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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Data available

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Baland, Jean-Marie.

Halting degradation of natural resources: is there a role for rural communities? / Jean-Marie Baland and Jean-Philippe Platteau; foreword by Mancur Olson.

Includes bibliographical references.

1. Natural resources Management.
2. Natural resources, Communal Management.
3. Commons.

I. Platteau, J. P. (Jean Philippe), 1947
II. Title.

HC59 15 B35 1995 95 20282
ISBN 92-5-103728-0

Typeset by Best-set Typesetter Ltd., Hong Kong
Printed in Great Britain on acid-free paper by
Biddles Ltd, Guildford King's Lynn

This book is dedicated to our wives, Madeleine and Marie-Christine, who have renounced so many hours of our company to let this book come to fruition.


This rich, balanced, and wide-ranging book will interest readers of a number of different backgrounds and interests. My guess is that each of these categories of reader would emphasize different features of the book: partisans on one side will find strong arguments and evidence to support their position, but their opponents will also find ammunition they can use in this fair-minded account. Those who like economic logic or game theory will probably emphasize the sound theoretical reasoning that inspires the book, while those who are inclined to inductive or anthropological work will tend to emphasize the way the book is guided by evidence and observation.

My emphasis is on what the book says about the relationship between the number of those who use or control a given common property and the likelihood that it will be protected—and especially on the question of whether a central government, on the one hand, or a small rural community, on the other, will be more likely to protect their environments and natural resources.

As I personally see the matter, several different factors have tended to make most of us assume that small rural communities in the Third World have relatively little to contribute to either economic development or environmental protection—the better and modern practices will come from the urbanized elites, the capital city, or from international organizations or aid-giving foreign countries. It is mainly regulation and constraints imposed from above upon the peasant communities that will make things better, and especially limit the degradation of the natural environment.

At the same time, a famous and marvelously simple theoretical idea—the prisoner's dilemma game—has tended to push in the same direction. Though it might seem utterly unrelated, the beguiling metaphor of the two prisoners has also, I think, worked to make many people assume that small groups, such as the families that make up a peasant village, would be at least as likely to despoil their environments as large or national populations would be.

Some neglected special characteristics of the classical illustration of the prisoner's dilemma game can help us see this from a new angle. In the canonical prisoner's dilemma example, the two men who were the only witnesses to the major crime they committed cannot be convicted of this crime unless at least one of them confesses and implicates the other, but the authorities have the evidence to convict them for another, lesser offence. The police put each man in a separate cell, and privately tell each that, if he does not turn State's evidence and the other does, he will be convicted and given an especially long sentence, but the sentence he receives will not be as severe if he confesses and implicates his partner. Most notably, the authorities make the bargain to each such that the rational strategy for each prisoner is to defect from the criminal partnership by turning State's evidence, irrespective of what each thinks the other will do. Therefore, each rational prisoner confesses, even though both prisoners would have been better off if neither confessed and they had thereby both been spared conviction for the major offence. To put the same point in another way, the criminal partnership does not obtain the collective good, for them, of keeping their participation in the major crime secret.

So, the story goes, just as the two prisoners do not serve their common interests by cooperation, so each of us individually has an incentive to take no account of the collective good of a wholesome environment, with the result that we jointly despoil our habitats and make ourselves worse off. It is, indeed, true that each individual in a large city has no incentive to limit his driving to curb air pollution, even when everyone would be made better off if all were induced to cut back their polluting behaviour. More generally, laissez-faire fails to prevent a population or large group from generating unjustifiably high levels of pollution.

And just as the two prisoners failed to serve their common interest, so the small number of families in a small community, such as in a Third World village, must also neglect their environment and their other collective interests. Right?

Wrong. The two rational prisoners failed to serve their common interest in avoiding conviction for the serious offence only because they were kept from communicating and making enforceable commitments to each other not to turn State's evidence. If they were allowed to communicate and work out an enforceable agreement not to give evidence to the police (mafioso do this all the time), they would have had an incentive to make a credible agreement to remain silent and both would have been spared conviction. It is only the very special circumstance that the two prisoners are kept in separate cells and are unable to communicate and make an enforceable agreement that prevents them from obtaining the gains from cooperation.

Thus it is no accident that the main metaphor that seems to show that even a group so small that it contains only two individuals will fail to serve its common interest— will fail to co-operate to achieve a collective good—is drawn from the realm of crime and punishment. If the two individuals in the prisoner's dilemma had not committed crimes, they would have been able to communicate freely and to make credible agreements, and even to make a contract enforceable by the courts. But for the very special circumstances that rule out communication and credible agreements, there would have been no dilemma in the first place.

Unfortunately, the textbooks ordinarily do not make clear what extraordinarily special circumstances are required to keep a group as small as two parties from providing themselves with a collective good.

In fact, when there are only a small number of parties that would gain from cooperation to provide a collective good, they will usually obtain at least much of the gains from co operation. If, say, there are only three similar families who benefit from a local feature of the natural environment, each family will receive about a third of the benefits of whatever it does to protect this triadic collective good. Even though each family must bear the whole costs of whatever it does in the interest of the group of three, it may find it advantageous unilaterally to talk some account of the common interest of the three families. Most important, so long as there is nothing akin to the police that kept the prisoners in separate cells, they will be able to communicate and often make credible agreements to co operate. Each family has an incentive to propose to the others that they will share the burden of providing the collective good if the others do and thereby achieve an ideal or group-optimal level of co-operation. All three may, for example, agree not to dump garbage on their common lot or to share the costs of planting the trees they need.

By contrast, in a population of a million, a representative individual will obtain only one millionth of the benefits of whatever he or she does to provide or protect any collective good, yet bear all of the costs of whatever expenditure or forbearance is required for that collective good. The individual in a city of a million who drives less to prevent air pollution will bear the whole burden of this sacrifice but obtains only about a millionth of the benefits. So, as is well known, in large groups like nations we cannot depend upon Adam Smith's invisible hand to protect the environment.

In short, small groups, such as the few families in some rural communities in the Third World, will sometimes, through voluntary co-operation and traditional social organization, be able to do something to protect environmental assets that are important to them, whereas the large populations in huge cities can never rely on voluntary or laissez-faire mechanisms to protect their environments.

As I see it, this crucial importance of numbers for collective action, whether to protect the environment or for other purposes, has all too often not been understood. In part, I believe this because the very special 'prohibition of communication' that drives the two-person prisoner's dilemma tends to have been overlooked. At this point the reader who knows my own work may say that I am here revealing my partiality for my own analysis of the logic of collective action, which brings out the crucial role of numbers, over the prisoner's dilemma metaphor, which often leaves the impression that the likelihood of defection is not affected by the number involved, and wonder what I have just said has to do with this book by Baland and Platteau?

I think a great deal. The title of their book is Halting Degradation of Natural Resources: Is there a Role for Rural Communities? The foregoing argument suggests that the question in their subtitle should be answered in the affirmative. In a balanced way, Baland and Platteau go into both the strengths and weaknesses of traditional rural communities as custodians of natural resources. They point out that traditional rural communities in the least developed countries do suffer from lack of education and knowledge, and have still other weaknesses as guardians of natural resources.

None the less, both the examples and the reasoning they present, on balance, reinforce my belief that the question in their title should be answered with a 'yes'. They point to the 'upsurge of in-depth field studies pointing to the considerable collective action potential of rural communities'. Moreover, the central role of group size for collective action is one of the central themes running through the book. One of the authors' merits in this regard is to have referred to a variety of advantages of small groups beyond the incentive dilution argument underlined above. Also, they have clearly distinguished the issue of group size from that of group homogeneity/ heterogeneity, providing us with a rich discussion of the various possible dimensions of social heterogeneity and their differentiated impact upon a society's collective action potential (see Chapters 5 and 12). In addition, Baland and Platteau have laid much emphasis on the role of inter-agent communication for fostering co-operation, more particularly in Chapter 7 where they review some salient results of experimental social psychology. A noteworthy feature of their discussion is that problems of commitment are brought into the picture, thus drawing attention to the crucial issue of the reliability of the promises made during the communication process.

Finally, their 'game theoretical analysis suggests that problems of the commons are not necessarily well depicted by the classic prisoner's dilemma'. As they show, important situations involve problems of trust, co-ordination, leadership, heterogeneity, etc., and one of the main contributions of their book is to have offered a precise theoretical characterization of such situations (in Chapter 5) and to have simultaneously illustrated and discussed them in the light of a host of socio-anthropological studies (in Chapter 12).

Admittedly, some readers may prefer to emphasize the value of other features of the book, and it is good that readers with different leanings should also find value in it. But I believe that, in view of the absolutely appalling record of most of the national governments of the poorest countries, the potentials of the smaller rural communities in these societies cannot be ignored. All too often these small communities are oppressed and repressed by the autocratic leaders and kleptocratic civil and military officers of these countries. These small communities have many disadvantages and they may often need help. That is one reason why the co-management approach discussed at the end of the book (in Chapter 13) deserves the attention of policymakers: it underlines the case for institutionalizing co-operation between the State and the user communities by using their comparative strengths at different levels in a complementary way. Baland and Platteau realize that co-management is not, however, a magic word-that it should take on a variety of forms and that it is up to each country to find the most suitable one by taking due account of the specific characteristics of the resources and the users involved. I commend their balanced argument to readers.

Mancur Olson