Governance, informality and agency in the making of cross-border mopane worm livelihoods in Southern Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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The utilisation of wild products is a mainstay of household livelihoods for millions of forest and rural dwellers worldwide. While many are used for subsistence purposes, some wild products are also exploited commercially. Commercialisation has often coincided with state-led conservation strategies that have brought previously unregulated resources under state regulation. Mopane worms are a caterpillar phase of the Imbrasia belina moth, used as a household food source and, increasingly, part of a lucrative cross-border trade in southern Africa. Across Botswana and South Africa, the statutory regulation of these resources is overlaid upon customary forms of governance that continue to regulate resource access and use. The effectiveness of such interactions is important for the success or failure of different governance arrangements and resource-based livelihoods. Using the cross-border trade of mopane worms as a lens, this research examines the ways in which actors navigate different governance systems, including the complexities of informal trade. In doing so, the research aims to improve understanding of the implications of the interplay between different governance arrangements and informality and their influence in configuring access to resources and cross-border markets. A key finding is that the inadvertent consequence of integrating multiple forms of governance and resultant interactions has led to the emergence of constraints that impact resource users across the cross-border trade chain. Interactions between statutory and customary governance systems have, in turn, led to the emergence of informality as an adaptive strategy across the trade. The study demonstrates that the informal and cross-border nature of mopane worm trade compels actors to use their agency to adopt multiple strategies to navigate complex governance arrangements. This in turn results in an uneven distribution of constraints and opportunities across the trade chain. Power imbalances shape diverse and complex forms of social relations, affect access to resources and markets, and marginalise destitute actors. Fragmented governance arrangements benefit actors with privileged access to market information, knowledge, capital, and resources, enabling them to navigate the constraints and incompatibilities that characterise informal cross-border trade. The study underscores the need to streamline statutory, customary, and informal governance approaches particularly as the three systems are not separate but dynamic, and to pursue an unambiguous, pro-poor agenda, focused on safeguarding informal, resource-based livelihoods and the sustainable use of mopane worms.