Michel CAMES MA in Development Studies Rural Development University of Leeds Essay - Semester 2 1995/96

Cooperating in the commons: an urgency for the poor In this essay, I shall aim to discuss the truism that resources held in common are prone to overexploitation. It has been claimed that the only escape from the dilemma of common pool resources - referred to as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by the seminal article of Hardin (1968) - could be found either in privatization of the resources or in converting them into state property. However this conventional wisdom has been challenged since. Hardin’s model fails to take into account the self-regulating capabilities of users assuming that users are unable to limit access or institute rules to regulate use. It confuses the open access with common property in which the individual interest is constrained by existing institutional arrangements. So if the adoption of the model relying overly sanguine on the option of privatization of common property resources is generally not more efficient and clearly less equitable, and the variant option of government control has been unable to replace traditional communal controls with an effective alternative system, why, I refer to Milton M. R. Freeman (1989:92), is more effort not directed to re-establishing traditionally-based local-level management systems which much empirical evidence now suggests to be often more effective?


After attempting to answer this question, I will proceed to shed light on the causes for a gradual decline of common-property systems by using contemporary evidence from drought-prone areas of India. Next I will highlight why it is important to sustain such systems especially in regard of the rural poor. Pointing towards possible solutions to reinstate appropriate management systems allowing more ecological and social sustainable development will conclude this essay emphasizing that sustainable resource management is not intrinsically associated with any particular propertyrights regime and a combination of conventional and traditional or neotraditional regimes may in many cases be more advantageous. The Debate around the Maintenance of the Commons Since time immemorial, the structure and functioning of resource-regulating institutions has been based on customs, taboos and kinship. These informal regulations have been based on the principle of equity to its members generally at the expense of exclusion of others. Common property resources (CPRs) have been open for its users through an essentially closed ‘mode of access’ to these resources. According to Runge, these arrangements closely resemble those that dominated the early stages of European economic development. With the forced enclosure movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, the common property typical of Western Europe declined. However, as he continues, recent research on the common field systems replaced by 18th-century enclosures continues to break down the conventional wisdom that enclosure was a prerequisite to the adoption of advanced agricultural methods. It would conclude that the major economic consequence of the enclosure was to redistribute the existing agricultural income and not to create additional income by increasing efficiency (Runge, 1986:623,632). Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop assert that overgrazing was not a cause for the historical reduction of the commons in Great Britain. One important factor was the


increased profitability for the feudal lord of grazing sheep for commercial wool production. They argue that, as forest lands on the European continent became increasingly profitable as sources of timber for sale vis-à-vis their traditional role as sources of subsistence, the feudal lords changed from administrators to profit-seeking entrepreneurs. As they concisely point out, this has been the true ‘tragedy of the commons’: the peasant was transformed from a co-equal owner on the commons with secure tenure to a landless worker on the feudal estate (Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop, 1975:719-20). It has been a tragic truism to equate the dismantling of the commons with progress and efficiency. It is Boulding who claims that: It is one of the great ironies of the French revolution that the egalite, which really meant equal distribution of estates among children and the abolition of primogeniture along with other hallmarks of aristocracy, is a sure recipe for equality of misery (...) (Boulding, 1977:285). The solution to the tragedy of the commons would, according to Boulding, not lie in the adoption of equity principles as propagated by the French revolution, but in the acknowledgement of Malthus’ remedy of the great ‘miserific vision’: The answer is the segregation of misery through a class structure. (...) If we privatize the commons, we will create an upper class who owns and administers it. It will be administered well. There will be no overgrazing. (...) If the class structure can be preserved, if the fences hold through a combination of the threat system, the police and the military, and the opiates of religion, nationalism, and ideology, the system is pretty stable. Up to now one can almost say that this has


been the only successful answer to the tragedy of the commons (Boulding, 1977:285-86). This line of thought has also been justified by Hardin (1968) and Baden (1977). Hardin, who popularized the concept of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ claims that if the commons can be justifiable at all, then only under conditions of low-population density (Hardin, 1968:1248) assuming that otherwise it is impossible to upkeep or institute CPR management systems. Baden, who argues that discussions involving the management of common pool resources often resemble religious arguments conducted by nontheologians, sees government action as a requirement in the management of common pool resources in the absence of collective management (Baden, 1977:138-39, emphasis added). However he obviously does not take this restriction seriously into account as no reference to action with collective management is given which could be an obstacle to the free-rider phenomenon. This ideology of resigning CPRs to private or state control as a panacea for the tragedy of the commons reflects, according to Grima and Berkes, the assumption of market-oriented societies of Western industrial nations ‘that all valuable resources are individually owned, fully mobile and exchangeable in small increments in wellfunctioning markets’ (Grima and Berkes, 1989:37, quoting Bromley, 1985). Grima and Berkes argue that in many Western societies, the individual selfinterest is seen as supreme. This could however not be extrapolated to many other societies where the individual is not the dominant locus of choice and the community is the relevant decision-making unit (Grima and Berkes, 1989:37). Berkes assumes that where societies are fluid, with large numbers of individuals only in casual contact, all having access to the commons, the tragedy is relatively likely.


Hence, to many whose world views are shaped by the urban-industrial society, in which they live, with little intimate contact with neighbours and other members of society, the ‘tragedy’ may appear inevitable. By contrast, use of commons for long-term sustainable yields is relatively more likely in the case of people living in small groups with tight communal control over the resource base and over social behaviour (Berkes, 1989a:71). This phenomenon can be traced in the manner transaction costs are assessed. Whereas the latter stress the role of the government as being an ‘instrument designed to coordinate human behaviour through potential resort to coercion when the costs associated with reliance upon voluntary agreement are considered to be excessively high’ (Baden, 1977:141), assuming that they generally are, the former argue that both private regimes and already over-stretched states’ control regimes in developing countries are expensive to make effective (Wade, 1988:217). Runge argues that in a less developed economy low levels of income imply that formalized private property institutions which involve high transaction and enforcement costs are often outside the budget set of village-level responses to resource management. Even if a system of private use rights is affordable, common property alternatives can be relatively less costly to maintain and enforce and better adapted to local conditions (Runge, 1986:631). Berkes sees the root cause of the bias of underestimating the scope of possible cooperation go back to Charles Darwin’s idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and Adam Smith’s laissez-faire economics. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ notion - thanks to Hardin - would merely be an extension of this bias into the area of resource management. He further argues that people have a morbid fascination with disasters and tragedies and this fact,


together with Western culture tending to emphasize competition as opposed to cooperation, would have nurtured Western ecologists to be overly indulgent with the concepts of competition, predation and parasitism, as opposed to positive ecological interactions such as cooperation, commensalism and mutualism (Berkes, 1989a:72,85). But besides this cultural bias against common-property regimes, other obstacles remain. According to Gibbs and Bromley, common-property regimes imply an acceptance of participatory approaches to resource management and more decentralized administration. This however would involve a major shift in the role of resource-management agencies and bureaucracies unaccustomed to sharing power (Gibbs and Bromley, 1989:31). Also the inherence of empirically derived indirect measures of stock circumstances adopted by many tradition-based local common-property systems to ascertain catch limits in fishing and hunting as being inferior and non-scientific compared to science-based rational management techniques constitutes an impediment to the introduction of more effective management institutions. As Freeman points out, an ‘intuitive’ management approach based on feedback of information and learning does not require knowing various stock parameters nor undertaking complex modelling exercises, but determines new harvest levels by modification of an earlier empirically derived value. However, as he proceeds, until public awareness of the efficacy of traditional systems of management becomes widespread, public policy will continue to favour a conservative approach towards resource management, ensuring continuation of orthodox science-based approaches (Freeman, 1989:10406).


The lack of commitment to establish or reinstate traditional or neotraditional local-level management systems however can be sought only to some extent in the zeal of resource managers to privatize or nationalize CPRs having in mind the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Other causes, among the strong resistance of authoritarian regimes and urban elites to relinquish political power to local institutions (Ruttan, 1984:399) and the urge of modernization by any possible means making societies throw overboard management practices in use since centuries contributes to the transformation of sustainably managed resource systems into open-access spheres attractive to free-riders. The answer to inefficient management of resources however does not lie in removing common-property systems - this only will ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’ - but in attempting to seek for solutions which can overcome constraints of these systems if they do not have to be re-created anew altogether. Causes of the decline of CPRs: indian evidence Common-property resources are often in decline for the regime managing them is dwindling or disappearing altogether. Jodha argues that increased marketability and value of products lead to enhanced profitability which becomes the guiding force behind the choice of enterprises and usage patterns of CPRs rather than the concern for their upkeep. He further points out that technological innovation often makes it physically easier to overexploit natural resources (Jodha, 1985:259-60). According to Goodland et al, increased participation in market economies which encourages the overexploitation for export of natural resources previously harvested for local subsistence is one major cause of commonproperty system breakdown (Goodland et al, 1989:151).


Structural adjustment policies are just one case in point. The demand for foreign exchange creates competition for resources among governments, concessionaires, and rural communities as well as a pressure to redefine property rights (Gibbs and Bromley, 1989:30). Referring to dry regions of India, Jodha argues that the main form of decline is the privatization of CPRs: Under various welfare programmes [mainly land reforms in the early 1950s] CPR lands had been distributed to people for private use. CPR lands had also been illegally appropriated often with subsequent legalization. The stated intention of privatization of CPRs was to give land to the poor who were landless or who had very little land. (...) The consequent decline in the area of CPRs, and the resultant overcrowding and degradation of CPRs have led to a considerable reduction in the overall quantity of CPR benefits for the poor (Jodha, 1986:1178). Ensuing breakdown of traditional value systems also contribute to the dismantling of the commons. According to Gadgil and Iyer, small multi-caste village communities in which the different caste groups were linked to each other in a web of reciprocity favoured sustainable use of CPRs under communal management. However, as they argue, they are increasingly coming into conflict because of the destruction of traditional occupations and the erosion of their resource base (Gadgil and Iyer, 1989:240,252). Also the tradition of providing free inputs by common-property users and a common revenue fund for the maintenance of CPRs has been gradually eroded. According to Jodha, people’s contribution and common property resource revenue generated through auctioning of trees, etc. have disappeared and government grants or relief has proven to be a poor substitute for these traditional sources of upkeep (Jodha, 1985:251).


Another cause is population growth. Sustainable use of CPRs requires the number of parties sharing access to the resource to be not too large. However, as Jodha argues, increasing population density creates relative resource scarcity which in turn is thought to induce privatization of resources for reasons of efficiency and internalization of gains from resource use (Jodha, 1985:256). Increased differentiation of the rural community can as well cause the management quality of CPRs to decline (Jodha, 1995:3282). Given the complimentarity between PPRs and CPRs in the rural economy and assuming the concentration of PPRs in a few households of a village, as is often the case, the non-poor can reap more benefits from CPRs than the poor and consequently ‘only the PPR owners may participate in preserving the CPRs primarily to reinforce their existing structure of income generation’ (Chopra et al, 1989:A-192). Investigations in a number of Karnatakan villages reveal that, according to Pasha, though CPRs play a crucial role in the household economy of the rural poor, it is the non-poor who get more benefits from CPRs in absolute terms. (...) though in relative terms the poor obtained a greater proportion of their income from them (Pasha, 1992:2502). Given a high ratio of income differentiation between non-poor and poor, the non-poor’s share is generally considerably higher than the poor’s despite the higher share in the relative income of the latter. However, rising disparities in PPR ownership of CPR users are not only a cause for a decline in the ability to manage CPRs sustainably, they are also an effect of the decline.


Consequences of the decline of CPRs or: Why maintaining CPRs is a necessity for the rural poor Although only limited empirical evidence exists in the Indian case, most authors agree that ‘privatization has helped well-endowed land owners more than the poor’ (Jodha, 1985:260). The comparison of landholding size before and after the privatization indicates, as Jodha argues, that those who had relatively more land also got more land. The complete process of privatization of CPRs as it affected the rural poor involved three stages: (i) they were deprived of their right to collectively use the CPRs, (ii) they were given individual title to small parts of privatized CPRs, and (iii) the circumstances disentitled them of the newly received lands. (...) Mere distribution of land, particularly of sub-marginal land, without the provision of necessary complementary resources was not sufficient to develop and cultivate the land (...). Rather than sticking to a small piece of land that could not be developed and used for want of other resources, these households preferred to sell or mortgage the land (...) (Jodha, 1986:1179). On further investigation the response of the poor is quite rational. As animal husbandry plays a very important role in the economy of small and marginal farmers (Pasha, 1991:A-27), small pieces of marginal land are not efficient in their agricultural and livelihood system because, as Gadgil and Iyer argue, when the resource involved is not being produced but foraged, it entails the use of relatively large tracts of land (Gadgil and Iyer, 1989:241). Jodha points out that livestock, because they are mobile, are less subject to the adverse impact of localized droughts than crops are. This advantage is


lost however, if a farmer’s livestock must depend solely on his own forage and water resources (Jodha, 1985:248). It is this ‘hedge against environmental uncertainty’ inherent in CPR management, still amplified by the right to be included in a group that provides a hedge against individual failure (Runge, 1986:632) that is reduced or lost by the decline of the CPRs. Through the interaction of privatization, sub-marginal CPR lands which have only been used as pasture land so far, have been converted into croplands. According to Jodha, in the case of the arid zone of Rajasthan, unlike the situation in Europe following privatization of CPRs, it has invariably meant putting the land under plow. The consequences of this practice which strains the limited use-capability of the land are soil erosion and decline in overall crop yields (Jodha, 1985:260). On the other hand, due to the decline in size and the depletion of CPRs there has been a substantial increase in the number of sheep and goats. According to Jodha, the small ruminants could not only be sustained by degraded CPRs, but they also fit better in the changed migration patterns: In the context of the reduced CPRs, the migration of cattle has become more difficult than of small ruminants. Thus the sheep and goats often accused for destroying vegetation in the CPRs, seem to have become more important following the degradation of CPRs rather than vice versa (Jodha, 1990:A73-74). However, large ruminants such as draft animals have more and more difficulties to survive on the degraded CPRs. According to Pasha, the population of bullocks has decreased due to the high overhead cost of maintaining them on purchased fodder as the CPR lands have declined, or, where they survive on degraded CPR lands, these animals are subject to


many diseases, miscarriages, prolonged unproductive period, low growth and low productivity (Pasha, 1991:A-28). Jodha argues that the maintenance of such animals without the CPR facility means diversion of a substantial proportion of marginal farm households’ crop lands from food and cash crops to fodder crops. The alternative option, i.e. reducing animal numbers to levels sustainable by own fodder/feed resources, implies the loss of own farm inputs, e.g. draft power and farmyard manure (Jodha, 1990:A-66). It can be concluded that in dryland areas, as privatization raises the cost of livestock raising and erodes the region’s comparative advantage (Jodha, 1985:262), it is the poor being most dependent on animal husbandry who lose out the most. Reinstating appropriate management systems Recognizing that reinstating or developing CPRs is required as a strategy to help the rural poor can lead us searching for possible approaches. As Jodha argues, one strategy could be to develop CPRs and improve their use through technological and institutional interventions. However, it may be pointed out that growth in the CPR productivity alone may prove counter-productive. At present the process of selfselection of CPR users, tend to induce mainly the poor to depend on these resources. CPR activities are low pay-off options. The poor chooses them as the opportunity cost of their labour is lower than the returns from CPR activities. An increase in CPR productivity will induce greater demand on CPRs (Jodha, 1986:1179). Rehabilitation of CPRs is, according to Jodha, less of an investment-cumtechnological problem and more of a resource management problem.


In most areas, even natural regeneration itself can make CPRs more productive, provided the regeneration is permitted, through controlled and regulated use of resources. However, this cannot happen unless the CPRs are reconverted from ‘open access resources’ to ‘common property resources’. In operational terms this would mean the reestablishment and enforcement of usage regulations and userobligations towards CPRs (Jodha, 1990:A-77). Re-establishment and subsequent control mechanisms represent a far greater challenge for implementation than technological and institutional interventions from outsiders. While the latter necessitates merely a one-off activity to re-establish ecological equilibrium - mostly a both costly and futile intervention - the former implies the establishment of local institutional arrangements of CPR user groups which can regulate sustainable use of CPRs on a permanent basis. In the context of the current situation, this can sound utopian. As Pasha points out, in discussions with the poor households in villages in Karnataka, even these households largely prefer the available CPRs to be distributed among them as PPRs. Among other reasons for this reaction he assumes the lack through unequal distribution of CPR-based PPRs in the past and the lack of a proper policy by the government about the CPRs (Pasha, 1992:2503). This reaction however could suggest that basically the poor prefer a common-property regime provided that the principle of equity is respected and past injustices regarding the distribution of CPR based PPRs will be nullified - what will be unlikely to happen. On the other hand, as already noted above, when PPR ownership is widespread, preservation of CPRs by increasing their productivity promotes the interests of the majority in participatory institutions (Chopra et al, 1989:A-194). To provide however an increasing population with CPR-based


PPR land is arithmetically nonsense: all the remaining CPR land would have to be distributed that each poor household could own a non-viable small size of marginal land. If however means can be found for establishing participatory institutions, the basic pre-condition for sustainable management of common lands would be met. A local CPR management regime could, according to Damodaran, institute following rules: All users have access to CPRs in their capacity as members of the community and no individual user enjoys any preferential access to these lands by virtue of any social and economic advantages vis-à-vis other fellow users. In some cases, he proceeds, restrictions are imposed on the number of livestock grazed by a grazier which is either prohibited or discouraged by a grazing fee by the community. The basic concept implicit in these measures is sustainable and equitable exploitation of the common land resources without doing away with open access to the lands bearing the resources (Damodaran, 1991:2214). Supporting collective action through the participation of local people in such management regimes however requires more than populist interventions. A collaboration of the ‘stereotypical top-down and bottom-up approaches’ (Paul, 1989:104) has to be taken into account. Paul pleads for a synergy between governments and grassroots organizations - which have historically been antagonists - in the fight against poverty. This potential of collaboration would offer opportunities to the poor to participate and express their voice effectively particularly to enhance their self confidence and self reliance. As he argues, governments and grassroots organizations have different strengths which are complementary. In the context of poverty alleviation, there is a clear case for a division of labour that exploits their comparative advantage (Paul, 1989:100,105-06).


It is this common effort to empower the poor which could be more successful in the attempt to sustain CPR regimes and consequently maintain the ecological sustainability of CPRs. As Berkes argues, even that it may not be possible in many cases to ‘turn back the clock’, the knowledge base that would enable sustainable resource use nevertheless remains with local users. Hence, it makes management sense to leave as much control and responsibility as possible at the communal level while coordinating activities of users at the government level (Berkes, 1989b:238-239). As Runge puts it, it is the search for appropriate institutional responses which must respect both the traditions and the constraints of local needs in specific choice environments. There are no universal prescriptions for efficient and equitable resource management (Runge, 1986:633). Berkes proposes that combinations of property-rights regimes may in many cases work better than any single regime. The success of local-level management, for example, often depends on its legitimization by central government, involving the sharing of power between governments and local communities (Berkes et al, 1989:93). Rather than invoking the general superiority of one type of property institution, e.g. Hardin’s deterministic model (Berkes et al, 1989:93), a continuum of property rights, from pure rights of exclusion to pure rights of inclusion, depending on the nature of resource management problems paired with the need for more empirical research (Runge, 1986:633) may show us the way to explain resource use in complex socio-ecologic systems with more well-balanced models.


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