Hopeful cynicism or the lesser of two evils: choosing between two natural resource management institutions


Nicole Peterson - Columbia University  


Abstract: Protected areas are a certain type of resource regulation institution that has often failed to effectively govern resource use. While many researchers attribute this to a lack of resources such as personnel or a lack of local involvement in decision-making, my research suggests that institutional design must also consider the role of other institutions in creating problems for protected areas. Institutional scholars have often focused on institutional change as a process of replacement, neglecting the important negotiations and choices that occur when coexisting institutions compete for legitimacy. Drawing on interviews and observations of a marine protected area in Baja California Sur, Mexico, I discuss how protected areas are inherently political, economic, and social, and how decisions about them depend on other institutions in play. Comparing two forms of natural resource management available to the local fishermen—a new marine park and historical clientelism relationships—I argue that institutions are accepted and incorporated into daily lives as a result of how people understand their options under a variety of possible institutions. A focus on choices among institutions highlights the costs and benefits of each for those involved, bringing into relief the decisions that underlie institutional choice and the complexity of institutional change, and why the changing institutional design of the park has not merely been about decisions to cooperate or not, but rather has hinged on the experiences people have with a variety of prior, parallel, and/or complementary regulatory institutions.