4. THE DYNAMICS OF THE COMMONS
Common property tenure and usufruct systems are central to many traditional management systems. Rural Third World communities often do not have as pervasive a sense of individual private property ownership as has developed in the industrialized world - instead, systems of group ownership prevail. It has, until fairly recently, been part of the conventional wisdom to believe that common property systems were inherently less productive, and more susceptible to degradation, than private property régimes. This belief was due to the metaphor of the “tragedy of the commons” (generally attributed to Hardin, 1968), which maintained that, because no individual would have to pay the full costs of overexploitation, it would be in each individual’s interest to extract as much as possible from the resource base, with the result that commonly held resources would inevitably be degraded. This view has largely lost theoretical support in recent years as the distinction between common property régimes (which consist in essence of jointly held property) and open access systems (which have no restrictions on resource use, and which are in fact subject to degradation) has become clear, and as more empirical studies have come out demonstrating the economic value of the commons (Bromley and Cernea, 1989).
Jodha’s (1990) study has been particularly valuable in this latter regard. Research undertaken in 82 villages in India revealed that the poor obtain approximately one-fifth of their household income directly from common property resources, which in addition provide them with more than one-third of their farm inputs. Without the availability of common grazing lands in these communities, over half of the lands currently under food and cash crops would have to be diverted to fodder crops, or else livestock would have to be significantly cut, with a consequent drop in draft power and manure. In addition, Jodha argued, state interventions which have been undertaken to privatize common property, even when such interventions have been developed with the specific aim of helping the poor, have resulted in overall declines in the conditions of poor households.
However, in spite of the fact that the “tragedy of the commons” scenario is no longer accepted by many development theorists, the metaphor remains a powerful influence on - or at least a strong basis for the rationalization of - the policies of both national governments and international development agencies which advocate settling pastoralists (Lane, 1990; Adams, 1990), privatizing fishing grounds (Baines, 1989; Polunin, 1985), and supplanting traditional agricultural systems (Moorehead, 1989; Diegues, 1990). As Baines argues, “there is a consistent tendency by agents of resource development to characterize traditional forms of resource administration as ‘problems’ impeding development” (Baines, 1989: 278). Thus as late as 1989, an official of the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture wrote, in terms directly recalling Hardin:
A key factor underlying the continued persuasive power of the tragedy of the commons metaphor is the belief that private land ownership gives individuals increased incentives for managing their resources sustainably. The argument is made that only people who have secure tenure over their landholdings will have the motivation to invest in the long-term undertakings necessary to ensure the continued yields of fragile environments. Indeed, several studies have shown the deleterious effects that lack of secure land tenure has had on local participation rates in environmental rehabilitation projects (Ståhl, 1990). In most of these cases, however, lack of secure tenure is due not to the absence of private ownership as such, but rather to the fact that existing social structures allow those who control usufruct rights - whether they be individuals, groups, corporations or governments - to grant or withdraw these rights at will.
Common property management systems thus mistakenly get tarred with the same brush as some nationalized agricultural schemes, which, though in theory have the potential to be quite productive, in practice often suffer from unwieldy bureaucracies, insufficient resources, and the necessity of conforming to the demands of the international financial community. The actual or potential policy changes caused by these constraints create insecurity among the affected peasant farmers or pastoralists. Moreover, as Bromley and Cernea (1989) point out, the appearance that private property is more stable and adaptive than common property is due to the fact that the rights of exclusion for private property owners are generally upheld by the state: that is, the customary ability of private owners to exclude others from utilizing their land has been formalized and codified in law. On the other hand, the equally essential common property rights of exclusion, which have a firm basis and long history in common law, have been substantially eroded through the active or benign neglect of the state, and common property tenants are thus deprived of the legal protection afforded private owners.
In addition, it is clear that private ownership, secure land tenure, and sustainable resource use are not inevitably or intrinsically linked. For instance, small land owners who are obliged to go deeply in debt each season risk losing their land after a bad harvest; large land owners often show no qualms about clearing rainforests for short-term gains, even when it is clear that the resulting pasture lands will become barren in only a few years. Bandyopadhyay (1990) demonstrated that in certain communities in India, common property resources are better safeguarded than private property resources. The short time preferences of the private owners and their ability to abandon degraded lands once maximum resources had been extracted, mean that they do not have the same incentives for environmental preservation that exist in communities whose families have inhabited a region for generations, and whose descendants will continue to inhabit it for generations to come. Kurien found the same phenomenon in a study of common fishing grounds:
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