Population People

Posted January 1999

Special: Population, poverty and environment

Rural Poverty: Population Dynamics, Local Institutions and Access to Resources

by Eve Crowley
Land and Natural Resource Tenure Officer
and Kirsten Appendini
Senior Officer, FAO Rural Development Division

  • Population and poverty: the policy issues, by Geoffrey McNicoll
  • Population and environmental change: from linkages to policy issues, by Alain Marcoux
  • Rural poverty: population dynamics, local institutions and access to resources, by Eve Crowley and Kirsten Appendini
  • Anthropometric, health and demographic indicators, by Simon Chevassus-Agnès
  • Workshop report highlights
  • Introduction

    There is a growing recognition among scholars that the relationship between population growth, institutions, and access to resources is complex. Institutions ("complexes of norms and behaviours that persist over time by serving some collectively valued purpose" (Uphoff, 1997: 6)) mediate the relationship between population growth and resource access. In some cases this mediation is remarkably flexible, dynamic, and capable of accommodating pressures of changing population and resource bases. In other cases, institutions play a more conservative and maladaptive role when confronted with these pressures. What is clear is that population growth does not necessarily undermine the capacity of institutions to manage resources effectively nor does it necessarily create absolute scarcity in resources.

    Yet international policy makers often continue to simplify these relationships, in part because simpler forecasts and apparent certainty of outcomes strengthen arguments to support shifts in policies, the pursuit of new strategies, or the identification of fresh program directions in agencies which may favour other approaches (Li, 1996). Decentralisation policies, for example, frequently portray communities as relatively cohesive units reflecting some local consensus and harmonious historical relationship with the environment. Some argue that the use of simplified analyses is necessary and desirable (Roe, 1991), while others claim that our role is to generate compelling counter perspectives which better fit the claims of a different set of stake holders (Leach and Mearns, 1996: 33).

    This discussion paper begins by analysing two examples of changing institution-resource access relationships in Africa and Latin America. The Africa case highlights the resource endowments and problems associated with the participation of individuals in multiple institutions, whereas the Latin America case focuses on the changes in a single institution in response to population growth. We suggest that even in situations of complexity, there are some clear entry points and directions for policy advice. Some preliminary ideas of where policy on institutions and resource access may focus are provided in the conclusion, as a basis for discussion. We welcome readers comment on these very preliminary findings and ideas.

    Case 1: Poverty and resource access in Kakamega, Western Kenya [1]

    Global assessments of poverty tend to identify one or more factors which define a universal threshold, which people cross as they move into and out of poverty. While these global factors are essential for comparison and permit analysis of changes in the numbers of people "in poverty" at any given point in time, they tend to present poverty as a fairly static condition and obscure variations in its meaning across different agro-ecological zones.

    Data from two high population sites in Western Kenya, however, suggest that a clearer picture of poverty is essential for better targeting of policy and development interventions. The right-most column of Table 1 illustrates some of the indicators which farmers in Kabras and Vihiga use to define poverty. (Crowley, 1995a) [2]. The columns represent the endowments or "rights and resources that people have" (Leach, Mearns and Scoones, 1997: 8) and describe households belonging to different wealth categories.

    Table 1: Sample of wealth indicators from Western Kenya
    Indicator Site Wealthy Middle Poor
    Livestock: no. oxen owned Kabras own full team (4+) partial team (1-3); pool oxen (okhosanga) no oxen; 0-1 cows, tend cattle for wealthy
    no. & breed of cattle on farm Vihiga cross or grade (3-4) & indigenous cows indigenous cows (2-3) indigenous cows (0-1)
    Position in Labour Market Kabras & Vihiga hire labour for most farming family labour for most farming, some hire/ some sell labour work as casual labour for wealthy before tending own farms
    Regularity & Source of Off-Farm Income Kabras & Vihiga regular off-farm income/salary from family members & micro-enterprises (posho mills, transport, shops) occasional income & remittances; sometimes income from trading little off-farm income aside from work as casual agricultural labourers & gifts
    Land: proportion of farm used, position in land market Kabras use all land owned, hire & purchase land from others use most land owned, sometimes hire in or rent out land cannot cultivate most land owned, rent out & sell some to wealthy farmers
    Farm size Vihiga 2+ acres 0.25 - 2 acres less than 0.25 acres
    Fertiliser Use Kabras & Vihiga some use inorganic fertiliser regularly may occasionally use fertiliser, if prices low no fertiliser use
    Manure: use Kabras sometimes use manure use manure use manure or nothing
    Position in market Vihiga sell surplus manure may buy or sell manure may buy manure or receive as gift
    Proport. land under cash crops: sugrcane, sunflower Kabras more farm land allocated to cash crop farm land allocated to both cash & food crops little land under cash crop, unless rented to others
    tea, coffee, veget., trees, napier grass Vihiga some land allocated to cash crop; grow & buy napier grass little or no land allocated to cash crop; grow & may buy or sell napier no land allocated to cash crop, except napier grass for sale & french beans
    Enterprise diversity Kabras & Vihiga land available for woodlots, bush, fallow, napier grass, among others land allocated to basic, plus 1 or 2 other uses land allocated to basics (maize, beans, veget. bananas)
    Other farm practices: Land preparation & planting time Kabras prepare & plant before rains prepare & plant before or at onset of rains prepare & plant after onset of rains
    Weeding Vihiga 2 timely weedings one weeding late/insufficient
    Proportion of food grown/purchased Kabras & Vihiga most food grown, little purchased some food grown, some purchased little food grown, most purchased
    Period harvest lasts Kabras & Vihiga food harvested lasts until next harvest or longer food harvested lasts about 2 months after harvest most food consumed as it is harvested
    Education Kabras & Vihiga educate children through secondary & some beyond educate children through primary, sometimes second. educate some children thru pri-mary, or not at all
    Source: Crowley, Wealth Ranking-Kabras, 1994-5; Crowley and Soule, Wealth Ranking Vihiga-1995

    This table highlights several important issues. First, local definitions of poverty are spatially variable, according to differences in agro-ecological zones, social groups, and other factors. The poor in the slightly dryer and lower population (275/km2 1989) zone of Kabras, for example, are typically poor in oxen and labour to use (not own) larger farm areas and prepare and plant fields before the rains. By contrast in Vihiga, where the rural population density of 1,050 persons/ km2 (1989) is among the highest in the world, poor access to grade or cross dairy cattle (for regular cash), slightly larger farms, and labour to weed in a timely fashion are more important in defining poverty. The assets required to survive or thrive are different from one area to another.

    The definition of poverty is also temporally variable. Fifty years ago, resource poor households in Vihiga typically contained only one wife, few children, and only a few heads of cattle. Today, in part due to population growth, the poorest households are locally-defined as those who lack the off-farm income (except from low paying agricultural work) to purchase inputs, plant a cash crop, diversify income-earning activities, or educate their children.

    It is important also to recall that endowments fluctuate over time in accordance with the developmental cycle of domestic groups. Typically, household resources begin relatively small, increase over time, and eventually decline again, as parcels are allocated to children and the next generation of households are established. This dynamic is important for sampling since a majority of households with limited resources (in accordance with population growth) may betray an overall decline in resources, when in fact this might be an artefact of a larger number of households being at an earlier stage in the developmental cycle.

    This spatial and temporal variability in the resource endowments, which define poverty and wealth, suggest a number of features of resource availability and access. First, in the case of Vihiga, some resources are evidently becoming absolutely scarce. Land sizes and wood lots for fuelwood are very small, as increased population density has brought about smaller fragmented holdings through inheritance. Inheritance rules have changed over time. Where once all male children were entitled to land, now the tendency has been to grant access to the eldest son, who has children, and is living in the community. Other children have to pursue their livelihoods through other channels. Nevertheless, all children and their offspring retain burial rights on the family plot. This development of male primogenitureship is an example of institutional change in inheritance, and is clearly an adaptation to resource scarcity.

    But even in this case, resources are only scarce in a relative sense. Markets, for example, can provide an alternative means of access to land and other resources. Farmers with enough capital, for instance, rent or buy land in other areas. Others seek off-farm employment, participation in local, national, and trans-national labour markets, in order to substitute cash for land resources in their endowment portfolio. Thus, even when there is absolute local scarcity of a resource, this can often be overcome through institutional interactions.

    Thus, in cases of resource scarcity or plenty, participation in different institutions plays a key role in accounting for variations in resource endowments among households. Participation in plough and oxen sharing arrangements, in land, labour, and agricultural markets, in ad hoc rotating labour associations, in credit contracts, and claims on the basis of national legislation can determine the types and quantities of resources with which a household is endowed, where they fall along the wealth/poverty continuum, and whether they are likely to be upwardly or downwardly mobile.

    But participation in institutions is not always clear-cut. Participation in some institutions involves membership, obligations, and rights (as is illustrated in the Oaxaca case, below) or it can appear to be more open, as in the case of markets. But the fact is that all institutions assume some ascribed or achieved preconditions for participation. These may include residence in a community, gender, and ethnicity for participation in community management of a common property resource or disposable capital reserves and information for participation in a land market. In many cases, whether individuals meet these conditions determines whether they obtain access to the resources these institutions govern. A large sum of disposable cash or rights of alienable transfer to land as preconditions for participation in land markets, effectively excludes most poorer farmers and many women from participation in this institution. However, some of the preconditions which appear inflexible (i.e. residence in a community; ethnicity), in practice, are malleable and are manipulated depending upon the objective and actors involved (i.e. duration of residence; identification with mother or father's ethnic group).

    Participation in institutions may also have transaction costs. Rotating ad hoc labour associations are a common means of supplementing household labour at peak periods of the agricultural cycle, but in Vihiga, the poorest and wealthiest women rarely participate in this institution. The poorest women can not afford to give up the salary of a single day of agricultural wage labour for the benefit of group labour at some later date, given the necessity for earning cash to meet immediate needs. The wealthiest women do not participate, in part, because the cost in time of organising and working in these associations is greater than if they hired agricultural wage labourers to do the job for them. Even the benefits of group solidarity and support in case of future emergencies does not always compensate for the transaction costs involved in this type of informal organisation.

    Within any institution, some individuals often have more entitlements than others. Entitlements are the alternative sets of resources, rights, and benefits from goods and services over which people have legitimate effective command (Gasper, 1993). Entitlements may include commodities such as land, food, water, fuel, the market value of these resources or rights to them, and benefits derived from them. How effectively individuals operate within institutions, their power to advance their claims relative to others, and institutional leverage derived from investments in these institutions (Crowley, 1995b) determine their actual entitlements. For example, wealthier households in Kabras are entitled to use a larger grazing area than poorer households, even though in principle, their rights are the same for all members of the community.

    Every individual participates in a variety of institutions, more or less, to their advantage. Participation in institutions, in these negotiated and stable sets of rules and relationships, is an important form of social capital. Greater social security or "stronger safety nets" appear to be associated with access to wider ranges of institutions. Thus, participation in institutions does not only affect access to resources, but the contrary is also true: access to resources affect participation in institutions. Through this example, we suggest that institutions do not operate as a disturbed equilibrium, but are constantly changing, not just in response to population growth but also to the investments, claims, and counter claims of participants. We are exploring these changes in our work, in an effort to identify opportunities for support to beneficial processes and for innovation in institutions where appropriate.

    Case 2: Population dynamics and institutions: A forest community in Oaxaca, Mexico [3]

    This section draws on ongoing work of SDA to illustrate some approaches to these topics, with particular emphasis on the role of institutions in providing support to rural households support in income generating activities. The population variable is stressed, in order to show how it interrelates dynamically with local institutions.

    The example is of a community with a mixed property regime. Resources include cropland held individually by households (possession by use rights), grazing on common lands or individual plots, and collectively and communally-managed forestlands. The forest is an important resource and the wood is processed in a community lumberyard. Cattle, another important income source, is individually owned. Agriculture is for subsistence.

    Access to resources is accorded to members of the community. Membership is related to residence, and limited to adult males called "citizens of the community". Membership implies rights and obligations. Rights include access to land, water and other collective resources, mainly the forest and lumberyard enterprises. The obligations of members are to participate in the management of the forest, lumberyard enterprise, and other community resources, and to perform community tasks, such as health services, schools, festivities, and local government. Participation in community tasks is rotated and these services are provided without pay. The performance of tasks is based on the indigenous 'cargo' [4] system and on the obligation to provide communal labour (tequio). The sanction for non-participation is to lose the right of membership in the community.

    Migration is important. The community has a long history of first temporary and later permanent migration, particularly to Mexico City. Migration to USA (California) has intensified in recent decades. In both cases, strong networks have developed between migrants and their families in the community of origin. Remittances are an important income source for households.

    Due to migration, there is a shortage of adults in the home community. This has led to an adjustment in the cargo system, without changing the rules of membership or rights and obligations, and has opened new opportunities for population remaining in the village. For example, male migrants continue to return to perform important cargoes, such as to participate in the committee responsible for managing the forest enterprise. However, to cut trees in the forest, perform minor cargoes, or participate in collective works (tequio), migrant community members rarely return themselves, preferring instead to hire labourers from nearby villages or make other informal arrangements for substitution. These substitutes have no formal obligations to perform the cargo or tequio, but are simply hired for the job by the person they substitute. The community may also employ someone to undertake minor cargoes. In this way, women have increasingly been allowed to perform community tasks. Thus, while women are excluded from community membership, a contradictory adjustment has occurred, granting women access to employment and income in order to maintain the cargo system, however, women gain neither status nor security.

    Another impact of migration is that it is modifying the pattern of land use. Privately-held plots, formerly under crops, are being converted to grazing areas, which are enclosed and also considered to be 'private'. This constitutes a shift away from the former system of community access to common grazing lands.

    In sum, the question of resource access (income, employment, cropland, grazing land, forest) requires an understanding of local institutions, such as the cargo system, and of how population dynamics are transforming the ways in which these institutions operate. How access to resources and income-earning opportunities interact and are being modified, and whether opportunities for participation of the poor are being broadened or restricted are crucial themes of research. In this second Case, jobs are being opened to women, but on unequal terms since they do not attain the rights of community members. Underlying this is the question of what conditions enable women to become empowered, adjust change to their advantage, and reduce risks of marginalisation.

    This example, while context specific, identifies a relationship which is not generally underlined in the literature. The point is to call attention to the complexity of the processes and to new trends in population dynamics that interact with institutions and access and management of resources. Transnational communities and labour shortage are no longer unique cases in many marginal areas of the Third World.

    Topics for future research

    This paper has stressed the need to recognise the complexity of interactions between population, institutions and resource access and management and shows how institutions mediate between these variables in complex ways. The examples described suggest some methodological needs for analysing institutions and raise questions about where policies and programming activities should be targeted.

    Methodological needs

    A number of methodological tools are being used for socio-economic analysis of communities and households. Currently, analyses of institutions depend on the theoretical approach of the researcher (Knudsen, 1995). A broader integration of various perspectives on institutions is needed to develop:
    1. better methodological approaches capable of dealing with complex, changing relationships between institutions, entitlements, and environments, such as the environmental entitlements approach (Leach, Mearns and Scoones, 1997);

    2. tools to analyse linkages between rural households and local institutions and the impacts of institutional change on households;

    3. tools for monitoring the responsiveness of local institutions to the needs of households/individuals in poverty alleviation efforts;

    4. tools to analyse participation in institutions and the exercise of rights;

    5. a methodology for analysing transnational institutions, such as migrant associations or labour markets.

    Some of these challenges are currently being addressed at FAO (FAO/SDAR, 1997).

    Targeting policies and programs

    What should be the strategy for targeting policies and programming activities under these conditions of complexity and change? Which approaches are most promising?

    The paper has highlighted the role of institutions in providing access to resources (and affording access to the poor specifically), rather than attempted to evaluate the effectiveness of institutions in managing resources. In fact, improved equity in access and improved management of resources are conflicting functions of some institutions. One specific objective of the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit (1996) is

    "...to promote equitable and equal access to productive resources, such as land, water and credit...to maximise incomes of the poor". (Commitment 2, Objective 2.1)

    But our analysis of institutions shows that access to resources is relative. In its most equitable form, access is equal for members of a community. Those who are excluded from participation in institutions have, by definition, no rights of equal access to resources. Many have even argued that capacity to exclude is essential for efficient management of some resources, as in common property systems (Ostrom, 1990). Moreover in cases of growing resource scarcity, as in the Vihiga case, local institutions have evolved independently in the direction of greater exclusion from access. Yet this perspective also raises questions about equity at a higher scale, above the level of defined communities, the scale at which universal indicators of poverty operate. Should access to resources be equal for all or for some (i.e. community members) and how is this choice to be made? What role does a human rights-based approach play in this determination and what supporting policies and actions might be necessary to realise rights-based objectives?

    Much of FAO's work in land reform (Riddell, 1997) over the last 50 some years has focused on policy advice to member nations to facilitate more equitable access to resources through institutional reform. Redistributive and restitutive reform programs, for example, focus on modifying national institutions through legislative changes aimed expressly at providing landless peoples with access to land. Another major initiative, market-led reform programs, is aimed at clarifying the resource rights being transferred, simplifying procedures, and improving the transparency and lowering the costs of transactions. However, markets have not been particularly effective in the redistribution of land, so more recent policies focus on "evening out the playing field" by supporting actors who normally are unable to participate in land markets (i.e. through subsidies on land purchases; tax policies; more secure leasing arrangements; assistance in property valuations). Negotiated land reform emphasises coalition building to strengthen the ability of communities to negotiate on their own behalf with governments to increase access to land and rural development services.

    This experience has demonstrated the value of focusing policies, in conditions of uncertainty, on positive processes rather than on specific conditions. Some processes worthy of policy support include:

    1. clarifying the content and capacity of rights to land and natural resources to improve security of tenure;

    2. improving information and clarifying rules and procedures for participating in institutions to lower transaction costs and increase accountability and transparency.

    In cases where the relationships between population, institutions and the environment produce near certain outcomes, processes worthy of policy support might include:

    1. modifying the conditions of participation (exclusion/inclusion) in institutions to broaden or narrow access to resources as appropriate;

    2. guiding socialisation, education, and negotiation/conflict resolution and build awareness of the outcomes (i.e. gender equality in access to resources), so that participants in institutions can devise their own locally-appropriate means for resolving these problems or achieving their objectives;

    3. supporting inter-institutional coalitions and partnerships with NGOs and Civil Society Organisations to lobby in support of the claims of target populations, provide legal assistance, and advocacy services.

    This orientation highlights the role of multilateral organisations, such as FAO, as neutral advisors and flexible mediators in creating enabling conditions and guiding processes which support people in their own search for co-operative solutions.

    The authors are grateful to David Iaquinta for comments on an earlier draft of this document


    1. The authors are grateful to the Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Research Fellowship in Agriculture, the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry and the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Programme for financial support for this research.

    2. The valuable conceptual and methodological insights to this work of Simon Carter, Meredith Soule, Gerald Gacheru, Caleb Mulogoli, and Michael Misiko are gratefully acknowledged.

    3. The information is based on the pilot study carried out by FAO/SDAR under the Programme 'Rural household income Strategies for Poverty Alleviation and Interactions with the Local Institutional Environment" Pilot case study in Mexico, in collaboration with CRIM/ UNAM, Mexico. We are grateful for the support of Guillaume Lanly, SDAR, in preparing this section.

    4. A cargo is a public office of a civil or religious nature, generally used to describe the work or service, that a member of a community performs while holding a position in one of the community's political, social and religious commitments (Hulshof, 1990:10; Cohen, 1994:147). A tequio is "an institutionalised form of community co-operation through communal labour" (Hulshof, 1990:10).


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