10.3 Conclusion

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There are a number of important lessons to draw from the foregoing extensive discussion. These lessons can be summarized as follows:

  1. When trying to assess the collective behaviour of traditional rural communities vis--vis the environment, it is essential to make a clear distinction between two sorts of problem: one of pure distribution and one of resource management. While the first problem is static, the second one involves a time dimension. While the first problem refers to the question as to how access to a resource is to be defined—that is, who are to be accorded the right to appropriate part of the current resource flow end who are to be denied such a right; or how is this flow to be shared among competing claimants?—the second problem implies that attention is given to the way current levels of harvesting effort and modes of appropriating the resource affect the resource stock over time.
  2. From our survey of the socio-anthropological literature, it can be concluded that, if members of traditional rural communities are relatively good at perceiving and solving distributive problems arising in connection with the use of natural resources (they can even design ingenious systems of rotation to regulate access among "insiders' in an equitable way)—especially so when the resource is highly visible and well localized—they are not inherently conservationists as they are often portrayed in popular accounts and even—though perhaps to a lesser extent than before - in socio-anthropological writings.
  3. It is common practice to ascribe mismanagement of village commons to collective action problems. These problems are no doubt a critical hurdle on the way to better conservation of natural resources, and we shall return to them in Chapter 12. What is worth noticing, however, is that, as pointed out above, traditional rural societies were apparently able, at least in certain circumstances, to make effective collective arrangements to solve distributive problems. Why should they then have been less efficient in organizing to prevent depletion/degradation of CPRs? The answer to this question in the present chapter is that members of such societies do not conceive of their natural environment nor of their own relations with it in the same way as people in modern, rationalist societies do.

In point of fact, they perceive surrounding natural resources as a kindness provided by some supernatural agents which constantly look after basic needs of the people placed under their protection. Consequently, they have a proclivity to think that these resources are infinite or limitless. And if experience shows too patently that such is not the case, they may still refuse to come to the view that their own harvesting behaviour is liable to seriously affect resource stocks. On the contrary, to reconcile their system of beliefs with the newly emerging reality, they tend imagine that resources have not been actually destroyed but simply moved or relocated elsewhere (or made invisible) by an act of will of some god or spirit. Besides saving the essentials of their old beliefs, a reinterpretation of this kind has the advantage of presenting a shortage of resource as a temporary phenomenon which can (perhaps) be easily reversed. What bears emphasis is that magical beliefs prevent rural people from drawing a conceptual distinction between resource stock and resource flow and, a fortiori, from understanding the link between current rates of resource appropriation and the level of the stock. The very notion of resource management remains alien to them, which, after all, is not surprising given the intellectual sophistication required to grasp it.

  1. Given the complexity of some ecological processes (such as the determinants of fishing stocks in many tropical maritime fisheries), there may be a genuine uncertainty about the exact influence of human harvesting efforts on the level of a resource stock, not only among users but also among experts and scientists. In such circumstances, the (sudden) depletion of a resource may be correctly perceived as a reversible process that is essentially determined by exogenous forces. Highly intensive harvesting efforts, when such uncertainty exists, are obviously not understandable in terms of the tragedy of the commons or the prisoner's dilemma. In this case, however, the government may be perfectly justified in setting rules of restraint in order to reduce the risk of irreversible depletion of a resource that is or may turn out to be essential in the future (see Chapter 1).
  2. Traditional rural societies are far from static, however. Awareness of ecological stress under conditions of increasing and continuous human pressure on the environment may grow even if only slowly and even if it typically requires visible signs of depletion/degradation to be stimulated. This awareness is therefore likely to develop more rapidly in those societies in which 'a sense of limits' has already pervaded people's minds due to previous experiences of scarcity. Moreover, it emerges more easily with respect to localized, visible, and predictable resources than with respect to resources showing the opposite characteristics. Such a movement towards increased causal understanding of natural phenomena is bound to imply radical revisions of old systems of beliefs so that man can now appear, at least in a roundabout way, as an important agent of ecological change.
  3. The fact nevertheless remains that, since awareness-building is in this ease a timeconsuming and hazardous process, people may realize the need for conservation measures too late, that is, when a resource is already irretrievably depleted, or when it has been destroyed to such an extent that incentives to conserve the remaining portion have vanished. The possibility of resource destruction resulting from slow or imperfect understanding of what is going on and what to do points to the essential role of grass roots education in preserving village-level CPRs. It is too easily assumed, by economists in particular, that lack of incentive is the main constraint that prevents villagers from conserving their commons. In still numerous contemporary situations, knowledge of local-level ecological processes and of people's responsibilities for environmental destruction is inadequate. Therefore, especially when ecological change is rapid, outside assistance is needed to help villagers to analyse their own situation and its inner dynamics as well as to design effective management solutions. As shown by varied experiences of patient work with rural groups, great progress towards achieving the first objective can actually be made by helping them to draw together a number of critical on-the-field observations which have so far remained unconnected, and to articulate these observations in meaningful causal sequences.