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Les régimes de propriété collective: origine et implications du débat théorique

Des systèmes de gestion commune des ressources existent dans différents pays sous différentes formes, et ils varient autant que les types de ressources qui peuvent être gérées en commun, d'où l'importance des définitions. Ces systèmes sont caractérisés par le droit d'accès, qui est communautaire, et l'exploitation des ressources mêmes, qui est individuelle, mais avec un important contrôle collectif basé sur la réciprocité des devoirs et des droits. Les conditions sont donc bien différentes de celles de libre accès aux ressources sans contrôle social où la surexploitation et des situations connues comme la "tragédie des terres communales" tendraient à prévaloir. Les institutions qui réglementent les actions individuelles et de groupe, ainsi que les mécanismes de coopération et d'action collective, sont à la base du fonctionnement des régimes communaux. Mais il est aussi important de rappeler le rôle des institutions externes telles que celles de l'État qui assurent la coordination entres les systèmes de gestion communale et le reste de la société.

Las tierras comunales y sus regímenes de gestión: antecedentes e implicaciones del debate teórico

Los sistemas de gestión común de los recursos existen en muchos países bajo formas diferentes, y son tan variados como los tipos de recursos que pueden ser objeto de una gestión común; de ahí, pues, la importancia de las definiciones. La característica de estos sistemas es que el derecho de acceso es común mientras que el uso de los recursos es individual, pero va acompañado de un control colectivo en el que los miembros comparten derechos y deberes recíprocos. Por consiguiente, la situación no es la misma que en un sistema de libre acceso, en el que se impondría la sobreexplotación y la consiguiente "tragedia de las tierras comunales". Las instituciones que regulan la acción de estos grupos son indispensables para explicar el funcionamiento de los regímenes comunales. No menos importante es comprender los mecanismos de cooperación y acción colectiva y el papel de coordinación de instituciones externas, como las del Estado, que permite la interacción entre los sistemas de gestión comunal y el resto de la sociedad.

Common property regimes: origins and implications of the theoretical debate

N. Forni

This article is based on materials collected by Nadia Forni for a Ph.D. thesis (1998, unpublished).

Communal systems of resource management exist in many countries under different forms that are as varied as the types of resources that can be held in common, hence the importance of definitions. These systems are characterized by communal rights of access and individual use of resources, accompanied by group control in which members share reciprocal rights and duties. The situation is thus different from that of open access, where overexploitation and "tragedy of the commons" outcomes would prevail. Institutions that regulate the actions of groups are essential in explaining the functioning of communal regimes. Just as essential is an understanding of mechanisms for cooperation and collective action and the role of external institutions, such as those vested in the state in performing coordination functions that allow interaction between communal systems of management and society.


Communal systems of resource management exist in many countries under different forms. It is therefore important to highlight their characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Objections against these systems are sometimes raised in the name of modernization concepts, in which privatization of production resources and the primacy of individual over collective action are central. Clarification of the issues involved may contribute to broader policy-relevant debate.

This article introduces the theoretical debate about common property regimes (CPRs) and their suitability for production and socio-economic development, giving examples of their relevance in both developed and developing countries.

After defining CPRs, the article goes on to analyse the theoretical background of CPR theories. The importance of institutions for their operation is stressed, and the debate on collective action, social capital and the coordinating role of the state is introduced.


The regulation and management of common property are as varied as the types of resources that can be, and are, held in common, whether on a large or a small scale, ranging from sea fisheries to irrigation systems, forests, grazing lands and farmland. Those who consider CPRs inefficient, whether for social, ecological or economic reasons, are in favour of their being privatized or brought under direct state control. Those who, on the contrary, consider them viable, put the major emphasis on the role of local institutions in making CPRs economically and ecologically sustainable.

CPRs can be defined as those resource management systems in which resources or facilities are subject to individual use but not to individual possession or disposal, where access is controlled and the total rate of consumption varies according to the number of users and the type of use (Oakerson in NRC, 1986).

Resources managed under CPRs are different from those managed as private goods, for which access is controlled and individual use and possession are exclusive. They differ also from public goods, such as sunlight or street lamps, for which access is open to all: such goods are collectively consumed and the rate of consumption is independent of the number of consumers.

Definitions have a special role in common property theory, since the term has often been used with different connotations. Moorehead (1991) underlines how a common good can be located anywhere in the continuum between private goods and purely public goods, according to levels of shared, and excludability from, use. Purely private goods are fully exclusive in that the consumption by one individual excludes the ability of another to consume, and this exclusion is legitimized by society through individual property rights.

At the other extreme, the consumption of public goods by one individual does not prevent the ability of others to benefit, since the supply of such goods is not in any way limited by individual access. Access to goods such as sunlight is uncontrollable and cannot become legitimized by society as private property.

Common goods, on the other hand, share elements of both private and public goods. They are defined by their partial subtractability and partial excludability, which need to be legitimized by society in order to be defined as common property.

This overall term comprises a continuum of different meanings. A working example of major categories is proposed by Moorehead (1991) as follows:

Several authors emphasize customary management (Berkes, 1989; Jodha, 1991), and maintain that resources can be considered as common property irrespective of whether ownership is legally bestowed on the common property resource users, the state or another public body, provided the resources are actually managed according to common property norms. Village ponds, forests, rivers and rivulets, for instance, often fall under formal legal ownership of the state but their de facto management rests with the community. This implies the existence of reciprocal obligations and mutual help, methods for conflict resolution and modes of production involving several households in a work-team and aiming, principally, at self-sufficiency.

Other authors, in defining CPRs as resource management institutions, focus on the functions performed rather than the legal title (Stevenson, 1991). CPR management systems are defined as those where a clearly defined group of competing users have access to a jointly controlled, clearly defined resource according to implicit and explicit rules governing rights and duties.

It has also been pointed out (Berkes, 1989) that CPRs are not evolutionary relics: they exist because they produce certain advantages. They are to be preferred to open access or private property regimes in cases where the resource could be split into individually controlled units but the cost of controlling sole ownership would be prohibitive (Stevenson, 1991).

According to other scholars, however, CPRs are viable only in traditional societies (Quiggin, 1993). They are often said to be incompatible with development and economic growth because of their inability to adapt to new technology and because the shift from subsistence to market-oriented production leads to increasing income and other inequalities which, in turn, decrease the commonality of objectives among users of the commons.

This latter point is partially supported, in the case of Asia, by Jodha (1991) who signals the threats to traditional management systems from commercialization and ensuing pauperization. However, the same author in another study (Jodha 1992) states that, in a sample of Indian villages, as much as 14 to 23 percent of income was derived from common property resource utilization, and the figures rise to 84 to 100 percent in the case of the poor. The economic importance of CPRs would therefore appear to remain very high, even though it is threatened.

The importance of equity, alongside efficiency, is also at the centre of Oakerson's framework of analysis (Oakerson in NRC, 1986). In this, the commons are defined as economic resources subject to individual use, but not individual possession, and characterized by joint consumption, rights of exclusion and indivisibility with reciprocity and mutual expectation of positive performance. Oakerson's framework pays particular attention to the problem of applying efficiency or optimality principles where there are significant yearly fluctuations of production, as is often the case in CPRs, and where short-term efficiency may undermine long-term sustainability.

Having reviewed some of the characteristics of CPRs, the following working definition may be proposed: CPRs are management systems where resources are accessible to a group of rights holders who have the power to alienate the product of the resource but not the resource itself.

Common property can be legally owned by the state, a community or an organization. Within this legal framework, a group of traditional rights holders manages the resource exclusively to preserve and enhance its long-term productive capacity for the benefit of all current and future members of the group. All members share reciprocal rights and duties that can only be amended by collectively binding decisions.

In view of the importance of institutions and their functions in common property resource management it is also useful to clarify the meaning of this term. Institutions can be defined in a very broad sense, following North (1990), as the rules that underpin the functioning of society. In this sense a CPR, for instance, is an institution just as much as the state is, although at a different level. Both act through organizations. For instance, while the state as an institution intervenes in pastoral production through organizations such as a regional administration, CPRs intervene through organizations such as an association of herders. North also stresses that institutions change incrementally over a very long period so that change is hardly ever completely discontinuous, even if ostensibly brought about by a revolution. In a society, it is institutions that determine opportunities, as distinct from organizations which are created, with formal structures, to take advantage of the opportunities and which then, in turn, may alter the institutions themselves.

However, the terms institution and organization often overlap. Following Uphoff (FAO, 1997b), institutions can be considered as norms of behaviour that last over time and pursue collective purposes, while organizations refer to structures within which roles are performed.


Early theories

The term common property has tended to be used with very different connotations by economists, on the one hand, and historians and anthropologists, on the other. The semantics of the term has therefore had an important role in disagreements among scholars.

Hardin's theory (Hardin, 1968) of the "tragedy of the commons" has influenced much of the debate since the late 1960s with a rather picturesque theory of the commons that attracted wide consensus in political circles in various parts of the world. The theory uses the commons as synonymous with open access and common property almost as synonymous with no property. According to Hardin, when there are many users with unlimited access to a limited resource, overexploitation is inevitable. Abuse occurs because each individual user will look for private gain while spreading the costs among all users.

Hardin uses pastoral commons as an example to represent all other resources with multiple users, and overgrazed pastures as a metaphor for an overpopulated world. On this pasture open to all, livestock are individually owned. Each herder reaps the full benefit from his animals, but pays only part of the delayed cost, which is shared by all herders if the resource is overused and its productivity decreases. The individual herder will, therefore, be following a rational course of action if he/she increases his/her herd without limits, but the sum of individual herders will produce an irrational joint result that "tragically" leads to depleting the joint resource.

Hardin's model is often explained through a prisoners' dilemma game theory argument (Ostrom, 1990; Wade, 1988; Stevenson, 1991), in which two prisoners have jointly committed a crime. They know that if both deny committing the crime, both will receive a light sentence; if both confess, both will receive a medium sentence; if one confesses and the other does not, the first will be set free while the one who denies will get a heavy sentence. Forced in isolation and with no knowledge of each other's intentions, they each have to choose between denying the crime, i.e. implicitly cooperating to get a jointly minimized penalty, or confessing, i.e. defecting from the common interest solution but opening the possibility for one to be set free at the expense of the other.

The outcome suggested by game theory is that, in the absence of trust or any verifiable commitment to each other, both confess in order to maximize their individual
chances, irrespective of what they know would be the best strategy for both of them jointly.

This situation is translated into one in which herders graze their individual animals in a commons that can support a limited number of animals. The prisoners' dilemma arises from the possibility for the herders to cooperate, i.e. share equally the available grazing potential, or defect, i.e. each graze as many animals as possible. It is contended that the dominant strategy will be to defect in order to try to obtain the maximum individual short-term benefit, as unilateral restraint will not stop others from overusing the common good. The only way to stop the destruction of the commons would be either complete privatization of the common good, thus internalizing costs, or state control through coercion.

This simple game can be replayed with a series of variants, adding other moves that involve the intervention of central authorities with power to sanction defectors or introducing the notion of predictability of each herder's action as seen by other herders/players. However, when the prisoners' dilemma is repeated many times, with the players kept in uncertainty as to the number of times the game will actually be iterated, expectations or tacit communication increase, which improves the chances of cooperation (Hardin, 1982). As a consequence, the players may act rationally by selecting a cooperative option or contingent strategies in each game based on regularities of behaviour. The difference in their attitudes in a single game compared with iterated games is defined by Barry (1965; quoted in Hardin, 1982: 186) as the difference between altruism and trust: in the single game, it would require altruism rather than rational choice to cooperate; in the iterated games, it is a matter of trust, i.e. expectation of a certain behaviour based on past experience and awareness of the opportunity of sanction against defectors.

Another variant of the prisoners' dilemma theory is Olson's logic of collective action (Olson, 1971), which emphasizes the need to persuade individuals to pursue group interests through "selective inducements" which include sanctions and rewards. Defection from a collaborative course of action is to be expected, particularly in the case of large groups whose members do not share many common goals. Olson particularly stresses the importance of group size in preventing defection from collective action and the potential role in this of rural communities (Olson's foreword to Baland and Platteau, 1996). In large groups, players can defect profitably; what defeats group action is a lack of reward for collectively oriented action, the difficulty of interaction within large constituencies and the ever-increasing organizational costs. For these reasons, very large groups will not be able to benefit from collective goods unless there is coercion or separate outside incentives (Olson, 1971: 48).

Negotiation among common property resource users and the assurance problem

Most current theorists (e.g. Runge, 1986) cast doubts on the inevitability of the tragedy of the commons, unless privatization takes place, on the grounds that Hardin's theory implies that each range user is ignorant of other users' actions. It is contended that this is implausible in view of the nature of herder society, which makes free-riding possible only in the short term.

A fallacy of the tragedy of the commons and the related prisoners' dilemma as applied to common property use is said to lie in the assumption that, not only is each player unaware of other players' decisions, but also no negotiation is possible between them. It has been argued (Wade, 1987) that, while this may apply to ocean fisheries or air pollution, it is unlikely to apply when there is recurrence of action and players can observe each other.

Wade (1987), reflecting particularly on the claimed need for coercion, maintains that people are able to negotiate rules among themselves in view of the net collective benefit from joint action. He highlights some features of successful organization: clearly defined boundaries for the resources; the higher the cost of the technology used, the greater the chances of success; an overlap between the location of the common property and members' residence; necessity to survival; a small users' group with mutual obligations and rules against defectors; and support to local decision-makers.

In this type of context, free-riding is a possibility but not an imperative. People will cooperate if others do. The problem is then mainly one of assurance. Individuals' choices are not independent of their expectations of other individuals' choices and the assurance theory is based on their expected interdependence. A reduction of risk is thus the basic reason for adhering to village corporate groups which exist to establish and protect joint access to common resources (Runge, 1981). The major issues affecting the actual functioning of these corporate groups lie in the rules they have given themselves to regulate individuals' conduct and their ability to monitor resource use, resolve conflicts, change rules and, if necessary, accommodate new technology.

Functions of reciprocity among groups and communities are documented in many countries (Bedrani, 1991; Ruiz Perez and Valero Saez, 1990). In Spain, for centuries the rights of different transhumant groups were coordinated among themselves and vis-à-vis peasant farmers by the Mesta, an association of transhumant livestock raisers which obtained legal status in 1273 (Klein, 1920). Difficulties in institutional arrangements and the monitoring of effectiveness tend, however, to increase considerably as group size and heterogeneity increase (Kanbur, 1992). This problem was overcome by the Dogana system which functioned effectively in southern Italy for several centuries through its in-depth organization of all the activities of CPR rights holders when in transhumance outside their home areas, thus providing institutional support (Marino, 1988).

The shaping of institutions

Institutions that regulate the action of groups of rights holders in the management of the commons are essential in explaining the functioning of communal regimes. The development of such institutions and their efficiency in monitoring resource use is at the centre of the institutionalist school of thought which shifted the emphasis in the theory of common property from individual constraints to institutional and social ones (Ostrom, 1990). The institutionalists define resource systems in terms of stock, e.g. a grazing area or an irrigation canal which may produce a flow in terms of units of fodder or of water for irrigation. "Appropriators" of the system are herders or irrigators, who jointly use the resource system in order to obtain individual resource units. The efficiency of CPRs depends heavily on the norms that appropriators give themselves and on their ability to monitor those norms, as well as on the opportunistic behaviour that each appropriator expects from the others. Success or failure, therefore, mainly depend on the process of organization as well as its local acceptability and ease of monitoring.

The institutionalists emphasize the following (Ostrom, 1990):

New institutional economists (NIEs) maintain that institutions will tend to evolve into forms that reduce transaction costs through efficiency. North (1990) however cautioned against this optimism and maintained that efficiency is not all and that power relations within organizations may be just as important. Granovetter (in Granovetter and Svedberg, 1992) carries the argument further and maintains that action does not depend on individual motivation alone because it is "embedded" in social action. Economic action is socially motivated but is part of a set of interpersonal relations in which networks ensure the relations between individuals and between groups. Granovetter also disputes the NIEs' conviction that the importance of social relations decreases as societies move from being pre-market to being market, claiming instead that, although different types of social relations acquire importance, they are just as ingrained as the original ones.

The theory of networks is also sometimes used by new institutional economics and was extended by Levi (1988) who defines it as a network of contracts among those who govern, those who are governed and agents between both parties. The level to which agents intervene and contract enforcement costs depends, according to North (1990), on the interpenetration of institutions. For instance, state intervention to protect merchants in mediaeval Europe was facilitated by merchants' institutions, e.g. their codes of conduct limited the participants working within the network and contained transaction costs for both sides.

Institutions and mobile systems of production

The shaping of institutions and the comparative advantage of communal or private systems acquire particular relevance when dealing with mobile systems of production such as pastoral ones. Attention should therefore be focused on the importance of seasonality in pastoral production, mobility as a consequent strategy, whether this is facilitated by communal use of resources, and the institutions that regulate it.

Collective control of pasture as a way of assuring herd mobility is as widespread in developed countries as it is in Africa and Asia, as shown by the large tracts of land in the United States that are leased for seasonal grazing to either individuals or groups using hired shepherds. The more variable the weather and the less varied the ecology, the more territory is required to manage the stock safely (Gilles and Gefu in Galaty and Johnson, 1990).

In the case of livestock production, it is contended that, whenever productivity is low and rainfall is spatially variable, it is better to carry out production over large areas, whether they are private ranches or communal areas (Gilles and Jamtgaard in Mendes, 1988). For instance, Artz and O'Rourke (in NRC, 1986) show in the case of Morocco that, in areas of erratic rainfall, forage becomes almost a fugitive resource that it is impractical to harvest from a small fixed plot.

Overgrazing is frequently attributed as a consequence of official restrictions on mobility. This was underlined, inter alia, in Peru and Bolivia (Browman, 1987), where traditional indigenous practices were disrupted by obstacles to mobility and consequent overgrazing. In addition, the economic significance of herding, which included trading during transhumance and transporting of farmers' produce, was greatly reduced.

Evidence from Morocco (Mendes, 1988) seems to indicate that forage land is likely to be privatized when the potential value of the land is high enough to encourage investment for increases in productivity, whereas common property management is suitable in cases where investment is risky and the transaction costs of policing the area are more efficiently shared among larger user groups. Bromley (in NRC, 1986) concludes that there is no valid way of generalizing the relation between resource degradation and property rights regimes. In fact, a multiplicity of tenure systems tends to exist in each locality (Mendes, 1988; Netting, 1981). Tenure and mode of production may even change seasonally within the same area. In the case of Bangladesh, for instance, rigid private property borders are removed during the floods: the whole floodplain becomes a source of common property resources and provides a fish capture ground (Sadeque, 1992).


The essence of cooperation and self-enforcement

Theories of cooperation and collective action provide some of the most common answers to the free-rider problem in common property resource systems that are resisting privatization. In fact, individual choice can also be satisfied by cooperation, but to achieve a benefit there is a need to combine individual efforts in an organized way. The essence of cooperation and self-enforcement is based on knowledge of the past and prediction of future possibilities by actors who expect to meet again and therefore have a stake in their own future interaction. Cooperation can then evolve even in situations where defection prevails. Friendship is not a prerequisite to the emergence of cooperation based on reciprocity (Axelrod, 1984).

Successful cooperation and collective action depend on the nature and size of the groups and institutions as well as on the type of organization that ensures enforcement of the group's own rules. Problems may also arise from the divisibility of benefits, particularly where the latter go to the community as a whole and not just to those who have contributed, as may be the case with environmental improvement (Curtis, 1991).

Cooperation and self-enforcement are discussed, with substantial empirical evidence, by the new institutionalists, who see a complete absence of "hierarchical governance" as an essential precondition (Keohane and Ostrom, 1994). They maintain that only local self-enforcement through "locally centralized" systems can ensure exclusion and enforcement of decisions through village assemblies that establish and monitor rules and function in a state-like fashion at the local level (Snidal in Keohane and Ostrom, 1994). This would be the case of Alpine communities such as those described by Netting (1981) in the case of Switzerland.

The importance of information

Cooperative solutions will be fully realized only if there is perfect information. Although most people would prefer not to work, in a cooperative game everybody expects others to do so and so each individual contributes with what Elster (1989) calls conditional altruism. Transparency of the rules of the game encourages collective action, but perfect information would seem to be best ensured if the group is very small or if an outside actor, such as the state, intervenes. According to Olson (1971), outside small groups, only the presence of "selective incentives" such as rewards for contribution to group effort and coercion exercised by an outside agent actually allow effective collective action.

An important issue in the debate on collective action is whether and how an asymmetric group of rights holders could be a hindrance to the good operation of CPRs or any other type of cooperating group. Knight (1992) underlines that groups are composed of individuals and that perfect equality is a myth. There are power structures within them, as within the rest of society. Therefore they should not be idealized, and power asymmetries should be taken into consideration to assess both the way rules are made and how they are implemented. It is usually assumed that homogeneous membership is a positive condition for a successful CPR, but that asymmetric preferences and endowments are not inconsistent with an intention to cooperate, with different actors having different reasons to support a certain type of collective action (cf. Martin in Keohane and Ostrom, 1994). However, there is usually agreement that asymmetries in information may hinder cooperation.

Within CPRs, there is a need to analyse whether CPR rights holders with different power positions can successfully cooperate, provided that a comparable level of information is available to all. The way such information is used for the purpose of collective action depends, however, on the complex system of social organization that underpins the functioning of local institutions and which is increasingly valued as part of social capital.

Social capital and collective action

The notion of social capital encompasses the inherent norms of society that have developed over time and inspire its operation. It expresses the importance of human resources and their organization in income generation as an essential complement to physical capital within this process. It finds its roots in the growing awareness that history matters in development, as do institutions. It draws on the insights of the theory of path-dependence and on the role of institutional constraints, which became part of the intellectual patrimony of many thinkers in the 1990s. Its roots can also be traced to the Marxist concept of relations of production, with its inherent emphasis on human organization, institutions and, more especially, property rights (cf. Marx's Private property and communism and Communism and history in McLellan, 1977).

CPRs and their members act according to the socio-economic and physical environment within which they operate, and they may slowly evolve appropriate forms of institutions. Thus the social capital concept is useful in explaining the ability of small and apparently remote groups, operating within CPRs, to capture the benefits from use of, often marginal, resources through the social capital accumulated over generations.

In a broad sense social capital can be defined as the web of social relations that underpins all human actions and that, together with human and physical capital, defines their outcomes. In this sense social capital encompasses horizontal and vertical relationships operating within a given society at any given time; it is represented by a series of changing interrelations and responsibilities, characterized by reciprocity, which allow a basic level of social equilibrium.

The dynamic nature of social capital is thus a mirror of changes in society and of the fact that the latter is composed of overlapping groups which influence each other. Granovetter (1985) stresses this dynamic nature and interdependence by demonstrating that social actors' behaviour is embedded in a system of on-going social relations, whether in market or in pre-market societies. Furthermore, CPRs do not exist in isolation, and their social capital is affected by that of other communities or groups within the community in an infinite chain of mutual relations in which the transfer of information, its mode and level are essential.

Investment in social capital, as Ostrom observes (in Keohane and Ostrom, 1994) when describing collective action in a communal irrigation system in Nepal, is frequently in the form of bargaining over which rules will be adopted to allocate the benefits and costs of collective action. In the institutional process leading to the definition of rules, the state and market, as well as groups and people's organizations, may contribute.

Institutions and hierarchies

For liberal economists, the market itself ensures the evolution of institutional arrangements that benefit individuals and communities (as collections of individuals) alike and encourage greater efficiency. But, as Stewart (1996) points out, neo-classical economics ignores the essence of groups, by treating them, when it considers them at all, as if they were individuals. She argues that groups, whether formal or informal, promote efficiency in terms of response to market failures, in order to offset imperfect information and the attendant high transaction costs for individuals or in order to provide collective action to gain access to non-excludable goods, such as the commons.

Traditional communal groups are often portrayed as essentially non-hierarchical and acepahlous institutions (Keohane and Ostrom, 1994). The new institutionalists describe numerous examples of polities that are acephalous and claim that the principles underlying them offer a genuine alternative to political systems that rely exclusively on hierarchical decision-making arrangements (Ostrom, Schroeder and Wynne, 1993). Whether acephality is conducive to development and whether it is really present outside very small and remote communities is, however, open to debate (cf. Elster, 1989). Definitions of acephality that are valid in the context of advanced industrial societies also need further probing.

Much common property literature underlines the threat of outside pressure to the traditional endogenous rules of local institutions but tends to neglect interactions beyond the local sphere. The on-going analysis of so called "nested enterprises", organized into larger hierarchical federations so as to offset the problems engendered by the atomization of decision-making centres, is the new institutionalists' attempt to overcome this limitation (Keohane and Ostrom, 1994).

According to Ostrom, Schroeder and Wynne (1993), the type of local organization, ways and means for people's participation in local and, indirectly, non-local decision-making are central to the effectiveness of institutional structures. The new institutionalists also introduce the concept of "polycentricity", an evolution of the theory of non-hierarchic and acephalous governance, emphasizing the linkages among local CPRs. This complements the school of thought that argues for the importance of scale in defining local communities' capacity to function and stresses that many answers to scale problems are to be found through associations of local governments (FAO, 1997a).

Yet another set of issues relating to social differentiation within CPRs needs more in-depth analysis, however. Even in the smallest CPR, elements of differentiation and hidden hierarchies are present, causing a need for bargaining within each community as well as among communities. Knight (1992) is one of the main advocates of paying attention to the distribution of benefits within groups, as opposed to group behaviour as a whole, and the need to recognize the process of bargaining that guides negotiations for access to resources and power, risk aversion and time preferences within often asymmetric groups.

The importance of bargaining becomes greater, however, when larger groups or several groups are involved. When the objective exceeds the reaching of agreements on contingent matters, an element of trust becomes essential. Trust, as the outcome of generalized reciprocity that reduces uncertainties and facilitates future cooperation, becomes part of the social system within which both individual and group actions are embedded (Putnam, 1993). It becomes an essential feature underpinning the constant process of negotiation and bargaining that fashions institutions.


In classic common property theory, the stress is on reciprocity among local institutions and a strong element of trust. The role of the state is often seen in terms of disruptive interference rather than as that of an agency to promote negotiation among groups. However, there are many intermediate steps between private protective associations and a highly structured state, passing through minimal states which have the monopoly of force for self-defence and provide protection only to those who ask for it (Nozick, 1974). A multiplicity of institutions have always been included under the general term of state. It is possible to identify case by case the point at which institutions acquire authority functions, in terms of law setting, monitoring or general administration, that assimilate them to state functions. This depends on the level at which the majority of state functions are performed, whether centrally or at the periphery, identified in municipalities, provinces or regions (Matteucci, 1993).

There is no real consensus on the role, or even the definition and essence, of the state. Some stress its main function as coercion expressed by its monopoly over the use of force, while for others this is much too restrictive a description and they underline positive features such as peacekeeping and social organization (cf. Ostrom, 1990; Bobbio, 1995; Matteucci, 1993; Levi, 1988).

The way in which various theories have been appropriated and developed in political science and praxis is not neutral to the sociocultural environment in which they operate, and this applies both to political theories and to the emphasis given to different functions of the state. For instance, in the continental European tradition the state tends to be represented as dominant in lawmaking, whereas in the Anglo-American tradition common law which evolves by consent is predominant. The centrality of the role of the state in continental European tradition is not without importance to understanding the position of CPRs in systems that tend to underrate the importance of common law versus codified legislation. This consideration applies also to those countries that have based their legal and administrative systems on models from continental Europe.

The advances already made in the theory of institutions and its applicability to CPRs are an encouragement to analyse further those aspects that appear less convincing. Among these the role of the state and its articulation with CPRs, and the related issue of scaling up CPR activities should be priorities.

There is empirical evidence, particularly in the case of pastoral communal groups (cf. Forni 1998), that transaction costs increase as a system increases in complexity, from self-contained CPRs to outward-looking ones, such as those based on movable assets, e.g. flocks grazing over large territories with floating borders. Costs are lower when access to resources is under the control of one community than when a CPR has to negotiate on behalf of its members access to other CPRs and to areas under private control. The more complex the polity and the economy, the more necessary it becomes to have a web of information and mutual support stretching over territories that are usually beyond the capacity of single CPRs.

It could thus be argued that state intervention is essential to coordinate and ensure the functioning of CPRs beyond the purely local level and, in particular (even if not solely), where CPR rights holders have to interact with other common property or private regimes over large territories, as in the case of CPRs involving transhumant pastoralism. In this context, the state is a public institution which, through organizations active at different levels and with different responsibilities, provides services, coordinates and monitors national, regional and subregional sectoral and intersectoral policies and is accountable to individual citizens and local institutions. Its operation, at the various organizational and territorial levels, can be influenced by the formal and non-formal institutions with which it interacts. It would then seem that the smaller the territorial coverage and coordination needs of a CPR, the less the need for state intervention.

It may also be useful to underline the importance of the state - or some other outside agent - in determining and monitoring land use and land tenure rights, which is essential in any study of the commons. According to Bates (1971), for instance, in Near Eastern land use, mutualism and cooperation between peasants and nomads are the functions of a balance of power where the state is often a more critical factor in determining land-use relations than the local ecology and where the interaction of local social entities depends on how each articulates with non-local sources of political power.

Transaction costs associated with coordination, information and strategic behaviour in the organization and management of CPRs depend on the time, capital and human resources needed for negotiating and monitoring agreements. In the case of pastoral CPRs in the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, the schedule of transhumance movements along routes determined basically by natural conditions depended not only on the state of vegetation but also on the coordination of movements with other tribes. This was ensured by a complex intertribal organization. Such organizations, i.e. well above the level of the single CPR, monitored access to grazing and coordinated, through tribal confederacies, herd movements and relations to sedentary herders (Barth, 1961).


The overall objectives of CPRs are to control and promote the productive capacity of communal resources, set rules and monitor adherence to them by CPR rights holders, and coordinate with external institutions. A crucial issue in CPR sustainability concerns the capacity of CPR rights holders to coalesce and achieve collective action for internal organization as well as to interact with the outside world. How social capital and collective action function in coordinating different internal functions, as well as the interaction between CPRs and external institutions in achieving the major CPR objectives, is at the heart of the debate.

Within CPRs, cooperation and collective action can take place through adherence to the unspoken rules of society, the "tacit knowledge" of Polanyi (1967), which ties rights holders to the commons horizontally in a long chain or web of reciprocal behaviour. It can be argued, however, that it is the state, at various levels and under different forms, that provides a link between these parallel and often unconnected webs, thereby providing them with a means to connect with each other as well as with non-CPR institutions.

In this article the role of the state in connection to CPRs has been underlined because it is a contentious issue among common property scholars. This should not, however, divert attention from other characteristics of CPRs that deserve more discussion. For instance: those dealing with contribution to the subsistence of the poor - CPRs' functions as a safety net for the poor were essential in historical times in Europe and still are in developing countries today; those related to leadership and group dynamics; and those related to legal recognition of customary rights.


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