10.2 An interpretative analysis of the available evidence

Back to contents - Previous file - Next file

A simple typology of traditional village societies

So much for general considerations and preliminary comments on what we have called the romantic view of traditional conservationism. It is now the time to evaluate it more closely and to attempt to provide more precise answers to questions such as: did rules exist in traditional village societies in connection with the management of their collec tive resources; to what extent rules of access to these resources have been consciously designed to conserve resources; and to what extent have they achieved their objective?

FIG. 10.1 A typology of traditional village societies with respect to resource management

To make significant progress in this inquiry and to organize the empirical material at hand in a systematic way, it is important to avoid general statements supposed to apply to all traditional societies at the same time. After all, village societies that are relatively closed, are not permeated by a market logic (or are only superficially so), and are to a large extent insulated from the rule of a centralized state machinery are still so diverse that it is hardly possible to assess their performance or situation vis--vis resource conservation without classifying them into at least a few basic types. Two discriminatory criteria seem to be particularly appropriate and will serve as guidelines for the following discussion. They actually rest upon the distinction which we have just re-emphasized between the issue of open access on the one hand and that of resource management (or conservation) on the other hand. The first criterion thus refers to the degree of flexibility of rules of access to CPRs while the second criterion concerns the presence or absence of resource conservation rules strictly conceived (that is, excluding access rules). We then have the four possibilities indicated in Figure 10.1.

Each one of the above four situations will be examined in turn, starting with type-I societies, and then proceeding to analyse those of type-II, -III, and -IV.

A point of departure: the case of type-l societies

According to the above typology, type-I societies are characterized simultaneously by the presence of flexible access rules and the absence of conservation mechanisms. This first category ideally corresponds to societies which live amidst abundant natural resources defined as resources for which there is no competition (they are therefore not subtractable since all users can jointly benefit from exploiting them) and which cannot be threatened with the risk of degradation/depletion even when they are openly accessible. A state of resource abundance may be related to three main kinds of circumstances:

  1. population size is restricted compared to the amount of available resources;
  2. technology is primitive with the result that labour productivity is quite low and/or the cost of exploiting a certain range of the available resources (particularly those portions of the resources which are not easily accessible) tends to infinity; and
  3. people are not profit-maximizers, say, because they produce mainly for subsistence purposes and have a marked preference for leisure or leisurely activities (in the terminology of the new household economics, they have a preference for the kind of Z-goods which are highly time-intensive).

Now, it can be argued that the third condition is automatically satisfied in traditional societies which are by definition relatively well insulated against the stimulus of external economic opportunities or against the drive of newly created wants. Given that, the first condition (restricted population size) is normally sufficient to cause resources to be and remain abundant in the aforedescribed sense. Indeed, even if people know highly efficient techniques to exploit their natural environment, they are not interested in applying them on an extended scale because they prefer to use the resulting gains in the form of increased leisure. The same may not, however, be said of the second condition: as a matter of fact, the existence of simple technologies may not suffice to prevent competition from arising around a resource if population is large enough to strain it. Therefore, Berkes's statement that a subsistence fishery has a builtin self-limiting principle that protects it from degradation (Berkes, 1988: 85) would be valid only if it could be shown that because people are subsistence-oriented they have a built-in tendency to hold their numbers in check.

There is admittedly one circumstance in which primitive technology is a sufficient condition to avoid the risk of an open-access resource being degraded or depleted: this case occurs when the marginal cost of exploiting the resource becomes infinite beyond a certain threshold point. The most obvious example which comes to mind is that of marine fisheries: in the past, fishermen did not have the technical ability to harvest many of the resources lying in the open sea. Under such conditions, densely populated communities may possibly destroy species of fish living in the inshore waters but not those dwelling at some distance from the shoreline. This is not a clean case, however, since 'inshore' species of fish may then be considered as a scarce resource while fish in general remain plentiful, much in the same way as well-located lands or lands of comparatively high fertility may be scarce while land in general is abundant (if lands of high fertility are privately owned, this corresponds to the well-known Ricardian case where rents are zero at the extensive and intensive margins).

In societies where resources are abundant, people typically do not see their finite nature. Thus, Berkes observes that James Bay Cree fishermen believe that fish is an inexhaustible resource (Berkes, 1988: 84) and Kurien notes in the same vein that, to fishermen in Kerala (South India), marine resources appeared as limitless before modernization took place in the inshore fishery (Kurien, 1991: 3). In Botswana (Eastern Central District), to take an example pertaining to another sector, we are told that even today villagers do not see their grazing areas as a finite resource, a perception which results from the fact that those areas are still fairly extensive and not well demarcated (Zufferey, 1986: 90). Traditionally, local chiefs found solutions to overgrazing problems by requesting farmers to move to different areas (ibid. 67, 70). According to the same author, 'the stocking rate and grazing capacity of the land were/are rather marginal considerations in managing grazing resources. Permission for or prohibition of outsiders in those grazing areas was rather based on the degree of relationships they had with village wards or community residents' (ibid. 67).

Around Zinder, Niger, we learn that before woodstock abundance gave way to scarcity, 'trees were managed "passively": people simply allowed natural regeneration to reclaim fallowed fields'. 'Though their usefulness was recognised, trees were generally taken for granted because supplies more than met demand. Trees on village lands (typically one to two square miles in all) were apparently dealt with as a CPR, but access and use rules were probably very loose, given the abundance of wood at that time' (Thomson et al., 1986: 395).

As noted before, we cannot be sure, when people move from one area to another in a context of general resource abundance, that the resource in the abandoned area has not been depleted in an irreversible way. If it has been actually destroyed, however, it must be borne in mind that it is only a localized fraction of the resource and not the resource as a whole which has been depleted, which nevertheless implies that the stock of the resource is not maintained. Yet, in many instances, as suggested by the above example about Zinder and by the system of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation, no threshold of irreversible depletion is reached and the resource located in an abandoned area may gradually regenerate or recover, possibly over a long or very long time-span. Of course, in so far as the resource is abundant, the fact that the period needed for its regeneration is long or very long does not really matter.

That communities endowed with plentiful resources, perceived as limitless, do not develop conservation rules or devices is easy to understand. What is less obvious is the well-substantiated fact that, whenever control of access to localized resources is feasible at a reasonable cost, traditional communities tend to devise rules towards that purpose irrespective of the degree of pressure on those resources. In other words, the existence of rules of access does not depend upon whether the resource at stake is under strain but upon whether it can be controlled at a nonprohibitive cost by the community which has established itself on it (proposition 1). None the less, the degree of flexibility of such rules is very much a function of the extent of resource availability: they tend to be highly flexible and to be applied in a liberal way when pressure on the resource is low while they tend to be more narrowly interpreted and more strictly applied when pressure is higher (proposition 2).

Let us first try to account for proposition I that is the most problematic. The question to be addressed can be put thus: why is it that villagers do not leave access to resources completely open when this cannot affect their incomes negatively nor cause such resources to be overexploited or threatened in any way? The answer to that question seems to be that in traditional societies rules of access were not primarily or originally intended for safeguarding the incomes of community members let alone for conserving the local resources. They had another, still more essential or vital function that is not strictly economic or ecological but symbolic. In effect, rules of access to local resources truly manifest and symbolize the social identity of the group which first colonized the area where these resources are located. They simultaneously serve to articulate its corporate ownership structure as well as to establish political intergroup boundaries. As this point is often missed in the literature dealing specifically with resource management issues, it is useful to delve somewhat further into it (see Platteau, 1992: 72-4).

One fundamental characteristic of (lineage) societies inhabiting resource-abundant areas is that they are grounded in people and not in land since it is people and not land that are a scarce resource. Typically, territorial boundaries between lineage-dominated groups are not precisely defined; they are 'in a state of flux'. Also, no man's land areas exist which serve as protection zones or reserve land for any possible future expansion due to demographic growth, migratory movements, etc. (Biebuyck, 1963: IS; Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1982: 67; Noronha, 1985: 7, 57). It is true that the group which first occupied an area is always keen to put a mark on it, often by setting fire to the bush and considering that the territory ends up where the fire stops. However, this operation does not correspond to a precise demarcation of the territory which is thus taken possession of. Rather, it is a symbolic gesture by which the head of the founding lineage signifies that a privileged association begins between this portion of land area and the social group which he represents.

The symbolism of this gesture is actually twofold. For one thing, an organic link is created with the land which imparts a specific identity and emotional feeling to the residents. Such an event is memorized, in the form of a 'founding myth', as the starting-point of a people's history. Indeed, 'to say that the ancestors' land cannot belong to everybody is to refer to that particular history of the social group that is attested by the demarcation of a portion of land'. (Gruenais, 1986: 293, our translation). It may also be noted that what is often known as the 'bush' (a loosely defined part of the territory) plays an active role in the social reproduction of the group or lineage (ibid. 294). In actual fact, the 'bush' is believed to be inhabited by supernatural beings which have a strong influence on the life of the people living in the surrounding area. It is therefore a sacred portion of the territory where most rituals take place which serve to strengthen the harmony between the living people and the supernatural powers (acting on behalf of the dead ancestors) on the one hand and the unity among these people themselves on the other hand (Godelier, 1974: 342-3; Raynaut, 1976: 281 -2).

Holding a share in a corporate property reinforces feelings of having identifiable social roots and of belonging to a supportive and united human entity. As Marx understood it long ago, since within the tribal social structure 'the relation to property is mediated through membership in the group, property appears as a relationship signifying social identification'. This idea actually fits into his historical scheme according to which the initial emergence of property (which must by necessity be tribal) 'depends on a prior existence of group cohesion, i.e. some kind of social, tribal organization' (Avineri, 1968: 112).

For another thing, a political act is accomplished whereby a chief establishes himself as an indispensable mediator between a loosely delimited land area and all the people who are going to live in it. In the words of Gruenais:

In this dialectics of the relation between man and his environment which takes us to the very heart of the political sphere, what is at stake is less the land itself than the link tying the people to a local authority.... As a matter of fact, land in itself, or its expanse, has no real meaning for the powerful. The 'original' demarcation of a territory expresses the establishment of a privileged relation between the physical environment and a particular political figure. This relation becomes meaningful only in so far as it is being recognised. And land is a pertinent object for those in power only when it is peopled by individuals who accept the same relation, which may then become the means through which authority is exercised. It is thus on the basis of a threefold relation—land environment/authority/social group—that a particular territory is formed. (Gruenais, 1986: 290 -1, our translation)

Corporate ownership is not only manifested in the existence of CPRs such as forests, bushes, and pastures, but also in the fact that all physical subdivisions or partitions (such as individual or collective fields, residential plots, village granaries, etc.) are conceived of as superficial territorial and residential realities that are superimposed on an immutable and essential 'land' entity (Gruenais, 1986: 287). Given the above, it is not surprising that the main responsibility of the political authority is to guarantee the perpetuation of the group through the inalienability of its land and other assets (Minvielle, 1977: 22-4). The principle of inalienability of the lineage land patrimony is all the more strongly adhered to as an important symbolic meaning is attached to it. Indeed, in so far as the land is emotionally identified with the ancestors to whom it is believed to provide an everlasting shelter—land is a 'sacred trust' in the holding of the ancestors who are buried in it and who need to be continuously addressed to through appropriate rituals (Caldwell and Caldwell, 1987: 422) — the objective of keeping it under the control of the community is viewed as an inescapable way of maintaining the latter's social integrity. Even if the lineage territory comprises more land than can be cultivated by its members, the surplus land is entrusted to the chief who has to keep it on behalf of the whole social group (Crousse, 1986: 202).

It is worth noting that what applies to land resources also applies to water resources (irrigation canals, ponds, rivers, lakes, estuaries, backwaters, inshore maritime areas, etc.) in so far as the latter are simply treated as an extension of the former. In the specific case of inshore fisheries in the Pacific islands, we are thus told that 'Many Oceanian societies do not have the concept of dividing natural resources and the space that they occupy into aquatic and terrestrial components' (Ruddle, 1988: 76). In effect, the lateral or coastwise boundaries of a community's exclusive fishing area were generally a seawards extension of the community's terrestrial boundaries (Ruddle, 1988: 78; see also Hviding and Baines, 1994). As a consequence of this lack of differentiation between aquatic and terrestrial boundaries, 'the principles of sea tenure and the rights to exploit marine resources tend to differ little from those that govern land tenure'. Furthermore, the same symbolic function is attached to sea and land tenure systems. In the Fiji islands, for example, the word vanua 'refers to a social unit that is associated with an identifiable physical territory. This social unit is regarded as the human manifestation of the physical environment. . . Land-water is seen as the extension of the self, and, similarly, its human occupants are the personification of the land-water' (Ruddle, 1988: 76). There is no doubt that Ruddle's analysis with respect to the Pacific marine fisheries is also valid for many other fisheries (whether inland or maritime) all over the traditional world.

To sum up: provided that they are excludable, resources tend to be somehow demarcated' and placed under the corporate custody of a given community even when they are abundant relative to the members' needs. None the less, the degree of internal control exercised over local users as well as the tightness of rules of access for outsiders are conspicuously low in these circumstances. To illustrate the first aspect, we can quote a study conducted in a Javanese sea fishery:

Fishermen and local leaders can remember no time at all when any traditional controls were exercised. This no doubt is largely due to the Javanese lack of recent contact with the sea, and the extremely rich soil on the island, which allowed them a relatively easy living without venturing near it. (Sya'rani and Willoughby, 1987: 4)

It was likewise observed in San Miguel Bay, Philippines, that when fish resources were abundant relative to the demands of a small population, 'the degree of specific institutional controls on decision making and interaction was quite limited' (Cruz, 1986: 123).

As for the second aspect, we know from proposition 2 above that when a resource is plentiful, rules tend to be quite flexible. This implies that outsiders can be more or less easily granted use rights over localized CPRs through acquiring the status of member of the relevant corporate ownership group. In most cases, however, they may not quickly accede to the rank of 'ordinary' or first-rate citizen, especially if they have been incorporated in the community as slaves or indentured servants. Traditionally, access to land and other resources was thus not necessarily predicated upon kinship or descent-based ties but could also be grounded upon loyalty and patronage relations which were often associated with ascriptive forms of status or social identity (Berry, 1984: 91).

There are several ways for an outsider to gain access to a group-controlled resource. All of them rest upon the basic principle that to gain such access a non-community member must agree to enter into the local network of personal interrelationships and he must accept the political authority of the local chief (or group of elders). One common method of meeting this exigency consists of paying regular fees or dues to the local political authority acting on behalf of the whole resource-controlling group. Such was, for instance, the condition to be fulfilled by non-community members in order to be able to use village forests and pasture lands in Nepal when population was small relative to the available resources and when no commercial exploitation had yet begun to take place (Arnold and Campbell. 1986: 428). On Etal atoll in the Mortlock Islands (Pacific), the waters are divided into those areas adjacent to the reef, and the open sea, the latter being relatively unimportant to the islanders. Both areas are divided among the clans and sub-clans, which have exclusive rights to their tracts. Note that all clans are ranked by their order of arrival on the island with the head of the first being regarded as the "paramount chief' of the atoll ('he holds proprietary rights over all land and sea, which forms the basis of the clan's suzerainty over all later-coming clans'): as a consequence, rights over land and sea are essentially use rights. 'Members of other clans must seek prior permission to fish in a clan's rights area, for which they must pay by presenting 25 per cent to 50 per cent of their catch to the exclusive rights holders whose waters they work' (Ruddle, 1988: 80-1).

In the laguna of Aby in the Ivory Coast, lineages which could claim 'ownership' or custodian rights over a particular channel used to put up weirs known as atere in the water: an atere was a reed-made structure designed as a labyrinth for the purpose of ensnaring passing fish. Till the nineteenth century, we are told, 'everybody, whether or not a member of the atere-owning lineage, was allowed to participate in the fish harvest, yet when people were not members of this lineage, they were required to pay a fee (calculated as a share of the catch) to its chief' (Perrot, 1990: 181; see also Weigel, 1985a). In Mali, similar practices were observed in the Niger delta among the Bozo fishermen (Fay, 19906: 216-26). Thus, for instance, traditionally, when fishing consisted of catching fish on their way through a given territory, all neighbouring communities were entitled to join the harvesting operations provided that they abided by the priority order set by the local lineage under the leadership of the 'master of the waters' (the latter being the living figure symbolizing the pact struck between the water-owning lineage and the local spirit of the waters) (ibid. 224; see also Weigel, 19856 and Cormier-Salem, 1986 for the description of similar practices in Benin and Senegal).

In the traditional logic of socio-political functioning, the regular dues paid by outsiders, whenever they exist, are to be interpreted as symbolic gifts manifesting an act of political allegiance and social identification that needs to be continuously renewed (or that, at least, needs to be renewed until the outsiders are integrated as full-fledged members into the local community). In actual fact, it does not make sense to treat these dues as an 'economic' (scarcity) price since the resource whose access is preconditioned upon their payment is typically abundant. This is true even when, as in the last aforementioned examples, access to the abundant resource is mediated by the use of a fixed capital structure. In these circumstances, indeed, the fee imposed upon the outsiders is not to be conceived of as a rent for the use of this capital good since the amount of the fee is significantly influenced by noneconomic factors such as the degree of closeness of the relationship between the outsiders and at least some members (more particularly the chief) of the host community.

Another common way for an outsider to gain access to localized CPRs is to establish personal links of friendship or godparenthood with some resident family. This mechanism can be illustrated with respect to (informal) sea tenure arrangements found to prevail among smallscale fishermen on the southern Bahian coast (Brazil). There, becoming a godparent is a widely used strategy to gain access to a new fishing territory when the willing entrant does not already have some kind of kinship or friendship relationship with one or several local residents. Cordell and McKean (1986) provide the following details about the mechanism of entry into the territory of an established fishing community:

The first step is to arrange to sell a catch to hawkers in neighbouring territories, to make gifts of fish all around, and if the catch is good, to pay for a beer-drinking session. After initially displaying good will, the visiting captain may either volunteer or be asked to be a godparent to another fishemnan's child. These relationships are frequently established after only a brief acquaintance, and a major benefit is to confer summer fishing rights. These ongoing rights may endure for many years, reinforced by other types of cooperation. Alternatively, a captain planning to fish close to another community's sea space will arrange to take along a crew member who has a local friend . . . Some people will venture into interstitial areas to fish only when they have a network of friends or actual kin in adjoining villages. (Cordell and McKean, 1986: 95-6)

As a consequence of such practices, a large number of informal contracts are entered into with a view to establishing sea rights and they result in wide-ranging circles of fishermen bound by a same ethical code of good conduct. These 'huge personal networks with many godparent connections' often run through a series of villages and make for a ritualized extension of sea rights that 'restores an element of flexibility in fishing opportunities where waters are otherwise exclusively used and claimed by single villages' (Cordell and McKean, 1986: 96). Similar arrangements have been actually observed in Lake Titicaca where fictive kinship ties and coparenthood ties are established to gain access to aquatic resources (Levieil, 1987: 74-85); or among the Yolngu of Northern Australia where it is impossible to enter a fishing territory if one does not have 'e friends in the local community (Davis, 1983). For activities involving several people, an effective strategy to gain access to a diversified set of resource grounds consists of building up teams that comprise individuals belonging to different communities. Thus, in Marovo, Solomon Islands, when a fishing group intends to go to a fishing ground of another corporate kin group, an attempt is usually made to include in the canoe crew at least one person with strong kinship links to that other kin group. By adopting such a strategy, the captain is saved the trouble of asking permission to the guardian of the fishing territory which he wants to enter: 'This is a way of legitimating vis--vis others, and to the group members themselves, the fact that entry permission has not formally been asked.' Indeed, 'to bring along a fellow fisherman with recognised, strong blood ties to the group in possession of those other reefs is in fact a "moral safeguard", and the "outsiders" forming the remainder of the crew draw on his "power to speak about" his own group's prime fishing grounds' (Hviding and Baines, 1994: 25).

These informal rules have sometimes been carried on into recent times even within industrialized countries. Thus, in the Maine lobster fishery (USA), every fisherman must be accepted by the local 'harbour gang' to gain access to a given fishing territory, hence the importance for any outsider to accumulate a sufficient capital of family or friendly relationships with the local community. If the acceptance procedure has not been followed according to the informal ruling code, a considerable amount of social pressure will be used to force the intruder to leave and, if needed, his fishing equipment will be destroyed (Acheson, 1987, 1988).

A final remark is in order. There is evidence that access of outsiders or semi-outsiders to a resource area may be easier for subsistence products that, by definition, are not harvested in big quantities than for commercial products that have a rapidly expanding market. Thus, for example, fishermen of Marovo, Solomon Islands, typically rely on a multitude of primary, secondary, and tertiary use rights in (land and) sea resources through wide-ranging kinship privileges. Their rights of access are more restricted as the distance of their family ties with the local communities and their resource guardians increases. In particular, except in areas for which close ties exist, these rights do not include commercial harvesting of resources especially when commercial fishing is very intensive. This said, in areas where rights of access are the weakest (there are, of course, areas where fishermen have no rights at all given total absence of any sort of family relationships), no one would object to the 'outsider' taking fish for his own family's daily food needs (Hviding and Baines, 1994: 23-4).