10. Were people traditionally conservationists?

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10.1 The romantic view: A first appraisal
10.2 An interpretative analysis of the available evidence
10.3 Conclusion

10.1 The romantic view: A first appraisal

A widespread view among students of traditional, procapitalist is that members of these societies were efficient managers of their natural resources, meaning that they followed rules and patterns of behaviour geared towards self-sustainability. Unfortunately, as we have already pointed out in Chapter I, the concept of sustainability is problematic because it is often used in a loose way which lends itself to several interpretations. Statements such as: a resource is managed in a sustainable way when over the long term it is 'maintained at some optimal level' (I awry, 1989a: 8, emphasis added) bear witness to this difficulty. In such circumstances, the hypothesis that traditional societies effectively managed their resources becomes unfalsifiable due to lack of rigour in the definition of the key concept supposed to characterize the behaviour of the people concerned. There is then a high risk that the conclusion reached by the researcher reflects his a priori belief about the ecological soundness of traditional practices.

For the sake of illustration, consider the following account of the traditional organization and behaviour of Californian Indians with respect to their natural resources (more particularly their salmon estuary fisheries):

Like all hunter-gatherers, California Indians were intimately familiar with the ecology of their food resources and actively manipulated their environment in order to enhance its stability and productivity.... The Indians seem to have harvested as much from their environment as it could predictably yield.... Native Californian hunter-gatherers ... took pains to control their use of resources so as to sustain their way of life. . . the Indians managed their fisheries successfully over the long run, and at sustained levels of harvest that might well incite the envy of twentieth century fishers and lawmakers. (McEvoy, 1986: 28, 38-9)

How are we to interpret this series of statements? First, what does the concept of 'predictable' yield refer to? Second, the first part of the text suggests that efficient management is tantamount to conserving the resource ('enhancing its stability'), that is, to maintaining over time its regenerative or reproductive capacity. However, the subsequent idea that 'Indians managed their resource so as to sustain their way of life' points to a much larger (and, as we have argued in Chapter I, more meaningful) notion of sustainability understood as the safeguarding of the consumption capacity of future generations. Third, the latter part of the text speaks of 'sustained levels of harvest' without giving any clue to the meaning to be attached to this expression.

This being said, it is probably fair to reckon that, when the context of the whole argument is considered, many authors seem to adhere to the narrow definition of resource sustainability, namely that of resource conservation or maintenance: members traditional village societies, according to this opinion, are seen as harvesting the maximum yield from their resources as they can safely extract without endangering the regenerative capacity of these resources.

Now, there are several problems with the view that traditional societies were efficient resource managers in the above restricted sense. The first problem arises from the fact that, with such a narrow definition of resource management, a society in which population pressure has made slash-and-burn cultivation non-sustainable (forest resources are being gradually degraded due to overexploitation) and which has subsequently converted forests into permanent agricultural fields cannot be considered as managing its resources efficiently. To meet the conservationist criterion, such a society would have, for example, to limit its population size so as to match the available forest resources within the confines of the existing technology (slashand-burn cultivation). Clearly, the conservationist criterion is problematic as soon as changes in technology and social organization are brought into the picture. Some authors explicitly acknowledge this difficulty. Thus, in the particular case of forestry exploitation in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, Jessup and Peluso have noted the following: when in the past villagers were led by such circumstances as warfare, demographic changes, and fluctuations in the longestablished trade in minor forest products to deplete certain resources and switch to others, the switch was not necessarily made at a point that would conserve the resources. Hence their conclusion that so-called 'traditional' forest-dwelling people were not necessarily more conservative users of resources before the modern boom in tropical forest exploitation (Jessup and Peluso, 1986: 508-9).

The societies with which the upholders of the conservationist thesis seem to be mostly concerned are those which operate—or are supposed to operate—in a more or less static environment: peace reigns, population is stationary or is implicitly assumed to be duly controlled to match the resources; there is no technical change; economic activities are not disturbed by radically new trade opportunities; etc. Moreover, the livelihood of their members depends to a large extent upon a single resource the conservation of which therefore constitutes a crucial determinant of their present and future survival capacity.

A second issue worth raising is that traditional management practices may be coincidental rather than intentional, a fact which is stressed by several authors even though the evidence to decide whether a practice is intentional is in most cases tenuous (see, e.g., Cordell and McKean, 1986: 101; Ruddle, 1988: 81; Verdeaux, 1990: 192; Johannes, 1982; Scudder and Conelly, 1985). Leaving aside the problem that natural resources do not remain in unaltered condition even when unused (Brookfield, 1991: 48-9), a situation in which conservation is clearly unintentional arises when the technology is so primitive that it cannot enable the people to affect the level of the stock through their productive efforts (this happens when, beyond a point, the costs of exploiting a resource become infinite), and/or when population is sufficiently low compared to the amount of resource as to make overexploitation impossible. The case of taboos is more difficult to handle because, if it is true that many taboos have the effect of conserving resources, one cannot be certain that they have been especially designed for that purpose.

A society may be said to be conservationist if resource conservation has been (purposely) achieved through the operation of ecologically oriented motives. When this is not the case, because such an outcome has resulted either from motives unrelated to the ecological concern or from exogenous, uncontrollable events, the society is not conservationist although resources have been actually maintained. Thus, for example, if a community controls its size so as to adjust it to the stock of available resources in such a way that this stock is maintained over time, it is conservation-oriented whereas, if restricted population size (not only of human beings but also of animals) is the result of epidemics and intergroup conflicts, it may not be thus characterized. Likewise, if a community makes conscious technological choices with a view to preventing resource destruction, it can be legitimately described as conservationist whereas, if an environmentally harmless ('soft') technology is used that has not been selected with such a purpose in mind, this description is not appropriate.

The above distinction between intentional and non-intentional conservation practices is not a purely academic matter. Indeed, the potential for village- or group-level resource management in today's circumstances partly depends upon the people being sufficiently aware of the impact of their own actions on the state of the surrounding resources.

Now, it must be admitted that the proponents of the 'romantic' view of traditional ecological conservationism are not content with pointing to the outcome of conservation: resources were not degraded or depleted in traditional village environments. Most of their efforts have been actually devoted to showing that in many instances precapitalist societies have evolved sets of rules explicitly destined to conserve resources. The rules are basically of two kinds: on the one hand, there are those controlling access to the CPRs by outsiders, so as to prevent open-access situations from arising (these rules are essential to systems of territoriality) and, on the other hand, we find rules regulating allocation and use of the resource. In fact, even the authors who are ready to concede the existence of some unintentional resource-conserving devices frequently point to the simultaneous existence of restrictions or measures clearly designed to conserve stocks (see, e.g., Cordell and McKean, 1986: 101; Ruddle, 1988: 81-3). The standard position can thus be expressed in the terms used by Carrier with specific reference to fishing in Oceania:

The notion that traditional marine tenure systems are linked to the conservation of fish stocks in Oceania is partly supported by the assumption that since native people are intimately familiar with the ecological systems they exploit and upon which they have depended, they have learned the necessity and techniques of conservation. (Carrier, 1987: 144)

There is a third problem which deserves to be mentioned at this preliminary stage of our discussion. The problem emerges from the confusion which is often made between two analytically distinct issues, namely that of open-access situations and that of resource management proper. Indeed, as has been stressed in Chapter 1, the management of resources is a dynamic issue to which the concepts of maximum sustainable yield or optimum economic yield are clearly related whereas open access gives rise to a static problem which involves nonseparable externalities and in connection with which the concept of rent dissipation takes on its meaning.

In many cases, unfortunately, the authors make statements which mix up the two issues. A clear illustration of this tendency is provided by the following excerpt of a paper written by Cordell and McKean: 'Perceptions of what constitutes a "safe" number of people on fishing grounds are primarily based on acceptable levels of boat crowding rather than on estimates of the reproductive reserves of fish that are necessary to sustain certain levels of production' (Cordell and McKean, 1986: 101). In other cases, ambiguity is created by the fact that authors use the concept 'traditional management systems' to refer to the ability of traditional communities to control the open-access problem rather than to solve that of resource conservation, thereby adding considerably to the terminological confusion around the concept of resource management on which we have lamented at the beginning of this section. To illustrate this second possibility, we may quote Panayotou when he writes that 'a possible test of the performance of the traditional management systems would be in terms of their capacity to forestall the dissipation of economic rents, which is the theoretically predicted and empirically observed outcome of open-access fisheries' (Panayotou, 1988: 88, emphasis added; in the same vein, see also Levieil, 1987). From his own as well as other empirical investigations, he then concludes that in a country like Sri Lanka, where even in modern times many coastal villages have remained 'closed' communities, fisheries are 'successfully managed' because fishermen there are earning incomes above their opportunity costs (which can be approximated by what comparable socioeconomic groups earn in the rest of the economy). By contrast, traditional management systems in Malaysia (east coast), the Philippines, and Thailand 'have disintegrated' because in these latter countries 'small-scale fishermen were found to earn incomes far below their opportunity costs and to depend on a variety of non-fishing occupations to make a riving' (Panayotou, 1988: 88-9).

The fact of the matter is that the stock of a resource may be conserved even in situations where rents have been dissipated as a result of open access (see above, Chapter 1): this would be the case if the numerous users of the resource follow strict conservation rules or if the users' harvesting behaviour is not susceptible of affecting the resource stock. If management is taken to imply the conservation of the resource, it is therefore not true that traditional management systems in South-East Asian fisheries have disintegrated simply because rents have vanished.