Strategic Framing to Establish Local Authority

The contrast between Ibarra’s experience and that of the more successful cases illustrates the importance of early local network activation surrounding environmental decentralization. During the late 1990s, IWM advocates trained local knowledge communities and created environmental management units in Celica, Tungurahua, El Chaco, and Zamora to pave the way for environmental decentralization. Although Ecuador’s national government never transferred responsibilities and resources to local governments as called for in Ecuador’s decentralization laws, IWM advocates used these unimplemented laws to pursue their reform agenda locally even after the decentralization process stalled. These laws constituted an important resource for IWM advocates, helping them justify the expansion of local government authority for the planning, regulating, financing, and implementation of watershed management activities.

IWM advocates’ use of strategic framing to establish municipal authority for watershed management was particularly important. IWM advocates strategically interpreted passages of unimplemented laws to convince local politicians that IWM reform was something they not only should do but legally could do. They were successful in five of the six case studies. Only in Ibarra did the IWM reform process break down during political agenda setting. The legal arguments justifying IWM reform in the other cases are cited in the ordinances establishing

Interview by author, Ibarra, Ecuador, June 21, 2010.

the reforms. These ordinances cite the same legal passages used by IWM advocates to justify local governments’ assumption of new powers related to watershed management.[1]

Program documents from Tungurahua and Celica illustrate how IWM advocates established watershed management as a municipal responsibility, in stark contrast to Ibarra’s experience. When GTZ established its IWM program PROMACH in 1997, it chose Tungurahua’s Ambato River watershed as the pilot project. As with its counterparts in Celica, Zamora, and El Chaco, GTZ cited the 1997 decentralization laws and 1998 Constitution to justify its efforts to expand local government authority for managing watersheds. GTZ cited Articles 224 through 233 of the 1998 Constitution and Article 10 of the 1997 Decentralization Law to argue that local governments were the “entities charged with watershed management” and that local governments were responsible for carrying out all related activities as a result of the decentralization process (REDLACH 2002, 4). A 2002 report stated that “under this mandate,” GTZ-PROMACH would

oversee a process for transferring the management of watersheds. Implementation of the political, administrative and social aspects of the Law of Decentralization and Social Participation has created a demand for strengthening local governments so they can identify their own problems and solutions, and has allowed the rationalization of administrative functions and the participation of rural actors and communities in the decision-making process. (REDLACH 2002, 8)

SNV—the Dutch organization running Celica’s Dry Forest Program—similarly cited Articles 23, 225, and 226 of the 1998 Constitution; Article 9 of the 1997 Decentralization Law; and Articles 12-13 of the 1999 Environmental Management Law to justify its creation of municipal-level, participatory mechanisms for watershed management (Bustamante 2004, 8, 29-33).

Persuading local governments that they had the power to manage watershed resources was necessary because national legislation was ambiguous and contradictory, creating confusion about the responsibilities of different levels of government (see chapter 3). Political instability and the reluctance of ministry bureaucrats to cede responsibilities further complicated the situation. Municipal governments’ mandate was particularly murky since municipal governments traditionally limited themselves to providing potable water and sanitation services in urban areas. Their power to manage natural resources in rural areas was far from clear.

Nor was the incentive for local politicians to assume these responsibilities always obvious. Since municipal governments were not normally involved in managing watershed resources, particularly in rural areas, they did not have the institutional capacity to do so. Because responsibilities and resources were not formally transferred by the central government, local governments had to develop new systems for raising the necessary resources locally. This was not easy, given the clientelistic nature of politics in Ecuador and the tendency of many local officials to extract rents from national patrons rather than local constituents. Assuming local authorities could be motivated to pursue IWM reform, these officials felt the need to legally justify their assumption of authority in this new issue area to combat local opposition.

IWM advocates were quite creative and strategic in their interpretation of legal passages to provide this justification. One illustrative example comes from Article 163 of Ecuador’s Municipal Reform Law. This article states that municipal governments are responsible for “providing potable water and sanitation to the canton’s population, regulating its use and doing what is necessary to ensure the supply and distribution of water of adequate quality and in sufficient quantity for public consumption [italics added]" IWM advocates interpreted this call to do “what is necessary” as a mandate to mange watershed resources in an integrated manner. Advocates strategically framed IWM principles and practices as necessary to ensure the canton’s quantity and quality of water. Among other things, this included conserving water catchment areas, something traditionally seen as beyond municipal governments’ purview. Article 397 of the law allows municipal councils to raise revenues to recover the cost of public service provision. IWM advocates strategically interpreted these two passages together to justify creating local financing and decision-making mechanisms for integrated watershed management.

Ibarra was the exception and illustrates the importance of strategically framing watershed management as a power of local government. When municipal authorities were negotiating the assumption of environmental management in the late 1990s, there were no IWM advocates to help them contest Environment Ministry bureaucrats’ assertion that natural resource management was outside their jurisdiction. By the time Ibarra’s IWM coalition presented their watershed management proposal in 2005, the country’s decentralization process was long stalled and the municipal government’s environmental agenda was set around pollution control. Local government representatives were reluctant to devote more resources to watershed management and ignored the proposal. The coalition soon disbanded.

  • [1] Passages commonly cited include Articles 23, 225, and 226 of the 1998 Constitution; Article 3of the 1997 Decentralization Law; Articles 12 and 13 of the 1999 Environmental Management Law;and Articles 12, 15, 16, 161-165 of the Municipal Law (originally passed in 1971 and amended in2004).
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