Canada Research Chair - Community-Based Resource Management (CBRM) Centre Overview

Updated August 2015


The Centre is set up under Prof. Fikret Berkes' Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Community-Based Resource Management, renewed in 2009 for a second term. It is part of the Natural Resources Institute and has affiliations with a number of outside agencies, academics and community groups. The objective of the research program at the Centre is to advance the knowledge on commons, investigating different kinds of community-based management, with linkages from the community to the international level. It deals with commons institutions and environmental governance; ways of expanding the range of knowledge used (including indigenous knowledge); and applications of resilience theory to environmental change and adaptation. The Centre contributes to theory development in the areas of commons, social-ecological systems and resilience. At the same time, it carries out applied work through various projects in areas such as coastal livelihoods, food security, and the use of co-management and indigenous knowledge for adaptation to climate change. To pursue these research themes, the Centre has facilities to document and code cases, to share knowledge, and to network with indigenous and other community groups, academic organizations, and governmental and international agencies. The research program encourages the development of a critical mass of researchers and scholarly networks in various areas related to commons use, working in collaboration with community-based organizations.

Theoretical Background

Several conceptual areas and bodies of theory inform the research work at the Centre: sustainability, complex adaptive systems, knowledge systems, resilience, social-ecological systems, commons, and co-management and governance. We do not deal with all of these areas in their entirety but only to the extent that they are relevant to community-based resource management.

Sustainability and complex systems. The ultimate objective of the work at the Centre is to contribute to efforts towards sustainability, that is, the use of environment and resources to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. As a long-term goal, sustainability may be considered as a dynamic process, rather than an end product. Instead of assuming stability and explaining change, there is a need to assume change and manage for uncertainty. One way to do this is through the use of complex adaptive system approaches. The notion of complexity challenges the idea of linear causality and reductionistic, positivistic science. Its roots go to the general systems theory concerned with the exploration of wholeness and feedbacks, and to its applications in such areas as adaptive management (Holling 1978). Systems theory and complexity argue that the understanding of the essential properties of the parts of a system comes from the examination of how the parts of a system operate together, and not from the examination of the parts themselves. The science of complexity (Levin 1999) considers that a complex system can be distinguished by a number of attributes not observed in simple systems. These include nonlinearity, uncertainty, resilience (an emergent property of the system), scale, and self-organization (Berkes et al. 2003). Since complex systems "look" different from different points of view, plurality of knowledge is also of interest.

Systems of knowledge. The consideration of different systems of knowledge help get a better perspective of the complex whole, especially since different kinds of knowledge seem to correspond to different geographic scales (Reid et al. 2006). The work that is being carried out at the Centre is helping identify the importance of different kinds of knowledge, especially traditional ecological knowledge (indigenous knowledge). In the area of climate change, for example, we are finding important complementarities between Western science and traditional knowledge (Berkes 2008). Some of this body of work has explored an alternative, participatory, multiple knowledge systems approach to deal with nonlinearity and uncertainty. These alternatives are being developed in the context of a number of resource and environmental areas, including fish and wildlife management and community-based conservation (Berkes 2007). In particular, attention to ways of knowing, and the dynamics of knowledge development, is providing better insights than merely the description of local knowledge itself (Berkes 2008).

Resilience may be defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks (Walker et al. 2004). The concept refers to three related characteristics: the ability to absorb change, the capability of self-organization, and the capacity for learning and adapting. Major research questions pertain to change, and the capacity of a society to adapt to change and to shape it. Analyzing the phenomenon of change and how to respond to change in a manner that does not lead to loss of future options are research issues that have both theoretical and practical significance (Gunderson and Holling 2002; Berkes et al. 2003). In dealing with change in complex systems, the idea of resilience is being used increasingly as an organizing concept and scoping device. In the research carried out at the Centre, we have used resilience thinking to understand environmental change (including climate change), resource management options and sustainable livelihoods. In an age of rapid transformations, the analysis of resilient livelihoods and adaptability of vulnerable groups, such as northern communities, will be significant for Canada and internationally.

Social-ecological systems. Resilience theory evolved out of ecology but now deals with integrated systems of people and nature. Work done by collaborators and graduate students the Centre has made a major contribution to the development of the notion of social-ecological systems, that is, how social systems and ecological systems can be analyzed together as linked systems (Berkes and Folke 1998). As humans are part of the environment, social systems and environmental systems need to be dealt with as parts of the same complex system through their feedback relationships, interactions and co-evolution. The idea of social-ecological systems is an organizing concept that shapes research and teaching at the Centre. Our objective is to be informed about both social systems and ecological systems, hence we are committed to interdisciplinary research and education that cuts across natural and social sciences.

Commons. Most of the resources we use are shared resources in which the activities of one user affect the welfare of all others. Ostrom and colleagues (1999) defined commons (common-pool) resources as whose in which (i) exclusion of beneficiaries through physical and institutional means is especially costly, and (ii) exploitation by one user reduces resource availability for others. Commons theory has evolved rapidly since the 1980s, and provides the main ideas behind community-based resource management. As commons are shared resources characterized by problems of exclusion and subtractability, institutions or the rules-in-use are of paramount importance (Ostrom 2005). Local commons are often used under local institutions, but they are impacted by institutions at other levels, such as government laws and international agreements, and by drivers that originate at other levels of organization, such as market demands for certain marine products (MA 2005; Berkes et al. 2006). Hence, it is important to explore ways in which commons can be managed jointly under co-management regimes and other forms of multi-level governance.

Co-management, adaptive co-management, environmental governance. Canada is a world leader in the study and applications of co-management, from fisheries and wildlife management to protected areas. One purpose of the Centre's original (2002-09) research program was to expand research activity, especially those involving team projects, into the area of co-management. As part of that initiative, projects connected to the Centre started to look at co-management involving multiple actors and multiple layers of jurisdiction by focusing on cross-scale interactions and policy networks. Cross-scale interactions refer to governance in which institutions are linked horizontally (across space) or vertically (across levels of organization). Expanded research activity in this area resulted in major contributions to the theory and practice of co-management, in particular, the expansion of the scope of analysis to the evolutionary nature of co-management through learning-by-doing, that is, adaptive co-management (Armitage et al. 2007). Co-management evolves. The dynamics of knowledge, for example, knowledge co-production involving indigenous knowledge holders and scientists, is important for social learning and adaptive co-management (Davidson-Hunt and O'Flaherty 2007).

Potential Impact of the Research: Theoretical and Practical

The CRC research program has been contributing to theory the areas of commons, social-ecological systems and resilience, and this work has practical applications in a number of areas. The program's contributions come in the form of empirical research, both informing and testing theory. Canada has a rich body of empirical research on commons, community-based management and co-management, especially from the North. The many Northern land claims agreements and the co-management bodies created therein provide a rich set of material that has not yet been used to formulate or elaborate theory, for example in such areas as the role of social and institutional learning in co-management to build trust and social capital. Another rich body of experience comes from community-based conservation, studied through international cases from the UNDP Equator Initiative, through ten thesis projects carried out at the Centre between 2003 and 2009. The Centre's IDRC Brazil project (2009-2014) is a major source of research material in resource use, livelihoods, co-management and governance.

There are only a few other research groups working on social-ecological systems and resilience, such as Stockholm University's Resilience Center and the University of East Anglia, UK. Resilience provides the lens through which one can deal with issues of change and adaptation. Thus, the resilience approach makes it possible to cut through complexity by focusing on major drivers (MA 2005) and other key factors. For example, our work with the International Institute for Sustainable Development in the Canadian Prairies indicates that climate change impacts can be studied as stress-response relationships. Research in the Arctic indicates that short and long-term adaptation, and the bridging function of co-management agencies may facilitate learning and enhance the adaptive capacity of Northern Aboriginal societies facing climate change.

Indigenous knowledge is another area in which the work of the Centre has contributed to theory. But perhaps more significant, this work has had a policy impact in the way that indigenous knowledge is regarded and respected. Extensive linkages developed at the Natural Resources Institute over the years with a diversity of First Nations groups have been important for creating a dialogue, a learning process, across cultures. In such ways, the Centre has been responding to critical societal needs, and assisting in the search for policy alternatives. There is an emerging consensus regarding the need to look for broader approaches and solutions, not only with resource and environmental issues but along a wide front of societal problems.

When senior scientists were asked about the most urgent challenges facing science and society, they identified many items, but a common thread was that each issue "seemed to have radically outgrown its previously accepted conceptual framing" (Jasanoff et al. 1997). For each of the issues identified, there were new theories and explanations on the horizon, many calling for more creative forms of collaboration between scientists and society, and greater attention to the social context. A new "social contract" appears to be emerging for sustainable development. Environment and resource issues require the participation of people, not as subjects, but as active participants in the process of co-production of a new kind of resilience science (O'Brien et al. 2009).

The work of the Centre, with its interdisciplinary base and participatory approaches challenging positivistic expert-knows-best science, falls precisely in the camp that calls attention to the social context of sustainability. A number of strategic groups, including those in the areas of community-based conservation, co-management with indigenous people, international development, marine and coastal resources, and forest ecosystems have been exploring management policy alternatives. Much of the practical significance of the Centre's work is along the line of these networks in Canada and internationally.

Research Training Opportunities

The training activities of the Centre take into account the need to educate young researchers in community-based resource and environmental management. All graduate students are involved in field research, mostly with aboriginal organizations or international groups. The rationale for this approach is that (1) there is no substitute for first-hand field research experience; (2) the research area involves a range of interdisciplinary social science skills (e.g., cross-cultural sensitivity, interviewing) and some science skills (e.g., interpreting wildlife population data, GIS mapping); (3) there is a continuing high student demand for these kinds of projects, and (4) there is a continuing high market demand for graduates with such skills.

The Centre's philosophy regarding graduate student research is that students define their own research projects within the larger goals of the research program, retaining the flexibility to design their own objectives creatively. The students receive training appropriate for the task, they are often accompanied in the field during the initial work, and they are teamed up with community partners in carrying out the work. They are responsible for following ethical guidelines and other good practices, for maintaining respectful relations with the community, and for verifying their findings and returning the knowledge back to the partner groups. They are expected to apply to external sources for some of their funding, and they are supported in part by the CRC and existing project funding.

The Centre's philosophy regarding the communication of results is that there are three target audiences. Results are communicated through a diversity of means to (a) scholars, (b) practitioners and decision-makers in governments and management agencies, and (c) research partner groups, communities and other stakeholders. In addition to producing academic papers, the Centre's researchers communicate their findings back to their research partners. Communication with northern and international partner groups is particularly important for the co-production of knowledge, mutual learning, and policy development. One area of particular strength of the Centre is the existing links with Canadian First Nations and a diversity of international groups. Communicating research results back to the communities is a key part of the Centre's work.


Armitage, D., F. Berkes and N. Doubleday, editors. 2007. Adaptive Co-Management. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Berkes, F. 2007. Community-based conservation in a globalized world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 15188-15193.

Berkes, F. 2008. Sacred Ecology. Second Edition. New York and London: Routledge.

Berkes, F., J. Colding and C. Folke, editors. 2003. Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berkes, F. and C. Folke, editors 1998. Linking Social and Ecological Systems. Management Practices and Social Mechanisms for Building Resilience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berkes, F., T.P. Hughes, R.S. Steneck et al. 2006. Globalization, roving bandits and marine resources. Science 311: 1557-1558

Davidson-Hunt, I.J., O'Flaherty, R.M. 2007. Researchers, indigenous peoples and place-based learning communities. Society and Natural Resources 20: 291-305.

Gunderson, L.H. and Holling, C.S., editors. 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Holling, C.S., editor. 1978. Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. London: Wiley.

Jasanoff, S., Colwell, R., Dresselhaus, S., et al. 1997. Conversations with the community: AAAS at the millennium. Science 278: 2066-2067.

Levin, S.A. 1999. Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons. Reading, MA: Perseus Books.

MA 2005. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report. Chicago: Island Press.

O'Brien, K., B. Hayward and F. Berkes 2009. Rethinking social contracts: building resilience in a changing climate. Ecology and Society 14 (2): 12.URL: [online]

Ostrom, E. 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ostrom, E., Burger, J., Field, C.B., Norgaard, R.B. and Policansky, D. 1999. Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges. Science 284: 278-282.

Reid, W.V., F. Berkes, T. Wilbanks and D. Capistrano, editors. 2006. Bridging Scales and Knowledge Systems. Washington DC: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and Island Press.

Walker, B., C. S. Holling, S. R. Carpenter, and A. Kinzig 2004, Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 9 (2): 5. URL: [online]