Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

La steppe: évolution des institutions participatives chargées de la gestion des parcours en République arabe syrienne

La gestion publique des parcours des zones arides, que ce soit en Asie orientale ou en Afrique du Nord, a pour constante le rejet des structures et institutions traditionnelles de contrôle et d'utilisation des ressources. Cette politique, qui se veut rationnelle et s'inspire des théories des écologistes et des chercheurs en sciences politiques, a suscité diverses initiatives qui se sont toutes révélées impuissantes à mettre en place un système crédible de gestion des pâturages, susceptible de remplacer avantageusement la réglementation coutumière. Ce rejet de la coutume et l'incapacité de proposer une solution de rechange ne sont nulle part plus évidents qu'en République arabe syrienne, siège du Parti Baath et du nationalisme arabe. Dans ce pays, le système coopératif imposé par le gouvernement a depuis longtemps renoncé à son rôle de gestionnaire des parcours, prônant le libre accès assorti de mesures populistes comme le fait de subventionner les aliments pour le bétail. La libre pâture nomade est une pratique communautaire souvent condamnée mais qui, en dépit de l'absence de reconnaissance formelle, continue à prévaloir sur la steppe en matière de droits de propriété. La persistance des traditions communautaires, face à la volonté du gouvernement d'imposer la médiation des coopératives aux tribus nomades de la steppe, rend inaccessible l'objectif d'un système de gestion intégrée et durable des parcours à moins que les deux parties n'acceptent d'évoluer et de se concerter. En fait, il s'avère que le fossé qui sépare les deux systèmes n'est pas aussi infranchissable qu'on pourrait le croire à première vue, et il devrait être possible d'amorcer une transition en vue d'un partenariat.

En la estepa: evolución de las instituciones participativas de ordenación de pastizales
en la República Árabe Siria

Una característica común de la ordenación pública de pastizales en las zonas áridas de Asia occidental y el norte de África es la escasa atención por las estructuras e instituciones consuetudinarias de control y acceso a los recursos. Esta política, que es fruto de un razonamiento deductivo basado en teorías ecológicas y de ciencias políticas, ha dado lugar a una serie de intervenciones que han fracasado ignominiosamente en el intento de establecer sistemas convincentes de ordenación del pastoreo capaces de igualar y suplantar las normas consuetudinarias. Sin embargo, la desatención por éstas y la incapacidad de sustituirlas ya no caracterizan la situación de Siria, patria del Partido Ba'th y del nacionalismo árabe. La alternativa del Gobierno -el sistema cooperativo- ha renunciado desde hace tiempo a su función de control sosteniendo el libre acceso a los pastizales y concentrándose, en cambio, en la medida populista de proporcionar piensos subvencionados. Los vacíos los colma un sistema consuetudinario sumamente calumniado que, pese a no gozar del reconocimiento oficial, sigue ocupando un lugar prominente en la estepa en lo que atañe a los derechos de propiedad. Ante la resistencia de los sistemas consuetudinarios y la insistencia del Gobierno en mantener las cooperativas como entidades intermediarias en su trato con las tribus nómades de la estepa, sólo la evolución y la convergencia entre ambas organizaciones permitirá alcanzar la meta de un sistema integrado y sostenible de ordenación de pastizales. Tal como se expondrá en el artículo, el abismo entre los dos sistemas no es tan insalvable como podría parecer, y esto facilitará la colaboración entre ambos.

Getting in steppe: the evolution of participatory institutions for rangeland management in the Syrian Arab Republic

J. Rae

Jonathan Rae is a Lecturer at the School of the Environment, University of Brighton,
United Kingdom, and was consultant for Project GCP/SYR/009/ITA.

State management of arid rangelands in both West Asia and North Africa tends to neglect customary structures and institutions for resource control and access. Such neglect has caused the failure of successive interventions, based on deductive reasoning from ecology and political science theories, to supply credible grazing management systems that match and supplant customary regulation. Disregard for custom and the inability to substitute it is particularly prevalent in the Syrian Arab Republic, home to the Ba'th party and Arab nationalism. Here, the government's alternative - the cooperative system - has long since lost its range management role through its support of open access and its focus on the populist measure of subsidized animal feed. This gap has been filled by the undervalued customary system which, despite its lack of formal recognition, remains prominent in the property rights domain on the steppe. Given the resilience of customary systems and the government's opposing insistence on retaining cooperatives as its intermediaries in dealings with the nomadic steppe tribes, the goal of an integrated and sustainable range management system will only be possible when these two organizations evolve and converge. This article shows that the apparent gulf between the two systems is not as significant as it might at first seem, which eases the transition to partnership.


Direct and overt state intervention in the management of the Syrian rangelands effectively began with the establishment of the Steppe Directorate in 1961,1 17 years after Syrian independence. The French Mandate Authorities (1920-1944) had intervened in steppe affairs, but their purpose was political in nature and paid little attention to pastoral resources per se. The Mandate Authorities provided food aid during the devastating drought of the early 1930s and subsequently dug or cleared a small number of wells, but political allegiances and security along the cultivated fringe and lines of communication were their principal concerns. Indeed, this was their main motivation for intervening in a pastoral system which they themselves perceived "ensures [that] maximum use is made of the excellent desert pastures",2 an area that covers half the country.

The independent governments that followed the French did not share this sentiment. They were far less sympathetic to the extensive pastoral system, describing it as "exploitative" and "unregulated", and they were fearful of the sociopolitical bonds of the tribes and their cross-border activities, both of which apparently militated against nation building. So, whereas the Mandate Authorities had held that the nomads could "not disappear and that their conversion to a completely sedentary life would offer more disadvantages than blessings",3 the Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic4 pledges the nation to the settlement of all nomads in order to extend services and security and introduce a rational grazing system. In preparation, the state nationalized the steppe in 1952 and abolished tribal customary law in 1958. More than a decade later, a National Range Development Programme5 was introduced and framed in law (Decision 140 of 1970 and Decision 13 of 1973). The programme was planned in four steps: regenerate the steppe through controlled grazing; increase local production of forage; create feed supplies to meet emergencies caused by drought; and improve sheep fattening. A cooperative system, based in part on the theory of a traditional grazing system termed hema, was envisaged as the vehicle for controlled grazing and subsidized feed.


The term hema derives from the Arabic word for protection, and was used by O. Draz of FAO to label a variety of customary systems for rangeland management that he identified from the Quran and ancient writings, as well as at existing sites in parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Greater Syria. Draz distilled these varying systems and designed a cooperative model which he called the hema system. Not only would the new system provide the property rights framework for rangeland improvement and "change the attitude of the people towards the range, introducing the philosophy of protection and improvement instead of exploitation" (FAO, 1969: 6), it would assist government nomadic policy by "help[ing] in the process of settlement" (FAO, 1974: 8).

The new system was widely received, both within and outside FAO, as an indigenous system, similar to one that the tribes had followed in the past. The cooperatives were to be tribally homogeneous: each based on a clan and its traditional grazing area. This was somewhat surprising, given that the pan-Arab Socialist Ba'th Party came into state power in 1963 and described "nomadism" as "a primitive social state", pledging for "the abolition of tribal custom".6 However, as Shoup (1990: 200) argues, the "concept of community property was appealing to the socialist nature of the Ba'th Party's ideology" and the fact that hema was an example of Arab socialism overshadowed its tribal origins. The authorities, however, retained real power through control of individual cooperative councils, seats on which were by appointment and filled mostly by university, preferable Ba'thist, graduates.

The cooperative grazing regime was informed by ecological and political science theories that complemented government aspirations for tribal settlement and control. Van de Veen, the resident FAO range expert during the 1960s, concluded "it is inevitable that the short-term interests of the users of [the steppe] clash with the long-term interests of the country to maintain and improve this resource" (FAO/UNDP 1967: 17). He was referring to what Hardin (1968) would later term the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy stems from the problems of subtractability and the difficulty of excluding. Resource units appropriated by one person are unavailable to others and, unless institutions restructure the incentives to appropriators of a common resource, overappropriation and resource degradation can be expected. In the words of Hardin: "each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited" (1968: 1243). When an institutional regulatory structure is in place, the difficulties of excluding others and enforcing rules among appropriators arise from the geographical nature of common properties. If effective regulation cannot be accomplished, significant free-riding will persist, undermining institutions. Apparent evidence of a degraded steppe in the Syrian Arab Republic and the wider region underlined, for the authorities and scientists alike, the fact that customary systems had either never existed or, if they had existed, had been static and archaic in a rapidly changing world. The range succession model,7 popular among range scientists in the twentieth century and used by Draz to underpin the cooperatives, gave scientific justification to the control and limitation of mobility through its appreciation of the spatial and temporal variability in rainfall and primary production that is prevalent in arid areas (Westoby, Walker and Noy-Mier, 1989: 266).

Cooperative rules thereby set stocking rates and individual quotas, forbade the movement of herds across cooperative borders, instituted a system of rotational grazing and made individual councils responsible for herd movement, both within a territory and between that territory and the settled areas used for annual migration. To prevent breaches of rules or "free-riders", judicial police were made responsible for enforcement. It was hoped that these restrictions would instil a sense of ownership and responsibility for natural resource management, at least in part, among the tribes.

In 1974, four years after they had been established, the hema cooperatives were transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform (MAAR) to the highly influential popular organization of the Ba'th Party, the Peasants' Union (PU). When it was formed, the purpose of the PU was nothing less than to deliver rural families from "anarchic individualism, tribalism, sectarianism, and localism" and create, instead, loyalties to the nation and socialist modernization.8 Under its leadership, the hema cooperatives have expanded dramatically, from six in 1974, 50 in 1983, to 424 in 1995, and now have 60 000 members with 7.5 million sheep (60 percent of the total sheep population) (Syrian Arab Republic Steppe Directorate, 1996: 12). This does not reflect success for the hema system, but rather is the result of the PU's monopolizing and subsidizing of supplementary feed supplies and reversal of the policy on cooperative council posts. The latter measure permitted the holding of elections for council positions, with the intended effect of coopting tribal leadership - which is contrary to PU ideology but a pragmatic response to the circumstances of rural society. The former Ba'thist leader, Jalal al-Sayyid, described in his memoirs the reality of government in the Syrian countryside:

the entire Arab countryside is dominated by tribal feelings, including the small and medium-sized towns. Intellectual, political and ideological currents that spread in such regions are, without exception, exposed to tribal traditions, and interact with them. These currents are, however, much more affected by tribal tradition than the latter are influenced the other way round.9

This expansion in cooperative formation was driven by a corporatist10 desire to tie the vast majority of the steppe population into direct relationship with the ruling Ba'th Party. The ascendance of the PU clearly marks a paradigmatic shift in the focus of cooperatives, from land management to political control and influence. An important element in this process is the quelling of potentially damaging feuds among tribes, and to this end the PU stresses the designation of the steppe as state land (amlak dawlah) and supports a policy of open access. Clearly, the reason for this is that, while no single individual or group (tribal or cooperative) is permitted to offer protection, the possibility of damaging disputes arising on the steppe is sharply reduced. To further this policy, the borders of all hema cooperative territories have been cancelled and none are demarcated when new cooperatives are established. The crucial link between rights in natural resources and cooperative membership has been broken and, in some instances, the tribal homogeneity of individual cooperatives has been lost (Rae, 1999: 374).

The cooperative system could be an important asset to rangeland management in the Syrian Arab Republic. To the government it is the legitimate form of "the people" in the steppe and, in their structure, many cooperatives represent customary groups. In a country where customary structures and institutions are not formally recognized, the cooperatives represent a realistic interface between the government and the local community. For a quarter of a century, however, cooperative institutions and structures have evolved without rangeland management objectives to guide them. In essence, the PU has shifted back to the French position, where the primary concern is political stability in the steppe; but this time the maintenance of peace includes a policy of open access to natural resources.


Both Van de Veen and Hardin reasoned that individual herders are incapable of evolving customary systems for range management that would counter the perverse incentives implicit in common property situations. Other writers concede that people have been able to organize themselves without recourse to central power, but view the institutions that have been developed as incapable of change under market forces to increase efficiency (Falloux, 1987; Ault and Rutman, 1979; Gourou 1991). An alternative doctrine, the evolutionary theory, denies that there is sufficient empirical evidence to support a static interpretation of customary property rights systems (Dyson-Hudson and Smith, 1978: 21; Benkhe, 1991; World Bank, 1989: 104; Platteau, 1995: 37). Instead it argues that, under increasing land scarcity, customary systems are capable of significant autonomous evolution towards greater exclusivity and individualization and increased transferability of the land (Coarse, 1960; Demsetz 1967). Some in this school temper their argument by recognizing the role of political institutions, ideology or welfare provision, among others, in shaping the direction and choices of change taken by a customary system (Ensminger and Rutten, 1990: 23; Platteau, 1995: 37). Here, economic efficiency, ecological soundness and equity cannot be guaranteed but, since politics can never be excluded from social institutions such as property rights, this has always been the case. Some writers stress that market forces, coupled with an expanded role for central government and its broad opposition to custom, have so undermined traditional structures that the institutions dependent on them have been weakened to the point at which open access already exists on the steppe (Lawry, 1990: 440; Ensminger and Rutten, 1990: 24; World Bank, 1995: 1).

The dilemma inherent to common property can be defined in terms of trust: how is trust between individuals with a common interest established and maintained so that each will abide by self-imposed rules and will take action to prevent free-riding outsiders? The moving tribes on the steppe are not a recently organized collection of individuals without a history of cooperation. The tribes are part of an enduring society that has a wealth of social capital: the social relations and norms embedded in the structures of their society. Within each unit of the social structure, norms, rules, beliefs, mores and habits, which create expectations and come to be associated with the social structure, regulate interactions. Norms can change over time, but given that the individuals involved in any of these social structures will engage in repeated interactions, each relationship is guided by expectations of predictable behaviour, leading to trust and reciprocity. In Arab tribal society, the whole is generally rationalized in personal terms of real or imaginary descent, and the accompanying code of behaviour is translated into terms of honour and shame (Wilkinson, 1991: xvi).

Throughout its history, the state's formal legal system, the qanun, has coexisted with tribal customary law, `urf. Whereas the qanun is by definition written, the `urf is largely unwritten. The qanun has often confirmed existing local custom. Custom is also recognized as one of the sources of Islamic law, shari'a, itself a pillar of the qanun (Heyd, 1973: 169). The moving tribes in the Syrian Arab Republic were rarely subject to the qanun prior to 1958. Customary law, which was "remarkable for its sophistication, and a central feature of [tribal] culture" (Stewart, 1986: 489) prevailed in all matters, including marriage, divorce, homicide and property rights. Contrary to a presumed inability of herders to cooperate autonomously, Wilkinson argues that the steppe tribes have evolved a strong sense of territorial rights stemming from their need to control access to scarce resources, and it is "primarily designed to prevent overexploitation of natural ... resources" (Wilkinson, 1991: xvi). Unlike the hema system as formulated in the cooperatives, the essential right that custom preserved in territorial organization has been mobility - a critical response to the spatial and temporal vagaries of water and pasture availability.

Centralizing power and globalizing markets have often been coupled to explain the apparent erosion of customary institutions; the argument for this being that, in terms of customary land tenure, these forces have worked in opposite directions. Active government measures have undermined custom and include an aborted attempt to settle herders (1950-1974), the formal abolition in law of customary systems for resource control and access (1958) and the establishment (1958) and enforcement (1974) of an open access regime under the nationalization of the steppe (1952). However, the intensification of production has worked against this centrifugal force. The shift from camels to sheep, the growth in the sheep population, and the expansion of cultivation in place of the better pastures have increased land scarcity and shaped the evolution of the customary land resource tenure system towards discrete territories as a basis for access rights to natural resources and increased exclusivity.

The basis of property rights and territoriality among the moving tribes has traditionally been water. Establishing a right to water brought with it a parallel usufruct right in the surrounding pastures. Without water, grazing was usually impossible, and in the vast majority of cases water was only available when labour was invested in sinking or maintaining a well or cistern. This meant that water could be owned by a group rather than an individual. Rights in long-established water sources and pastures could be captured by a group because of its "political and military strength" (Beck, 1981: 257) vis-à-vis another group, or through the fact that the resources had been abandoned.

In practice, then, possession or occupation of a site or resource is nine-tenths of customary law, and investing in it and/or securing the consent of neighbouring groups gives the claim legitimacy. The term for occupying land that is most often used by the Bedouin tribes is "laying hands on the land". The investment of labour or wealth can take many forms such as digging, renovating or maintaining a well or cistern, cultivating (not necessarily only crops and trees, but shrubs as well) or building a house. Investment is not always needed, although in most instances it takes place. Once it has secured the area, the group (termed here "the core group") then has the sole right to invest in it. However, the classic model remains possession followed by investment in water, given how crucial water is to pastoral activities.

An important question then arises: what defines the extent of usufruct rights over the territory for a given water source? Here the basic rule is that the territory of a water source extends for half the distance to the next owned well or cistern. Although its border is usually an uneven, unmarked line, the members of each group still know the general extent of their land vis-à-vis their neighbours. A border will only be demarcated (fully or partially)11 if land scarcity becomes an issue, either in terms of increased competition for pastures or extension of cultivation to within the border proximity, or if neighbouring groups have some other problem or feud. The experience in the Syrian Arab Republic (1944-1990) is that when tribal borders need to be settled it is usually done according to custom (equal division between wells may not always be the rule), using customary judges and with state authorities participating as guarantors.12 This is particularly noticeable in the northern steppe, where average precipitation and population are relatively high and markets are close. Here, more than 700 000 ha has been demarcated among clans and tribes, and 300 000 ha of this area has been mapped (Rae, 1999).

In the past, water-centred territories formed the basis of what was termed a tribal dirah, or zone of movement. Rather than an overt political region, such as the territories were/are, the dirah is better conceived as a functional region encompassing a herder's or clan's range of movement across agro-ecological zones throughout the year. The size of the dirah once depended on the species of animal being herded, with camel herders having substantially larger dirah and venturing deeper into the desert than sheep and goat herders. These latter herders were restricted by the water dependency of their animals, which limited them to the desert fringes where water sources were more frequent and plentiful. Such activities were complementary and non-exclusive. The pastures and water of the near steppe which were occupied by the sheep herders in winter and spring were the summer pastures for camel herding tribes. The potential for conflict over timing led some tribes such as the Hadidiyin and the camel rearing Sba'ah to agree temporal and spatial rights and obligations which were recorded in written treaties.

The replacement of camels with trucks in the second half of the twentieth century, and the adoption of sheep by tribes that had previously reared camels, fundamentally altered this non-exclusive and complementary relationship. The Sba'ah switched to sheep rearing early and in large numbers, and came into increasing conflict with the Hadidiyin. The problems were resolved through customary channels with two government-sponsored treaties (1944 and 1956), which together divided more than 500 000 ha of the steppe into exclusive territories for each tribe.

The shift from camels to sheep, the growth in the human and sheep populations and the expansion and interest in cultivation have led to greater scarcities of land and shaped the evolution of the customary land resource tenure system towards more discrete territories and increasing exclusivity to pastures. In a study by Rae (1999) of the Hadidiyin and Haib tribes, who occupy the rich and relatively well-watered pastures of the north Syrian steppe, a pattern of clearly defined territories among clans within a tribe was found. The demarcation of some of these territories formed part of the written treaties between the Hadidiyin and the Sba'ah (1944 and 1956). Other clan territories in the northern steppe followed suit as disputes arose. In most incidences the disputes were settled and clan boundaries defined with the assistance of local state authorities.13 This might seem paradoxical, given the Ba'thists' stated opposition to customary law, but seen pragmatically was the lesser of two evils. It did not raise the question of open access, however, because although the state recognizes a clan's territory, such recognition does not automatically imply that the state will support a clans customary right to protect. On other occasions, state authorities have not been involved as guarantors and tribal institutions have fulfilled their role.14 With or without government participation, these written treaties testify to the continuing ability and informal legitimacy of the customary system in the Syrian Arab Republic, some 30 years after its formal abolition.

Those with such rights of investment in a territory, demarcated or not, are referred to in this article as the core group of a territory. The core group obviously has rights to graze the pastures in its area. However, it also needs to maintain mobility across wide areas to counteract the effects of the dynamic and risky natural environment of the steppe. In such circumstances, reciprocal channels are defined in terms of family, clientship, neighbourliness and political alliance.

Customary regulation of grazing

Informal management of rangelands is not a case of manipulating environmental factors because these are generally outside a herder's control; instead it is demographic manipulation of the herding population that is important. It is worth detailing Wilkinson's "disposable population model" (1983: 309) for tribal grazing regulation. He suggested the idea of a core population, identified for instance with the shaykhly lineage, as being in control of all the main natural resources within a given territory and as being demographically related to the carrying capacity of an anticipated bad year. In good years, clients, neighbours or other so-called "peripheral" families and groups could be accommodated, while in bad years they would be prevented from entering, and be forced out if the need arose. In severe years, the core group would also have to move, through reciprocal channels or otherwise.

Two populations need to be manipulated: that of the periphery and that of the core. Increases in the core population, and the need to redress them to suit the availability of resources, are continual processes. Some families may seek alternative opportunities, perhaps in the cities (Barth, 1961: 117). There is also the potential that a fraction of the core group will take more overt action to expel other members of the group. Other alternatives for the core group include greater restrictions on peripheral groups; the introduction of herd size quotas for core group members; and territorial expansion. All of these methods have been observed among the Syrian tribes today (Rae, 1999).

Control of peripheral groups depends on the identity of the individual and/or group, on the availability of pasture and water and on the ability of the core group to enforce its rule. This last variable ranges widely among groups and territories and is a function of a group's direct protection efforts, of other groups' capture attempts and of informal and/or government legal protection. Auxiliary influences include the historical circumstances of the territory and core group, the group's strength and cohesiveness (assabiyah) and its influence in the local administration (wasta). In broad terms, the amount of effort or resources devoted to protection is related to the balance of sociopolitical and economic costs and benefits that the holders can expect to incur. In a country such as the Syrian Arab Republic, which has adopted a policy of open access, these political costs are likely to be high, but they are tempered by the economic and political costs to the authorities of local governance and enforcement among a thinly distributed and moving population in an area covering half the country.

Direct and detailed evidence of customary enforcement in the Syrian Arab Republic can be found elsewhere (Rae, 1999; Rae et al., 2000). Indirectly, a spate of incidents in the Hama steppe in the spring of 1996 compelled the provincial governor to oblige shaykhs of the local tribes (including the Hadidiyin and Sba'ah) to sign a pledge that restrained them from enforcing customary access rights.15 In another official document from 1995, the provincial Aleppo authorities conceded that, because of government appropriation of land for conservation projects, "the Abraz tribe [of the Hadidiyin] ... no longer have [sufficient] lands for [their] sheep to graze".16 Furthermore, the authorities recognized that Abraz were "not welcome" on pastures to the north held by the Haib tribe, because of a "blood dispute".

The advantages of the customary system lie in local legitimacy, low transaction costs and that system's ability to respond to short-term changes in primary production and long-term shifts in socio-economic and political conditions. It is the de facto regime that regulates access to steppe resources on a day-to-day basis and it has frequently won support for changes in land tenure from reluctant authorities. Although centralizing statist policy and long-held ambivalent attitudes within the bureaucracy and wider society have inevitably compromised the customary system, the ineffectiveness of past state interventions, together with the fiscal crisis in the state and a resilient and adaptive customary system make the devolution of formal management responsibility through a reformed cooperative system a feasible and attractive option for policy-makers.


As the Syrian Arab Republic developed its institutions and national economy, it was widely assumed that tribal organizations would become superfluous and the authority of traditional leaders and customary law among the tribes would give way to a maturing and ubiquitous judiciary, civil administration and national identity. Certainly, complex bureaucratic, public sector and popular systems have been established, but it is the clientship or patronage networks that pervade their structures that determine access to material or non-material benefits and political influence (Perthes, 1995: 181). Patronage, used here as a tool of power, is the granting of resources, or of access to them, in exchange for loyalty and obedience. The necessary wasta (mediation) is obtained through patronage networks or familial, tribal, ethnic, sectarian or regional ties that form the very lines along which patron-client networks are knitted. The move of the tribally based hema cooperatives from MAAR to the PU in 1974 should be viewed in this context; it offered political advantage for the authorities rather than institutional or socio-economic opportunities for the pastoral sector.

Even before the subversion of the hema cooperatives, their design appeased and lent scientific legitimacy to political objectives. This position was supported by the adoption of a now discredited common property model that assumed there was no collective behaviour among the tribes, took for granted what was in fact uncertain, frequently anecdotal, evidence of long-term rangeland degradation (Livingstone, 1986: 17), and advocated state intervention and centralized decision-making. Furthermore, recent theoretical and empirical evidence has called into question the validity of the range succession model in arid environments, which was the cornerstone of past interventions. The studies suggest that drought, its frequency and severity, can and do have a regular and sometimes dramatic effect in dryland ecosystems (Ellis and Swift, 1988; Behnke, Scoones and Kerven, 1993).
A new ecological paradigm has evolved that recognizes the importance of spatial and temporal variability in precipitation and replaces the succession model with distinct states of vegetation in which discrete transitions are triggered by natural events, such as drought or fire, either alone or in combination with herbivore activity.17 The implications for range management, as outlined by Swift (1994: 157), include: regulated opportunism through mobility within a flexible and diverse administrative design to counter temporal and spatial vagaries in primary production; subsidiarity; and a drive to reduce transaction costs.

The range scientists' realization of the advantages of mobility and opportunistic behaviour, in part, explains both the resilience of customary institutions in the Syrian Arab Republic and elsewhere, and the failure of rigid and uncompromising regulatory regimes with their accompanying high economic and political transaction costs. Rather than being replaced, tribalism has been reproduced by each generation in relation to evolving situations and conjunctures. Not only has tribalism corrupted efforts to supplant it, but has in time instilled certain pragmatism in governance. First tribal structures and then tribal leadership were accepted in the cooperatives, while the authorities have covertly participated in and frequently guaranteed property right agreements between groups.

A customary resource tenure system that has been outlawed and is in conflict with state policy will, however, inevitably be weakened by that policy, despite the degree of realism that the authorities have developed. Over the last half century, custom has evolved discernibly towards greater exclusivity under socio-economic pressures, according to its own internal logic and through political institutions. Its foundations are deep-rooted and responsive, its system is eschewed towards resource conservation and, on a day-to-day basis, it constitutes the framework of extensive pastoral activities in the Syrian steppe.

This article suggests that the actual evolution of the formal and informal systems (which for a long time where veiled under rhetoric and public policy) shows elements of convergence and provides a foundation on which to build an integrated participatory steppe management strategy. The cooperatives remain key for government and, once reformed, should continue in their role as interface between state and community and become the forum for discussing and agreeing management objectives. Cooperative structures, modelled as originally envisaged with customary institutions regulating access and a cooperative system responsible for facilitating customary resolutions of disputes, would couple low transaction costs with an organization that is responsive to the needs of both state and community. This is the direction that the Syrian authorities have recently adopted, and they will need support in dealing with obstacles that include political sensitivities and institutional self-interest and inertia.


Ault, D. and Rutman, G. 1979. The development of individual rights in tribal Africa. Journal of Law and Economics, 22(1): 163-182.

Barth, F. 1961. Nomads of south Persia. Oslo, Norway, Oslo University Press.

Beck, L. 1981. Government policy and pastoral land use in southwest Iran. Journal of Arid Environments, 4: 253-267.

Behnke, R. 1991. Economic models of pastoral land tenure. In Proceedings of the international rangeland development symposium. Logan, Utah, United States, Department of Range Science, College of Natural Resources. p. 1-11.

Behnke, R., Scoones, I. & Kerven, C. 1993. Range ecology at disequilibrium: new methods of natural variability and pastoral adaptation in African Savannas. London, Overseas Development Institute.

Coarse, R. 1960. The problem of social cost. Journal of Law and Economics, 3: 1-44.

Delegation Generale de la France Combattante au Levant & Inspection des Mouvances Bedouines de l'état de Syrie. 1943. Les tribus nomades de l'état de Syrie. Beirut, Lebanon, Les Lettres Francaises.

Demsetz, H. 1967. Towards a theory of property rights. American Economic Review, papers and proceedings, 57(2): 347-359.

Dyson-Hudson, R. & Smith, E.A. 1978. Human territoriality: an ecological reassessment. American Anthropologist, 80(1): 21-41.

Ellis, J. & Swift, M. 1988. Stability of African pastoral ecosystems: alternate paradigms and implications for development. Journal of Range Management, 41(6): 450-459.

Ensminger, J. & Rutten, A. 1990. The political economy of changing property rights: dismantling a pastoral commons. Journal of Anthropology, 18(4): 1991.

Falloux, F. 1987. Land management, titling and tenancy. In T. Davis and L. Schirmer. Sustainability issues in agricultural development: proceedings of the seventh agricultural sector symposium, p. 190-208. Washington, DC, World Bank.

FAO. 1969. The Hema system of range reserves in the Arabian Peninsula: Its possibilities in range improvement and conservation projects in the Near East, by O. Draz. FAO/PL: PFC/13. Rome.

FAO. 1974. Report to the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic on range management and fodder development, by O. Draz. SYR/58/011. Rome.

FAO/UNDP. 1967. Report to the government of Syria on range management and fodder development. TA2351 PL:TA/43. Rome.

Gourou, P. 1991. L'Afrique tropicale: nain ou qwant agricole. Paris.

Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162: 1243-1248.

Heyd, U. 1973. Studies in old Ottoman law. Oxford, United Kingdom, Clarendon Press.

Hinnebusch, R. 1989. Peasant and bureaucracy in Ba'thist Syria: the political economy of rural development. Boulder, Colorado, United States, Westview. 325 pp.

Lawry, S. 1990. Tenure policy towards common property natural resources in sub-Saharan Africa. Natural Resources Journal, 30: 403-421.

Livingstone, I. 1986. The common property problem and pastoralist economic behaviour. Journal of Development Studies, 23(1): 5-19.

Perthes, V. 1995. The political economy of Syria under Asad. London, IB Tauris.

Platteau, J.-P. 1995. The evolutionary theory of land rights as applied to sub-Saharan Africa: a critical assessment. Cahiers de la faculte des sciences economiques et sociales no. 145. Namur, Belgium, Notre-Dame Universitaires.

Rae, J. 1999. Tribe and state: rangeland management in Syria. Oxford, United Kingdom, Oxford University, School of Geography. (unpublished D. Phil thesis)

Rae, J., Arab, G., Nordblom, T., Jani, K. & Gintzburger, G. 2000. Property rights and technology adoption in rangeland management, Syria. In R. Meinzen-Dick, P. Hazell and B. Swallow, eds. Property rights, collective action, and technology adoption. Washington, DC, IFPRI.

Scoones, I. 1994. Living with uncertainty: new directions in pastoral development in Africa. London, Intermediate Technology Publications.

Shoup, J. 1990. Middle eastern sheep pastoralism and the hema system. In J. Galaty and D. Johnson. The world of pastoralism: herding systems in comparative perspective. p. 195-215. New York, Guildford.

Stewart, F. 1986. Bedouin boundaries in central Sinai and the southern Negev. Wiesbaden, Germany, Otto Harrassowitz.

Swift, J. 1994. In I. Scoones, ed. Living with uncertainty: new directions in pastoral development in Africa. London, Intermediate Technology Publications.

Syrian Arab Republic Steppe Directorate. 1996. The steppe report. Palmyra, Syrian Arab Republic.

Van Dam, N. 1996. The struggle for power in Syria. London, I.B. Tauris.

Westoby, M., Walker, B. & Noy-Mier, I. 1989. Opportunistic management for rangelands not at equilibrium. Journal of Range Management, 42(4): 266-274.

Wilkinson, J. 1983. Traditional concepts of territory in southeast Arabia. Geographical Journal, 149: 301-315.

Wilkinson, J. 1991. Arabia's frontiers: the story of Britain's boundary drawing in the desert. London, I.B. Tauris.

World Bank. 1989. Sub-Saharan Africa - from crisis to sustainable growth. Washington, DC.

World Bank. 1995. North Africa and Iran: rangelands development in arid and semi-arid areas, strategies and policies. Washington, DC.

1The Steppe Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture received responsibility for the steppe and the tribes from the Ministry of Interior Tribes Department.

2 The Pic papers, Middle East: FO 226/271.

3Delegation Generale de la France Combattante au Levant, Damascus, 1943: 13.

4Chapter X, transitory measure: Article 158 of the 1950 Syrian Constitution.

5 Designed by the authorities in collaboration with FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

6Article 43 of the Socialist Ba'th Party Constitution (1966).

7 The model assumes that the livestock sector operates in environments that are largely stable, where weather variability is limited to a narrow range and therefore inconsequential to long-term outcomes. The model supposes that a given rangeland continually returns to a single persistent state (the climax) of vegetation in the absence of grazing. By producing changes in the opposite direction, grazing pressure arising from a set stocking rate can slow or halt the successional tendency, producing equilibrium in vegetation levels. This theory has guided the innovations of the western ranching system, which were subsequently introduced in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and West Asia to supplant customary practices. These innovations included private rights to graze, rotational or paddock grazing systems, the establishment of water supply points to spread grazing pressure, the setting of a universal stocking rate and the reseeding or replanting of the range with grasses and shrubs.

8Syrian Arab Republic (1969: 3-10) in Hinnebusch (1989: 65).

9S Jalal al-Sayyid (1973) Hizb al-Ba'th al `Arabi, Beirut, p. 252-3, in Van Dam (1996: 22).

10Corporatism is a political concept that is premised neither on the supremacy of the individual nor on that of class. Rather, it conceives of society as an organic body in which different hierarchical functional groups fulfil specific tasks under the leadership of the state and party apparatus. Within an authoritarian context, such a system attempts to cut across class, sectarian and tribal ties and provide a mechanism whereby independent political mobilization can be checked and the losers in the system can be contained.

11 For instance, by stone piles, a furrow or some other visual sign such as crests of hills or a road.

12 See, for instance: MAAR, Statement of the Lands Agreed upon among the al-Haib, Abraz, Bu-Shab al-Din and Madahish clans, 3 December 1963; Minutes of the Resolution Meeting between Ghanatsah of the Hadidiyin and Sba'ah Btayinat, al Del'a, 10 February 1975; Office for the Chief of Secret Police, Homs Province, Minutes to the Resolution Meeting between Ghanatsah of the Hadidiyin and Sba'ah Btayinat over lands of al Del'a (east of Abu al-Naytel), 18 00 hrs, 14 December 1981; MAAR, 1992, Agreement over lands at the Ja'ar site between Haib, Abraz and Bu Shahab al-Din.

13 Ibid.

14 A document of agreement and obligation between the M'atah tribe and Byud village and the Abraz tribe and Makhzoom village (20 February 1989).

15Conversation with officers at the Esrieh Police Station, 6 June 1996.

16Letter to the Governor of Aleppo from Faysal al-Nuri and companions on behalf of the Abraz tribe, 13 February 1995; Letter to the Governor of Aleppo from the Mudir, Directorate of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, No. 1942/16, 21 February 1995.

17This alternative paradigm centres on two models: the non-equilibrium model, which deals with population dynamics in uncertain environments (Behnke, Scoones and Kerven, 1993; Scoones, 1994); and the state and transition model, which replaces Clementsian succession (Westoby, Walker and Noy-Mier, 1989).

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page