Local Experimentation and Innovation
Program documents show that the IWM reforms originally proposed in each Ecuadorian case were virtually identical. They used the same language and advocated extremely similar institutional reforms, policies, and practices. Yet, Ecuador’s local watershed governance arrangements resemble neither the standard international template nor other systems created under similar political, socioeconomic, demographic, and ecological conditions. This is because each was forged through negotiation among foreign advocates and local stakeholders, including locals who both advocated and resisted reform.
The experience in Ecuador’s Tungurahua province is illustrative. As in Ecuador’s other cases, international advocates initially proposed creating a local financing mechanism based on a “payment for ecosystem services” program. Tungurahua’s indigenous movements fiercely rejected the plan. They argued that the market transaction and payments to individual landowners constituted the commodification and privatization of nature, both of which violated indigenous principles. Despite their opposition to specific policy proposals, some indigenous leaders accepted basic IWM principles, including the need to locally finance a sustainable watershed management system. They negotiated with outside advocates and other local stakeholders to design an innovative financing mechanism based on voluntary contributions to a trust fund directed collectively by local stakeholders. Instead of individual payments, this money was used to finance projects at the watershed and/or community level. These two institutional features—voluntary contributions and no individual payments—were crucial for overcoming local concerns about privatization and the commodification of nature. But they were quite different from the global conception of what IWM should look like.
Ecuador’s local watershed management reforms are curious because they contradict two conventional stories regarding the relationship between the local and international levels. The traditional understanding in international relations is the “cascade” model, in which policies reflected in international agreements flow down to states, which either implement them through national policies or ignore them. The effects of this decision then flow down to the subnational level (Bulkeley and Betsill 2003, 15-17). Local governments are assumed to act under the direction of national governments. The second story is rooted in the research on common pool resources pioneered by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues.8 Here, the story is about local actors generating self-governing institutions for managing natural resources on their own. Whether or not local actors have the incentive to do so is determined primarily by local environmental, demographic, and social conditions. National actors and conditions are important mainly in terms of whether they restrict the autonomy of local actors to develop and follow their own rules. International actors, and the international level in general, are typically absent from this story.
If either of these classic stories were true—t hat international actors and forces either dictate policies to the local level, or are largely irrelevant to the local level—then the outcomes of local IWM reform attempts should be similar, at least among cases with similar conditions. But this is not the case. Some reform attempts produced new institutions and practices; some did not. Moreover, reform processes produced unexpected outcomes that cannot be predicted from either international proposals or local conditions alone. Rather, the Ecuadorian cases show that local watershed governance systems resulted from the dynamic interaction among international, national, and local actors at the grassroots level. This interaction fueled a creative process of experimentation producing unique institutional adaptations of global IWM principles.
For summaries of this vast literature, see Ostrom (1990; 2002) and Agrawal (2002).