mangrove) management. These plans fit well and complement the larger framework of marine governance, specifically marine spatial planning. This has been possible due to existence of enabling sectorial laws and policies guided by the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 and implemented by different government agencies.

Barriers to successful co-management in Kenya

Co-management and spatial planning require inter-agency collaboration in order to succeed. In Kenya, there are several key government agencies mandated with management, development and governance of coastal and marine environments. However, capacity gaps, in addition to conflicting mandates (Olale, et al., 2020) hinder them from fully achieving their mandates. These include gaps in policies and laws, technical skills, technology, data and finances among others as discussed below.

  1. Despite each agency having its own sectoral laws and policies and in view of recent amendments, they are still inadequate in writing and in practice. For instance, both wildlife and fisheries laws, despite provisions for preventing illegal and destructive extraction of resources (e.g. fish), they do not prescribe specific gears for specific fish. Given the high diversity of marine fish, this deficiency results in further environmental destruction. Another example can be seen in maritime and environment regulations where noise and vibration thresh holds during activities such dredging and exploration are not prescribed. Impacts for this omission include cumulative sedimentation and sudden disappearance of fish as reported by fishers.
  2. The issue of inadequate technical skills has hampered delivery of quality services in many sectors. Whereas Kenya exports thousands of skilled manpower every year, deficits are felt within its own sectors, largely due to its inability to employ workforce. Recently, the maritime sector was worst hit with technical skills deficit not only due to inability of the sector to employ but also the uniqueness of skills sets required. For instance, the requirement for all sea farers to undergo the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watch keeping (STCW) training is a barrier to qualified people seeking jobs in the maritime transport sector. Additionally, the maritime sector continues to attract low numbers of job seekers due to lack of awareness in maritime opportunities among the Kenyan population, shortage of training colleges and high training costs.
  3. Failure to embrace modern technology has a direct impact on efficiency of management systems across all sectors. Complex aspects of impacts of climate change, pollution (e.g., oil spills), resource use conflicts and weather patterns (e.g., cyclones, storms, tsunamis, etc.) can be solved through modern technology. The manner in which this information reaches the consumer can also be enhanced through technology, in a simple but sophisticated manner. By 2019, the number of mobile subscriptions in Kenya had reached 55 million (, providing a good opportunity for addressing environmental challenges to the population through mobile phones.
  4. Data deficiency has also been identified by coastal and marine players as huge gap hindering decision making. Often, data is patchy, disaggregated and in many cases stored in individual computers. For example, there has been a long-term debate about the presence of tuna in Kenyan waters. Though some tuna data exists through implementation of short-term donor funded projects such as MASMA and MARG 1, without long-term catch and biomass data, this premise remains invalid and a disadvantage to the country. In absence of data (either inaccessible or lacking), resource managers rely on precautionary approach that is often not comparatively convincing. Further, gathering of huge data sets across sectors requires the requisite infrastructure for analysis, sharing, storage and archiving. These infrastructures, if not non-existent, are lacking in many institutions.

A multi-sectoral approach to co-management

Addressing environmental challenges requires a concerted effort and therefore a multi-stakeholder approach is important, in retrospect, a bottom-up approach. Often a group of people sit in a conference and set the agenda for ‘testing’ on the ground with little knowledge of the nature of stakeholders found there. Involvement and participation of stakeholders during inception, design and implementation of co-management and MSP processes increases the sense of ownership and general success of activities. However, as soon as a pool of stakeholders are onboard, operational dynamics change and need to be managed. One way of addressing this is through a multi-stakeholder forum, where stakeholders meet regularly, discuss pertinent issues affecting the seascape, present new projects and address emerging challenges in an integrated approach. A case example is the Shimoni-Vanga seascape multi-stakeholder forum at the southern Kenya coast bordering Tanzania. The forum is anchored in the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National government through the County commissioner’s office and in collaboration with County government of Kwale. Meetings are held every quarter at a central place within the seascape.

Key considerations

As Kenya embarks on the MSP process, there is perception among coastal communities that there will be ‘losers’ and ‘winners’ in the end. One group perceived as ‘losers’ is the small-scale fishers that comprise majority of near shore coastal inhabitants. There is perceived fear among fishers that instead of expansion of their fishing grounds, a bigger chunk of the sea will be allocated to commercial use, such as industrial fishing, trawling and mining, leaving them with the already over-exploited near shore fishery. Similarly, there is little information on opportunities and alternatives that MSP presents for small-scale fishers involved in co-management activities in Kenya.


Key recommendations are proposed to feed into the ongoing MSP process in Kenya as follows:

  • Although co-management can largely address environmental pressures, it is limited in scope and a wider and well-coordinated holistic approach is required
  • Extensive awareness and capacity building to CBOs and communities is needed to demystify MSP
  • Addressing deficiencies in areas such as laws, policies, technology, data and technical skills among others is important in achieving optimal benefits from MSP
  • Stakeholder involvement and participation in nascent stages are pre-requisites to successful MSP
  • Since MSP planning lies in the hands of statutory agencies, it is paramount that Non-State Actors and Community Based Organizations in general are enlightened on the MSP process and how to effectively engage in the process.


Berkes, F., George, P. and Preston R. 1991. Co-Management: The Evolution of The Theory and Practice of Joint Administration of Living Resources. TASO Research Report, Second Series, No. 1. Second Annual Meeting of IASCP University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, Sept. 26-29, 1991

Borrini-Feyerabend, G., Farvar, M. T., Nguinguiri, J. C. & Ndangang, V. A.2000. Co-management of Natural Resources: Organising, Negotiating and Learning-by-Doing. GTZ and IUCN, Kasparek Verlag, Heidelberg (Germany). Reprint 2007.

Brown, D., Staples, D. and Funge-Smith, S. 2005. Mainstreaming fisheries co-management in the Asia-Pacific. Paper prepared for the APFIC Regional Workshop on Mainstreaming Fisheries Co-management in Asia-Pacific Siem Reap, Cambodia 9-12 August 2005. <Last accessed May 10, 2021>

Olale P., Odote C. and Kibugi, R. 2020. ‘Integrating Marine Spatial Planning in Governing Kenya’s Land-Sea Interface for A Sustainable Blue Economy’, 16/2 Law, Environment and Development Journal (2020), p. 178, available at DOI:

Plummer, R., and Fitzgibbon, J. 2004. Co-management of Natural Resources: A Proposed Framework. Environmental Management 33, 876–885 (2004). <> Last Accessed April 26, 2021

Author: Nyaga Kanyange, Co-management Practitioner

This article was submitted to UNESCO/IOC as part of ‘The joint roadmap for MSP processes worldwide in the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’