This paper describes how the Zimbabwe Natural Resources Act of 1941 nurtured a civic landholder-based conservation movement, the Intensive Conservation Area movement (ICA). This is not recorded in the published literature. It provides a rare insight into the efficacy of environmental regulation that legally devolves use rights and regulatory responsibility to communities of landholders, and favours democratic processes above top-down regulation. The main message is that natural resource governance is effective when (a) landholders are genuinely empowered with the rights to use and manage natural resources provided, and (b) this occurs within a framework of devolved and collective self-regulation through structures built democratically from the bottom up. The effectiveness of these structures is surprisingly sensitive to any reduction in democratic control. The ICA movement anticipates, and is aligned with, the emerging theories of common property, scale, management, systems thinking and new institutional economics. These have common roots in the principle that human affairs and complexity are best managed where hierarchies of nested institutions serve the bottom layers, not the top. This suggests that entitling landholders, including communities, with full choice to use and management natural resources, and relying on local collective action to control environmental abuses or externalities, will strengthen future approaches for natural resource governance, including for wildlife and southern Africa.
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