11.2 Other recent changes on the rural scene

Back to contents - Previous file - Next file

Massive intervention of central authorities in environmental matters is only one of the factors that have deeply affected rural life and villagers' ability to self-organize for resource protection during recent times. Among the other important factors at work is, of course, population growth.

Population growth

In Chapter 10, two population-related processes have been brought to light. First, population growth tends to drive resource users to tighten rules of access in two ways. On the one hand, increasingly exclusionary arrangements are adopted so as to make entry into CPR domains more and more difficult for outsiders or non-community members. The identity of the losers is thus well known before exclusion takes place and only the insiders have the right to vote about whom to exclude, thereby overcoming the dilemma posed by Fernandez and Rodrik (see Chapter 8). On the other hand, rules tend to be devised to regulate access among the insiders or community members if the latter (continue to) grow in numbers. In many cases, as we have seen, these rules involve individual restraint in use of the CPR so as to equalize expected benefits for all participants. They are particularly strict when the use of the CPR creates many opportunities for serious conflicts, which is likely to be the case when the resource is highly visible and well localized.

Second, for population growth to lead users to adopt genuinely conservationist practices—for example, to show restraint in harvesting not only or necessarily with a view to sharing the resource flow with other users but also with a view to ensuring the long-term viability of the resource base—a time-consuming process of awareness-building is needed. In the most successful case, exemplified by Japan, it is remarkable that resource protection measures have been accompanied by population control measures and have been adopted before the entire resource base was depleted/degraded in an irreversible way. Yet, it is worthy of note that, even in this very successful case, Japanese villagers had gone through a traumatic and highly visible experience of deforestation before learning to manage the remaining forests in an effective way. In the worst case, by contrast, awareness of the problem comes too late when the resource stock has been depleted to such an extent that incentives to protect it do not exist any more.

At this point, we need to re-emphasize that the induced institutional innovation hypothesis rules out cases of the latter kind. Two of the most articulate exponents of this view have thus hypothesized that 'the social structure becomes tighter and more cohesive in response to a greater need to coordinate and control the use of resources as they become increasingly more scarce . . .' (Hayami and Kikuchi, 1981: 22). So long as a (non-labour) resource is abundant, there is no need to co-ordinate its use among community members (or, we may add, to exclude outsiders). The need arises only when, the resource becoming scarce, 'people begin to compete for or cooperate in its use'. Then, 'Efficient coordination requires rules defining rights and obligations among people on the use of the resource as well as rules to settle possible conflicts. As scarcity increases and the competition is intensified, it becomes necessary to define the rules more clearly and to enforce them more rigorously' (ibid. 21). Now, the solution consisting of developing a market to handle the problem of scarce resource allocations is not possible if property rights cannot be clearly specified and transaction costs are prohibitively high. When this is the case, non-market institutions tend to develop to regulate villagers' behaviour directly. Inasmuch as environment determines which resources are scarce, which are relatively difficult to privatize and which are relatively easy to handle at village level, environmental conditions are 'a critical variable in the formation of village structure' (ibid. 21-2).

Hayami and Kikuchi have used their hypothesis to explain the significant difference in tightness of rural societies as between Japan and many South-East Asian countries (Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines in particular). Thus, compared with Japan, South-East Asia (with the major exception of Java) was characterized by an abundant supply of land, at least until the middle of the nineteenth century. It is therefore 'natural to expect that the farming communities molded under such land-surplus conditions would be loosely structured, compared with Japanese villages that have been molded under strong population pressure for a long time' (Hayami and Kikuchi, 1981: 22). Likewise, water is a critical resource limiting rice production throughout the world. Yet, contrary to what obtains in countries such as Thailand where the flooding water is not a scarce economic resource for which the peasants compete or cooperate among themselves (since water control of a major river delta cannot be handled at village level), the mountainous topography in Japan renders local co operation effective in controlling a water supply based on small streams. According to the authors: 'The need for collective action to construct and maintain irrigation systems and to settle conflicts over the use of water at local community level can be identified as a major force in the development of the tightly structured social system in Japanese villages' (ibid. 22-3). Again as expected, in the Ilocos region of the Philippines, characterized by mountainous topography and high population density, we find tightly structured villages with efficient irrigation organizations.

Regarding the problem of how collective organizations actually emerge in response to growing resource scarcity or, in game-theoretical terms, how one can establish the initial trust required to make co-operation possible in what looks like an infinitely repeated game—the authors point to two distinct kinds of argument. The first one explicitly refers to biological evolutionist theory by resorting to a Darwinian selection mechanism: 'the villages without mechanisms to provide for irrigation would be unviable and some more cooperative group would take over' (Hayami and Kikuchi, 1981: 23 n. 10). As for the second one, it uses Olson's vindication of collective action in 'privileged' or 'intermediate' groups (see above, Chapter 5). This being said, the authors are keen to draw attention to the importance of the time required for social change:

The cohesion and solidarity of the village community are based on the norms and moral principles sanctioned by tradition and ingrained in the minds of the villagers. They do change in response to change in the relative scarcity of resources, but the change takes a very long time, often several generations. (Hayami and Kikuchi, 1981: 23)

Although appealing and illuminating, the above hypothesis still begs a number of important questions. One of its essential weaknesses obviously lies in its being too simple and schematic: there are too few explanatory variables used to account for variations in tightness of village social structure. In particular, considering the case of resources that (a) can be handled at village level and (b) cannot be easily privatized, it is difficult to accept the view that only population density acts as a determinant of tightness or cohesiveness of social structure in rural communities. As we shall see in the next subsection and again in the following chapter, other dynamic factors are at play which are liable to prevent population pressure from inducing the functionally needed non-market institutions. And to the extent that most of these factors are typical of modern times, the thesis put forward by Hayami and Kikuchi can be blamed for ignoring the role of time in the sense of the historical context in which population pressure takes place.

In their final comment, however, these two authors acknowledge the importance of time in the sense of the (dynamic) time-flow required for a process to work out its effects. This is extremely apposite, yet one may want its implications to be drawn in more detail. If Hayami and Kikuchi have not done so, it is probably because they have in fact made two implicit assumptions which are critical for their central conclusion to hold (social structure is tighter when population density is higher). The first assumption is that population growth is not too rapid so that people can adjust to the intervening changes in resource scarcity levels. Indeed, if population growth rates are high, as they have been and still are in many developing countries since the Second World War, the fact that institutional innovation can take 'a very long time, often several generations' to come by becomes quite troublesome. This is evidently because, before people have become aware of the new challenge confronting them and/or before they have proved able to develop the collective action capability required to meet it, the scarce resource may well have vanished, leaving nothing behind for which villagers can 'compete or cooperate among themselves' (see above, Chapter 10).

The second implicit assumption underlying Hayami and Kikuchi's piece of reason ing is that population growth can be somehow brought under control (as it has actually been in Tokugawa Japan). In other words, as we have already pointed out, villagers should respond to the newly arising scarcity not only by evolving new rules for allocating and conserving the resource, but also by designing mechanisms intended for penalizing high fertility. Let us assume away the first above-mentioned difficulty by considering a situation where village communities have actually succeeded in bringing about the rules or institutional mechanisms required to allocate the resource in an orderly manner and to conserve it in the long run. There then remains the critical question, untouched by Hayami and Kikuchi presumably because of their second implicit assumption, as to whether these rules or mechanisms are viable under conditions of continuous population pressure however slow the pace of population growth: obviously, besides the question of emergence of institutions, there is the question of their persistence.

The answer to such a question is obviously negative when the population of access rightsholders is allowed to grow and eventually reach a point where individual incomes extracted from the resource fall below the subsistence level, while alternative sources of income are not available. The temptation to violate conservation rules (to catch juvenile fish, to cut shrubs or let goats feed on them, to clear new fields in the forest, etc.) is then likely to be irresistible since, owing to the survival constraint, the discount rate of future incomes becomes infinite and free riding behaviour appears as a natural weapon in the struggle of each against each for sheer subsistence. In the Langson province (northernmost hilly region) of Vietnam, for example, 'despite the collectively imposed discipline on the peasants for the protection of environment and 100 per cent literacy rate, large-scale deforestation comparable to that in the Indian Himalayas has been witnessed': the area under forest has been reduced from 36 per cent to 17 per cent of geographical area of the district in the course of only six years (in the 1980s). According to Rao who reports this finding, this destructive process cannot be entirely ascribed to the felling of trees by the government for purposes of construction and for exports. It also results from rapid conversion of forest areas into arable lands as a consequence of the local peasants' noticeable impoverishment (Rag, 1988: A-144).

It is true that Hayami and Kikuchi do not make any explicit mention of the problem of renewable resources in their argument about the role of population. The rules they therefore consider are meant for allocating—not for conserving—resources that have become scarce. It must nevertheless be emphasized that community rules are liable to dissolve under the continuous pressure of population growth not only when they serve to ensure the long-run viability of the resource base but also when they specify ways of allocating resource flows or benefits among the different claimants. The idea is that, when the individual share of a resource flow accruing to each community member becomes so low that a livelihood can no more be sustained from it, people are strongly inclined to violate the sharing rules so as to appropriate a larger share for themselves at the expense of the other rights-holders. This last outcome can be vividly illustrated by referring to the degeneracy of the system of rotating access to the sea observed in Southern Sri Lanka by Alexander and Amarasinghe (the first in the village of Gahavšlla and the second in that of Tangalle). The example is particularly appropriate since we have already had the opportunity to describe in detail how this system worked (see Chapter 10). The studies of both Alexander (1980, 1982) and Amarasinghe (1988, 1989) converge to show that once population growth (and market integration) reach a critical level, traditional incomesharing and work-spreading arrangements tend to degenerate or to disappear altogether.

Following the account given by Alexander (1982, chs. 9-11), the dynamics of this degeneracy process in Gahavšlla can be described as follows. In the beginning (before 1914), the beachseiners were a prosperous community as the pressure on employment within the fishing industry was still low and as the fishery was not fully exploited (by that time, many fishermen used to supplement their incomes from small-scale agriculture and cottage industries). In the following decades, however, the situation was fundamentally altered when economic opportunities in agriculture (and ancillary industries) were dramatically reduced due to both population growth and changes in cultivation patterns. Beachseining was soon to become the main source of income in the area and, noticeably, 'all of the men engaged in beachseining before 1940 held rights of access, either by descent or marriage'. As a result, average household incomes started to fall and 'sons from large families had to construct additional nets if they wished to continue beachseining'. The adding of new nets whose marginal productivity was nil from the standpoint of the community was not opposed because 'the function of the rights of access concept was not to limit the number of nets, but to ensure that outsiders did not construct nets for use on Gahavšlla beach and thus accelerate the fragmentation process' (ibid.: 203-4, 206).

A point was eventually reached, however, where this process began to threaten the livelihood of beachseiners and 'ownership of a single share was insufficient to sustain life' (Alexander, 1982: 206). A cumulative kind of involution resembling a 'tragedy of the commons' was initiated from then on since, to protect their income, existing participants had to construct additional nets. This was with a view to preventing the number of their turns per unit of time and their chance of participating in the flush period from declining too much. Note that fishermen could not use the same net more than once during a particular net sequence in so far as each net was given a number, represented a different team of partners, and was an individualized ticket of entry into the local fishery. Increased socio-economic differentiation was the inevitable outcome of the above evolution: as a matter of fact, many fishermen who could not afford to finance new shares were driven out of the beach and forced to sell their shares to more affluent participants. An active market for net shares thus developed—in violation of customary rule (5) (see Chapter 10 ) - as access rights became an increasingly scarce asset. (For understandable reasons, none the less, other shareholders had a strong practical veto over prospective sales of a share.) It became plainly evident that by guaranteeing equal access to all nets registered in the village, the community was less and less able to ensure equality of access to all village members.

From 1933 onwards, the government attempted to limit the number of nets allowed to operate and, moreover, the legislation it provided permitted sales of shares to fishermen without hereditary rights of access to the fishery. The customary system of rights of access was thus effectively destroyed and, after 1940, many of the share sales were to outsiders (Alexander, 1982). However, in so far as limitations on the number of nets were not very effective, a quasi-open-access situation developed and, on the eve of the Second World War, local inhabitants were confronted with apparently insuperable problems of survival. Fortunately, the new economic opportunities created by the war radically changed the prospects for the fishing industry while at the same time giving a new impulse to the differentiation process under way. Indeed, the dramatic increase in fish prices which resulted from important developments in fish marketing and from the growing integration of Gahavšlla into the national economy brought a new prosperity to this area. Most of the fish catches were now sold in fresh (and no more in dried) form and the new lucrative avenue of investment thus opened could not fail to attract a class of wealthy capitalists and traders who usually belonged to the landed elite and had tight connections with the political establishment and strong positions in local state institutions (Amarasinghe, 1988: 168-9). To enter the field, these non-fishermen capitalists had recourse to several strategies: (a) construction of new nets; (b) purchase of net shares on the local share market; and (c) appropriation of existing net shares through the use of violence (Alexander, 1982: 226-39 and Amarasinghe, 1988: 164-5). Strategy (c) was often resorted to when strategies (a) and (b) proved difficult, that is, when the government and/or the existing beachseiners endeavoured to limit the number of new nets allowed to be constructed, and when net owners were reluctant to sell shares whose economic value had suddenly appreciated.

Nothing could eventually prevent this aggressive new elite from enhancing its hold over the fishery and from concentrating an increasing share of the fishing assets and the corresponding rights of access to the resource. The cumulative involution process described earlier took on a new momentum as small individual shareholders 'were forced to join in the construction of new nets, for otherwise their equity in the total catch would diminish' (Alexander, 1982: 211). As a result, the incomes of these small owners started again to fall to precarious levels and many of them were obliged to sell their shares to men 'who were not descendants of the original owners': 'the final nails were hammered into the coffin of the "rights of access" and the kinship basis of the shareholder's group was destroyed' (ibid. 212). At that time, the large shareholders realized that they did not need any more to construct new nets since strategy (6) now proved to be amply effective for them to increase their control of the catch. Interestingly, when the government proposed to solve the problem of overmultiplication of nets by reducing the total number of nets but increasing the number of shares in each net to twenty-four, it met with the strong opposition of the small shareholders. Apparently, the latter felt that it would be difficult to reach an agreement on procedures for amalgamation (the transaction cost of changing the ownership structure was high) and, above all, that a crew of twenty-four was too large to be efficient (ibid. 214).

An expected concomitant of the foregoing rise of a small entrepreneur elite was the rapid development of a labour market—in violation of aforementioned rules (2) and (3) above (see above, Chapter 10). Whereas before complementary labour was always provided by the owners' children when needed (for example, when an owner hap pened to own more than one share in a net, or became sick or old), large shareholders began to hire crew labour on an increasing scale to operate their nets and it was not rare to find proletarianized fishermen working as wage labourers on shares they once owned (Alexander, 1982: 151, 246). Note incidentally that, in an understandable manner, displaced local beachseiners resented more the attempts by small outsider owners to work their own shares than the capitalist strategy of big owner-investors who at least supplied them with employment (ibid. 245).

In many areas suitable for beachseining in Sri Lanka, the fishing industry actually ended up being controlled by one or two big owners whose position was confirmed through the system of net licensing introduced by the government to stabilize the situation (Alexander, 1982: 214). In some other areas like Gahavšlla and Tangalle, where access to the resource was not monopolized to such an extent, accumulation of nets and labour force growth proceeded much farther and the resulting poverty drove many crew labourers to leave their owner-employers in order to form fishing cooperatives or seek alternative employment in other fisheries and other industries (Alexander, 1982: 212-14; Amarasinghe, 1988 170). If their economic lot eventually improved, it was only because beachseining was eventually supplanted by much more efficient harvesting technologies which dramatically increased the productivity of fishing efforts (Amarasinghe, 1988: chs. 10-14; 1989). Incidentally, the above comparison testifies to the efficiency advantage of monopoly whenever collective ownership of rights of access to a resource collapses to the point of degenerating into an open-access situation.

The aforetold story, like all real-world stories, is obviously complex, much more complex than can easily be captured with the help of a simple model. Population growth has obviously been a critical determinant of the evolution of the system of access to the sea, but it has not been the only one. Government intervention and market integration have been two other crucial forces in the process. We shall soon have the opportunity to discuss the significance of the latter factor but it is patent that it had a corrosive effect on the system under concern. As for the government, it has contributed to worsen the situation by intervening in an untoward manner when it attempted to legislate a limitation of the number of the permitted beachseines without giving itself the means to enforce it, and when it ran counter to the local customary rules by allowing outsiders to make their way into the fishery.

A central lesson to draw from the story of Gahavšlla and Tangalle remains that, if population pressure continues unabated while the economic environment is constant, rights-holders are inevitably led to adopt defensive strategies that threaten the viability of the community-based, direct allocation system. The adding of new nets is of course legitimate in so far as it comes from new entrants into the local workforce, but it is not so when it is the outcome of attempts by existing operators to avoid a decline in their individual share of the total product of the fishery. That local communities have gradually lost their power of control over the rotation system is evident from the fact that they were unwilling and/or unable to stop this process of illegitimate construction of new nets. It is clear that rapid socio-economic differentiation is the inevitable outcome of such an anarchy and that it can be ultimately held in check only if population growth is slowed down and/or new income and employment opportunities are created (or if fortunate exogenous circumstances, such as a rise in the price of the product sold by the villagers, do occur). It must be borne in mind that degeneracy of the rotation system did not threaten the viability of the resource base simply because the prevailing technology (beachseining) was not susceptible of causing biological overfishing.

A last remark is in order. In the same way as the negative effect of population growth on both allocation and management rules can be cancelled by newly emerging income and employment opportunities, the positive effect of population control can be annihilated by the sudden disappearance of regular opportunities for income and employment that existed in the past. For example, villagers may be outcompeted by external producers as when local craftsmanship is rendered unprofitable by the growth of modern manufacturing units in the towns. As a result, local artisans become jobless or peasants lose an important source of complementary income to supplement their regular agricultural earnings or to fall back on in times of crisis. Or, to take another example, more labour-saving techniques, crops, or activities may be introduced in the village with the consequence that the poor are driven out of agricultural employment. In both these cases as well as in similar circumstances, the affected people will tend to make up for the loss of income by exploiting village CPRs more intensively. This means that there will be an increasing strain on community support systems and increasing risks of degradation of the underlying resource base.

For instance, Rao has observed that, in India, the rapid development of commercial treefarming, especially in large farms, although in itself resource-conserving, may ultimately contribute to a further degradation of the rural environment. This is so because substitution of commercial trees for field crops (following the steep rise in the prices of timber and fuelwood relative to those of field crops) and the accompanying conversion of wheat and rice fields into commercial tree plantations entail a considerable loss of employment and incomes for the rural poor who have been depending on wage employment for the cultivation of field crops. As a result of this shift from labour-intensive field agriculture to highly capital-intensive plantation farming, the poor may be driven to the unregulated exploitation of natural resources, thus increasing the pressure on the forests which the development of commercial tree-farming has helped reduce (Rag, 1988: A-143). This kind of effect is all the more likely to occur since, in India, as we have seen earlier (see above, Chapter 4), access to a wide range of communal (natural) resources is still an important informal security mechanism whereby the rural poor survive. The price to be paid for this fortunate result— fortunate given the lack of alternative employment opportunities—is the progressive degradation of village CPRs due to overcrowding: (a) fewer and fewer resources are available per person, and (l,) the quality and quantity of the overall resources deteriorate (ibid. 108). In his analysis of the situation obtaining in semi-arid districts, Jodha found that the productivity of CPRs has been falling rapidly during recent decades, thereby resulting in shortening periods of supplies of fuel, food, fodder, and timber, a deterioration in the botanical composition of vegetation, the silting of water sources, and other detrimental effects (Jodha, 1985). The problem is further compounded by the fact that the total area under CPRs as a proportion of total village area has dramatically declined from 15-42 per cent (depending on the semi-arid district considered) in 1950-2 to 9-28 per cent in 1982-4 (Jodha, 1986: 1177). This decline, according to Jodha, is to be attributed partly to population growth and to the physical submersion of land under large-scale irrigation projects, but mainly to land privatization moves that, unfortunately, have largely favoured the bigger farmers who received disproportionately large tracts of comparatively highquality land.

The intervention of other factors than population growth is actually reflected in the fact that, in the dry tropical parts of India, there are groups of villages with high population growth rates and yet limited decline in CPR area while, conversely, high rates of CPR decline are sometimes associated with limited population increases (Jodha, 1992: 61).

Before turning to these other factors, it is of interest to note that in some circumstances population reduction can actually threaten ecological equilibria by weakening the indigenous institutions (such as collective labour arrangements) that regulate collective action in resource management. Thus, in a study about rural Mexico, it has been argued that emigration of a large number of people has caused local farming to suffer from chronic environmental degradation and productivity stagnation. The reason put forward by the authors is that landscape transformation for agricultural sustainability (involving steep-slope management and erosion control done with landscape levelling, terraces, and land containers) requires the pooling of a sufficient amount of labour and the smooth working of the institution that organizes it. Such requirements have been wiped out following the departure of a sizeable portion of the local labour force (Garcia-Barrios and Garcia-Barrios, 1990).