Back to contents - Previous file - Next file

The present work is concerned with the topical issue of natural resource management. It does not deal, however, with broad-spectrum environmental concerns such as protection of wilderness areas (for example, the south pole), air or water pollution, etc., but focuses on local ecosystems. What distinguishes local-level resources from larger ecosystems is that (1) they are susceptible of appropriation by relatively small units (including individuals) and (2) they can lead to rivalry in consumption in so far as yields of these resources are clearly perceived as subtractable. This book thus addresses the question as to how these local or village-level natural resources (as contrasted with global commons) can be most efficiently and equitably managed. In other words, can we find guidelines or sound theoretical principles for an optimal long-term exploitation of local resources (forests, irrigation water, pastures, lakes and rivers, sea areas, etc.)? Disturbing evidence highlighting rapid processes of resource depletion, particularly so in developing countries, has stimulated a lot of theoretical and empirical works during the last decades. Moreover, relevant theoretical tools (such as game theory) have been developed independently of environmental concerns which have potential applications to this field. The present attempt aims essentially at making a pause in order to take stock of the achievements attained so far. We believe this step is necessary in view not only of the considerable body of literature which has accumulated on the subject under concern, but also of the multidisciplinary nature of the works involved. Due to these two characteristics, there are many gaps to be bridged between various strands of thinking or contributions to the field.

It is our conviction that the time has come to weave together or to otherwise compare and confront different kinds of works around well-defined questions and hypotheses so as to better structure and assess the available body of knowledge. It is striking that economic theorists ignore most of the results obtained by applied researchers, and therefore remain unable to make a valid judgement on the empirical relevance of their analytical propositions. And, on the other hand, applied researchers often ignore the contribution of theorists and, owing to this lacuna, their formulation of the problem and of the hypotheses being tested tends to be imprecise while the concepts used are not always sufficiently tight or rigorous. The field is very complex, indeed, and that is why, to repeat, it is an urgent task to bring some order and to shed some light on where we stand today, taking a broad view of what has been achieved by scholars belonging to different disciplines. Only then can we make a sound assessment of where we ought to direct our attention in future research efforts.

When tackling the question as how best to manage local commons or village-level resources, it has become common practice in many writings to distinguish between three modes of management: private, public (or state), and community management.

This typology is clearly of a legal type in the sense that the underlying criterion is the nature of ownership (is the owner of the resource a private individual, the State, or a group or community?). When various modes of management have to be compared on the field, this is undoubtedly a useful distinction although it is much too crude in so far as it rules out any intermediary mode mixing up elements of two or three of the above 'ideal' modes.

Economists tend to adopt another analytical grid which is particularly appropriate to raise pertinent theoretical questions. Here, the distinction is between open access (which is equivalent to a no-property or res nullius regime under the above legal typology), unregulated common property (access rules prevail that define insiders as against outsiders), regulated common property (not only is access delimited but rules of use are also defined), and private property. It must be emphasized that the regulating agency under regulated common property can take various concrete forms ranging from a small community to a state apparatus. Yet, when the State does not actually regulate, a regime of nationalized commons is akin to open access even though the State is the legal owner. As for private property, it differs from regulated common property only in so far as the rule-defining agent is also the unique user of the resource. As a result, what distinguishes fundamentally these two regimes is the fact that private property as opposed to regulated common property cannot give rise to collective action problems. Note again that, if we follow the analytical logic of the economists' perspective, private property where the owner is absent and careless about the resource is tantamount to open access because formal or legal ownership rights are not actually exercised.

The second above perspective—that of the economists—provides a framework for the analysis conducted in Part I of this work. In the first chapter, an attempt is made at defining properly what is meant by the optimal use of a natural resource. As will be seen, even though such an optimal pattern does not imply of necessity that a conservationist strategy is being followed, good grounds still exist to support the conservationist claim that natural resources should be safeguarded even at the cost of some production losses. Moreover, in the real world many resources are clearly overexploited in ways incompatible with any optimality criterion. The main source of this mismanagement of natural resources is widely known in the literature as 'the tragedy of the commons', which attributes the inefficiency in resource use to the absence of well-defined property rights. Chapter 2 is devoted to an in-depth analysis of this issue.

It has often been claimed that the tragedy of the commons could be easily solved by simply establishing private property rights on the resource. In Chapter 3, a balanced view is proposed of the various implications of privatization of the commons. It is argued that, even on the basis of the strict criterion of efficiency, privatization of natural resources is not always an appropriate solution.

In Chapter 4, we call into question the pessimistic view according to which uncoordinated human behaviour inexorably leads to the destruction of the commons, as implied by the tragedy of the commons. It is argued that decentralized mechanisms may possibly prompt agents to avoid the collectively irrational outcome that such destruction amounts to. First, as suggested by Ronald Coase, agents may get involved in voluntary exchanges of their rights to impose externalities on the others. If they abstain from doing so, it is necessarily because these exchanges (including the establishment of private property rights) are not socially efficient. The limitations of the Coasian solution are nevertheless serious and will be duly emphasized. Second, the possibility of spontaneous co operative behaviour in a strategic framework is examined in the light of recent developments of non-co-operative game theory. This analysis points to the importance of repeated interactions between actors and, therefore, to the advantages of small groups for the efficient use of local commons.

Contrary to what the tragedy of the commons' story suggests, many of the problems encountered in unregulated common property are problems of co-ordination and leadership and are, therefore, not adequately represented by the prisoner's dilemma. Chapter 5 first examines the contribution that game theory can make to the understanding of these two problems. In a second step, special attention is paid to heterogeneous situations in which different types of actors interact. In particular, we try to assess the threat to the stability of co-ordinated solutions that may be caused by a minority of opportunistic actors, both in small and large groups.

In Chapter 6, we relax the assumption of non-socialized individuals implicit in economic theorizing. More precisely, we envisage the role of moral norms as a possible way of shaping individual preferences and expectations in a way conducive to cooperation. The difficult issue as to how such norms emerge is also addressed in this chapter.

Chapter 7 confronts many of the results of non-co-operative game theory reviewed in the previous chapters with the findings of social experimental psychology. This exercise shows that often people tend to behave in ways that do not support the universal free-riding hypothesis, even when interactions are not repeated. More importantly, the function of communication, which is to facilitate promise-making and to build trust among strangers, is brought to light.

Chapter 8 is devoted to the detailed analysis of the possibility of collective regulation of the use of local resources. In theory, efficient use of these resources can be achieved through appropriate regulations. There are however two kinds of problems that may make regulation less attractive than it appears at first sight. First, regulation may be costly to achieve and carry out, especially in contexts of high uncertainties, pervasive market imperfections, and informational asymmetries. Second, regulation may seriously affect income distribution, and, for this reason, it is liable to generate strong opposition from some users.

Chapter 9 offers some concluding reflections on the privatization of common property resources.

In Part II, the main lessons drawn from Part I are confronted with the evidence accumulated in field settings, mainly pertaining to traditional village societies in developing countries. More precisely, the following questions are addressed in the light of the socio-anthropological empirical material available:

  1. Do we find in these societies mechanisms or behaviours that have the effect of regulating use of common property resources? Do such mechanisms or schemes hinge upon the purposeful and unremitting intervention of a local authority or, on the contrary, are they the spontaneous outcome of completely decentralized initiatives? Are these mechanisms and behaviours aimed at an efficient use of the resources or do they serve other social purposes, particularly that of ensuring fair access to these resources (Chapter 10)?
  2. How can we assess and explain the degree of effectiveness of state intervention in village-level resources (Chapter 11, sect. 1)?
  3. Has the ability of traditional village societies in designing and enforcing effective regulatory schemes been affected by recent changes in the broad technological, demographic, social, and political environment in which these societies operate (Chapter 11, sect. 2)?
  4. What are the main factors conditioning success of collective action with respect to locallevel management of common property resources (Chapter 12)?
  5. Do we find intermediary regimes at work that go beyond the conventional distinction between private, state, and community management? How can we assess their potential (Chapter 13)?

As is evident from the above presentation, this study has a clearly multidisciplinary character even though it uses essentially economic concepts that reflect the authors' basic training. This is especially obvious in Part I in which the arguments developed are understandable only to a reader with a fair background in economics. For those who do not meet this requirement or feel repelled by 'pure' economic arguments, the reading of Part II can still prove rewarding since it is conceived as a self-contained whole which can be read independently of Part I.

The above project was originally commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and, without the strong encouragements and continuous support of Apostolos Condos from the Policy Analysis Division, it would not have come to fruition. This book is actually based on a largely rewritten version of the report submitted to the FAO at the beginning of 1993. To carry out this revision of the original work, the authors have benefited from the observations and critiques of a number of scholars to whom they want to express their gratitude. In particular, thanks are due to Pranab Bardhan (University of California, Berkeley), K. P. Cannan and John Kurien (Centre of Development Studies, Trivandrum), Robert Cassen (University of Oxford), Partha Dasgupta (University of Cambridge), Robert Allen, Patrick François and Ashok Kotwal (University of British Columbia, Vancouver), François Maniquet (University of Namur), Sebastian Mathew (International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, Madras), Jeffrey Nugent (University of Southern California, Los Angeles), Mancur Olson (University of Maryland, Washington), Elinor Ostrom (Indiana University, Bloomington), Maurice Schiff (the World Bank), and Rolf Willmann (FAO). Moreover, the authors have been greatly stimulated by the thorough discussions that took place during a series of five seminars organized at the universities of Stanford and Berkeley, California. They feel especially indebted to Marcel Fafchamps, Carl Gotsch, and Albert Park (from Stanford University) and to Alain de Janvry and Elisabeth Sadoulet (from the University of California, Berkeley). The views expressed in the book are, however, the entire responsibility of the authors and, in particular, they do not necessarily reflect the position of the FAO. Finally, thanks are due to Anne Patigny for her helpful assistance in typing the text at various stages of the work.