Rudel (2000) discusses in his study of Ecuadorian attempts at sustainable development. In that case, a “coordinating unit” was created (using a model tried out in Mexico) that represented local communities, timber companies, government agencies, environmental NGOs, and foreign assistance groups. It became a forum for discussion and debate on sustainable forestry issues, and a civic arena for bargaining and making compromises and tradeoffs, as well as communication. For example, the small local communities were able to improve the terms of trade with the timber companies because they could exchange information on deals offered and cooperate in demanding better prices. The timber companies also benefit by getting the communities to agree on a workable policy for sales of timber land. Watershed associations are excellent examples in the North, facilitated by the existence of a strong civic society.
When common-pool resource users are faced with the need to invest time, energy, money, and other resources in developing or changing self-governing institutions, the rational choice of free-rider strategies can overwhelm the effort. A “privileged group” may be able to counteract free riding by investing enough to provide benefits and eventually cajole others into contributing—or change the rules in ways that further marginalize or exclude most of the free riders. That is a side benefit of social stratification or unequal distribution of wealth and power that can make a great difference to the emergence of common-pool resource institutions. However, another way out of this collective action bind most likely available to groups with relatively equal power is to make institutional changes in small, incremental steps, starting small and cheap, the so-called “muddling through” method of public policy making (Lindblom, 1959). Ostrom (1990) showed this in her analysis of the efforts at collective action among private and public water rights holders in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Small steps have low initial costs and the prospect of early successes, which can change the decision-making environment (Ostrom, 1990:137): “Each institutional change transformed the structure of incentives within which future strategic decisions would be made.”
A second benefit of “still muddling, not yet through,” as Lindblom called it in 1979, is that a go-slow, incremental approach to problem solving may be a very wise strategy vis-à-vis complicated and highly uncertain ecological systems. This was a major lesson we learned when engaged in a program intended to restore productivity to shellfish in New Jersey’s bays (McCay, 1988). Given the high level of ignorance and uncertainty concerning clam biology and estuarine hydrodynamics in the area, we found that an incremental approach, where we acted without full prior examination of the situation and alternatives, was very helpful. Although we failed to increase the productivity of clams in the bay by the method we selected, we also reduced ignorance and uncertainty because our