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Common property forest resource management

In June 1968, in the title of an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, focusing on the need to control rapidly increasing populations, an American biology professor coined a phrase that has had far-reaching effects on the management of natural resources by local populations. In the now epic paper, The tragedy the commons (reprinted in Science in December 1968), Dr Garrett Hardin defined (mistakenly) common property resources as unmanaged, "open access" no-man's-land, inevitably doomed to degradation as each individual withdrew more of the resource than would be optimal from the perspective of the users as a whole.

The Hardin paper (and its prevailing argument, echoed and elaborated in numerous subsequent publications) had a powerful influence in promoting policies in favour of individual privatization or government appropriation and management of common property natural resources, including forest land and trees. Unfortunately, the resources nationalized by governments often were not open access lands, but rather shared private property which was carefully managed by local communities through internally coherent rules that regulated use and controlled access. In a paradoxical situation, by assuming ownership and responsibility for resource management, governments caused many of these common property management systems to break down, creating in fact the very type of open access situations they were intended to control. The Hardin paper also helped focus the attention of an entire generation of social scientists on the challenge of resource degradation and the role of local communities in sustainable management.

Now, nearly 30 years after the publication of The tragedy of the commons, the negative experiences of governments with expropriation of common property resources have led to a reexamination of the potential of collective management; and there is a growing database of information on practical experiments with the restoration or strengthening of common property resource management systems. This issue of Unasylva focuses on both these aspects with respect to forest resources.

In the lead article, M. McKean and E. Ostrom examine the current and future potential of common property regimes in the conservation and sustainable use of forest resources. An extensive bibliography offers readers the opportunity to explore the argument in greater depth. J.T. Thomson and C. Coulibaly present evidence on the resurgence of local initiatives in common property forest management in Mali, highlighting the vitality of the system even after decades of official pressure.

In complementary articles, N.S. Jodha and M. Sarin consider common property forest management in India. Based on a study covering dry India, Jodha describes how common property resources constitute an important component of community assets, comments on the decline of these resources and examines public interventions involving common property resources. Sarin analyses the Joint Forest Management programme - a promising if not unflawed attempt to restore degraded public forest lands and provide benefits to local people in a workable balance between government intervention and community autonomy. She emphasizes the need to address issues of inequity between women and men in the programme.

In Portugal, after more than 40 years of state control, the baldios or commons were restored to local populations in 1976. R. Brouwer analyses how the baldios, which were largely transformed from open woodlands and pastures to closed pine forests by the forest service during the period of national control, are once again providing village communities with essential products and amenities.

Although the volume of research on common property regimes has increased dramatically, systematic empirical evaluations of the factors underlying successful collective action are relatively few. T.A. White and C.F. Runge undertake such an examination with regard to collective watershed management in Haiti.

Another basic aspect of common property regimes concerns their cost-effectiveness as a management system under contemporary conditions. M. Merlo presents a cost-benefit analysis of communal forest management in northern Italy, pointing to its continued validity in the face of modern socio-economic developments. A key element for effective local or joint control is legal recognition, i.e. government's willingness and ability to legitimize and empower local control mechanisms. J. Bruce, S. Rudrappa and L. Zongmin consider approaches to common property forestry in China, where law, rather than the starting point, is the capstone of social change.

The theoretical arguments and practical examples provided in this issue of Unasylva demonstrate that there are circumstances where common property regimes are the most appropriate form of forest management - a self-reliant, participatory approach that provides sustainable benefits and ensures resource conservation. Dr Hardin has now modified his position and argues that the "tragedy of the commons" is inevitable only in a situation characterized by the absence of management. Many governments are taking a fresh look at the potential of common property regimes for forest management. However, there are no simple solutions to the challenges of forest resource management; some common property regimes fail while other institutional arrangements can work effectively. The challenge is to continue the systematic analysis of common property regimes in order to have a better understanding of their potential within the mix of institutional options available for sustainable forest resource management and development.

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