This chapter looks at ways to sustain common goods like forests and fisheries, the deterioration of which is a major problem for rural people. Their livelihoods depend on them, and some offer protection against wind, waves, and erosion. The privatisation and nationalisation of common resources do not usually conserve them and often harm those who depend on them.

Conserving commons requires community engagement, but convincing successes are rare. ‘Customary systems’ are rooted in deep knowledge of the local commons but are often unashamedly sexist and exclusionary and may incite violence. Many are also losing their effectiveness. The more recent ‘community-based natural resource management systems’ (often a joint venture between governments, communities, and international donors) are sometimes reasonably successful, but often they are not. In part, this is because they tend to be donor-driven, short-term initiatives, designed with only the fleeting participation of unrepresentative community segments and implemented under the watchful eyes of government authorities reluctant to relinquish power.

In 1990, Elinor Ostrom outlined ‘design principles’ required for the conservation of common goods. They are about participation and perceived legitimacy and about clarity of boundaries, rules, entitlements, monitoring arrangements, sanctions, and conflict management. These principles still hold but are not sufficient. Research on current systems is gaining insight into what else is needed.