Institutionalising Biodiversity Conservation

The case of Ethiopian coffee forests

In Ethiopia, as in many other countries, the conservation of biological diversity poses a challenge requiring social reorganisation at different levels. Encouraging experiences with co-management approaches in participatory forest management show that local resource users can sustainably use biodiversity when rights and responsibilities are fairly shared. A diversity of institutions and governance structures, at multiple levels, is required, however, to achieve the conservation of biodiversity. This is due to both the manifold features and functions of biodiversity at different scales and to the varying attributes of the actors directly or indirectly involved.

Current approaches to biodiversity conservation very often entail inventorying plant and animal species, modelling ecosystem dynamics, or harnessing traditional plant medicines. Approaches that recognise the importance of institutions in biodiversity conservation often propagate the market, the State, or the community as the most suitable form of governance. I argue that none of these forms of governance is a panacea for biodiversity conservation, and that the various components of biodiversity require to be managed by a diversity of institutions.

Institutional diversity, per se, however, cannot ensure successful biodiversity conservation. Nor is it useful for identifying practical starting points for action. The Ethiopian case demonstrates what happens when the government ‘steps aside’ to allow the market to ‘work its wonders.’ For governments and markets to function properly, trust is an inevitable ingredient of institutional design for sustainability. Therefore, the entire range of institutions, from the level of informal local institutions to the level of bureaucracies, markets, and prices (see Figure) needs to be considered in that design. In the words of Prof. H. Vogtmann, president of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, on a recent trip to Ethiopia, “All keys of the piano need to be played.”

Although federal officials willingly pass on responsibilities and duties to the regions, the institutional grounds for biodiversity conservation have not been fully laid in Ethiopia. What is required is a better recognition of local rights. So also, a better endowing of the regions with the financial and human resources they need to fulfill additional duties such as safeguarding the provision of public goods and services from forests, instead of additional tax disincentives on the benefits derived from successful community management of forest resources. After recognising the importance of institutional diversity, the challenge is to shape the context-specific patterns of that diversity and to identify starting points for action.

This requires awareness building, communication, trustbuilding, guidance, and mediation. In Ethiopia today those measures are still heavily supported by NGOs and the international aid community. Governmental support in the form of tax and other incentives and extension services do not exist, or fail to reach local resource users. The attempt to conserve Ethiopia’s wild coffee forests illustrates that all stakeholders have their individual interests but also share a common vision. Well co-ordinated collective action is a necessary consequence of institutional diversity.

Originally published as:

Gatzweiler, F.W. 2005. Institutionalising biodiversity conservation – The case of Ethiopian co$ee forests. Conservation and Society 3(1):201–223.

This article is from issue


2007 Jul