A local community member uses trees for fire prevention in Indonesia. Perdana Putra, CIFOR-ICRAF

Why we should care more about “stewardship”

The ancient term brings novel implications for sustainable economic structures

Every so often, an unsuspecting term emerges in the global lexicon, softly gaining attention and use until it’s suddenly the foundation of new paradigms, frameworks and attempts at societal transformation. “Wellbeing” could be said to be one, as could, most certainly, “green.”

At present, “stewardship” seems to be making its way into such orbits, catching the eyes and ears of powerful institutions and corporations alike with its suggestion of human action that’s caretaking, responsible and of service to the natural world. As it gains ground in academic and scientific arenas as a pillar for new economic models that better benefit people and communities working at the landscape level, we’re here taking a step back to examine what the word actually means. To do so, we spoke with Steven Lawry, a senior associate for the Center for International Forestry Research, who has been researching and teaching on stewardship for some three decades.

What is stewardship?

Stewardship is the timely exercise of landscape management interventions of people who have an ethic and understanding that their wellbeing is bound up with the wellbeing of the local ecology. We see this manifested in practice all over the world. Stewards apply their intrinsic knowledge of what’s required to sustain the local environment and provide good livelihood outcomes when making routine management decisions.

We find in many contexts and settings around the world that over time farmers and communities have developed an ethic of land-use that’s based on the recognition that we’re part of the ecology of our local environments. And so, a kind of socioecological thinking developed as the foundation of soil management, forest management, land management, water management, and so on. Societies that have sustained themselves and survived have had to come up with management practices to ensure that from year to year, and over the longer term, the resources they rely on are going to generate the products and environmental services upon which their well-being depends.

That’s the kind of knowledge that no government has. And it depends upon agency – upon people having the ability to act on their day-to-day observations of what needs to be done in their landscapes.

From where did this concept originate?

Stewardship is a concept that’s been around forever. In various forms, it’s in the Bible, the Quran, religious texts. Husbandry, which is analogous, was a term that was used in the mid-20th century, in agricultural extension. Then Aldo Leopold, who was an important forester and early scholar of socio-ecological systems at the University of Wisconsin, talked about the land ethic and gave modern definition to stewardship. He published an article in Audubon magazine in 1942 called Land Use and Democracy, in which he argued that stewardship is an expression of devolved, democratic resource management. For Leopold, stewardship stood in opposition to direct management by governments of forests and other natural resources. Governments are not able to manage resources directly. Farmers and communities are.

Why did stewardship vanish from our discourse?

Well, we kind of lost this plot in the modern era – probably from the late 19th century, with industrialization when there were fewer people who are less directly reliant on agriculture. An ethic then developed that resources were there to feed and fuel growing economies. And there was this sense in some societies – often Western societies – that there was sort of unending abundance of natural resources at our disposal, and it was our right and even duty to exploit those resources for our own wealth and benefit. So we lost the storyline about stewardship. Western society is just getting around to rediscovering stewardship now.

Although many of the core tenets of stewardship are logical, many governments don’t allow people to manage their landscapes directly, because they don’t trust them. And our ideas about the superiority of science overlooks the science of what local people do effectively in managing their resources and their particular position in relation to the resources. This is one of the ironies of our general approach to resource management. We vest rights to land in the state and expect them to somehow manage it and take people out of the direct management. It doesn’t work because states can’t do that. Custodianship is what states do; stewardship is what people do.

How do we bring stewardship back into our vision of society and its future?

We need to have new thinking, that recognizes that people who manage resources directly have developed practices that ensure their long-term sustainability. Stewardship offers a potential framework for reconsidering how to think about resource management more generally. Natural resources in our globalized economy provide raw materials, food and fiber for energy-intensive industrialized production, which long ago lost its connection to the idea of limits. We have come to know we can’t carry on that way; the current system is the very definition of unsustainable.

Building an economy based on stewardship is a huge task. But it seems to me we can begin by recognizing the contributions of Indigenous peoples and local communities who, despite a modern history of displacement and land theft, still offer solutions to the challenges of sustainable land use. We can start by guaranteeing their land rights and by drawing lessons from their good resource management practices.



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