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Property Rights and the Natural Environment
SUSAN HANNA, CARL FOLKE, AND KARL-GÖRAN MÄLER
This book is about the human use of nature. More specifically, it is about the systems of rights, rules, and responsibilities that guide and control the human use of the natural environment. As we near the end of the twentieth century, the challenge of using and sustaining the capacity of the environment to generate a continuous flow of resources and services becomes ever more difficult. The globalization of human activities and large-scale movements of people have created an era of co-evolution of ecological, social, and economic systems at regional and even planetary scales. These have become so interwoven that actions which are taken locally may accumulate and spill over into regional and global effects.
One of the ways people are connected to their natural environment is through the system of property rights. Regimes of property rights—the structure of rights to resources and the rules under which those rights are exercised—are mechanisms people use to control their use of the environment and their behavior toward each other (Bromley 1991). Property-rights systems are a part of society's institutions: the norms and rules of the game, the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction (North 1990). The way institutions are designed will strongly influence the interaction between people and the natural environment.
When we think about the way people interact with the environment, the following questions naturally arise. Who has rights to nature? Is it possible to define rights that exclude some from the use of nature? How are the rights specified, what are the rules under which rights are exercised, and what are the duties and responsibilities that accompany those rights? How are rights allocated among competing interests? To what extent are they connected spatially and temporally, and how do they evolve? Are they in tune with the dynamics of resource stocks, and processes and functions of ecosystems? What are the characteristics of successful property rights systems, how can they be designed for flexibility and adaptability, and redirected so that instead of causing overexploitation and environmental degradation, they contribute to a sustainable management of the natural environment? Issues like these are analyzed in this book, and from a diversity of perspectives.
In this introductory chapter we discuss the relationship between property rights and the natural environment and present the design of the book. We believe that it is through a deeper understanding of the role of institutions such as property-rights regimes, that environmental sustainability and social efficiency can be achieved.
Property Rights and the Natural Environment
The outcome of the human-environment interaction affects both the quantity and quality of environmental resources. Were property rights well defined, decisionmakers would take all consequences of their decisions into account. However, this is rarely the case with the natural environment. It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish well-defined property rights for "public goods" such as the atmosphere, climate, or migrating fish populations. These are also often poorly enforced, leading to the pattern of unconstrained resource use that Garrett Hardin has called "the tragedy of the commons."
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom of the commons brings ruin to all (Hardin 1968).
Hardin's famous parable conveys the important message that property rights matter. On Hardin's "commons," herdsmen can bring any number of animals to graze because the pasture is open to all. Since the right to graze is unspecified and unlimited, herdsman continue to add more animals, taking only their own benefits and costs into account and ignoring the collective effect of their actions. The pasture becomes overgrazed, because there is no system of rights and responsibilities that describes how grazing is to take place and how it is to be sustained.
It is of course possible to structure rights to the pasture in ways that are different from what Hardin describes. The pasture land can be owned as private property with grazing rights tied to land ownership, where individual owners use the land themselves, lease grazing rights to others, or sell the land. Alternatively, property rights to the pasture may be specified in a way that is not private but is nevertheless limited. One possibility is for a village to own the grazing land as community property, restricting use to village members, and regulating their use. Another possibility is for all citizens of the state to own the grazing lands, with a state management agency making decisions about pasture management and setting limits on grazing which are consistent with social goals for the environment. In either case of public ownership, rights to the natural environment are specified and allocated by collective decisionmaking.
In both private and public ownership of the grazing land, circumstances may exist which lead to overuse. Private owners may decide to mine the benefits of the land quickly to earn cash for investments that have higher rates of return. Village owners may find that expanding employment opportunities elsewhere lower the importance of the future productivity of the ecosystem, and so lower enforcement efforts or loosen the rules of access. State owners may succumb to political pressures exerted by some interests, allowing higher levels of short-term use. Uncertainties caused by political upheaval, health risks, or financial variability may create incentives to focus on current consumption at the expense of future productivity. Information critical for efficient management may be hard to centralize, or be asymmetric (people have different information), leading to inefficient management. Broadly viewed, environmental problems are problems arising from incomplete and asymmetric information combined with incomplete, inconsistent, or unenforced property rights.
Without a solution to the property rights problem, the environmental problem will remain. Economic development and sustainable resource use ultimately depend on institutions that can protect and maintain the environment's carrying capacity and resilience (Arrow et al. 1995). The knowledge of how property-rights regimes, as particularly important types of institutions, function in relation to humans and their use of the natural environment is critical to the design and implementation of effective environmental management and conservation. In the case of both public and private ownership of the natural environment, and the resources and services it generates, what matters is that property rights are well defined, that they reflect the social goals of use of the environmental resource-base, and that they are enforced.
Types of property-rights regimes comprise an almost infinite spectrum from open access to private property (Table 1.1). As our understanding of common property regimes and combined state/common property regimes has increased, it has become clear that no single type can be prescribed as a remedy for all problems of resource overuse and environmental degradation. In some contexts collective ownership is more appropriate for management of the natural environment than private ownership (cf. McCay and Acheson 1987; Berkes 1989; Feeny et al. 1990; Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1992). In addressing environmental problems, policy must focus on establishing property-rights regimes that are designed to fit the cultural, economic, geographic, and ecological context in which they are to function. Although general design principles are applicable in different contexts, their specific details must be determined by a particular context (Hanna and Munasinghe 1995a,b).
Property-rights regimes are only a beginning in the quest for efficient use of the natural environment. The basic functions of resource management—coordinating users, enforcing rules, and adapting to changing environmental conditions—cannot be fostered without a specified system of property rights. Resource management, in turn, cannot be maintained unless management costs are kept within bounds. These coordinating, enforcing, and adapting functions are associated with costs that are influenced by the particular structure and context of the property-rights regime and by the condition of the ecological system (Eggertsson 1990). As resources become depleted or as demand increases, property-rights regimes must account for more tradeoffs and spillover effects, increasing the cost of program design and regulatory enforcement. It is possible to create a system which is so costly to implement that it overwhelms the potential benefits to be gained from control. Movements to alter property-rights regimes are often driven by attempts to reduce management costs.
Many property-rights regimes have failed in the past and continue to fail, overwhelmed with pressure in the form of human population growth and increased per capita demand for resources. Patterns of resource use that are maintained in relatively stable situations may be disrupted under conditions of technological, economic, or environmental change. For example, the introduction of new technology, development of wider market areas, or changes in ambient weather conditions may all lead to changes in behavior that alter the property-rights regimes and change the rates of resource use. Groups may not be flexible enough to adapt rules to guide appropriate behavior. On the other hand, the markets may respond too quickly for protective regulations to adapt as well as take advantage of short-term profit opportunities.
Clearly, property rights must be designed appropriately and must also be robust. If the property-rights regime coordinates the human and natural systems in a complementary way, and if it contains feedbacks through which they interact, the result can be the maintenance of both ecological and human long-term objectives. Where natural and human systems conflict, or when feedbacks between them are absent, the resulting pattern of resource use can only accidentally achieve both ecological and human objectives. The more likely outcome is the short-term realization of human objectives, and the long-term realization of neither.
Design of the Book
Property-rights research has developed around the general question of how incentives are shaped by systems of property rights (Alchian and Demsetz 1972), and how those incentives lead to particular patterns of environmental use (Stevenson 1991). Its diversity is reflected in the variety of disciplines under which research is conducted: anthropology, economics, law, political science, and sociology. Each discipline frames its members' world views by its theory, its methodology, and its terminology. This disciplinary diversity provides simultaneously a richness of knowledge and a confusion of meaning. The confusion is most apparent in the terminology of property rights, where different terms are applied to a single concept. Perhaps the most frequent example is the term "common property," which is variously applied to resources which have unlimited access, resources which have restricted but collective access, and property-rights regimes in which rights are assigned to a group or community of people. To avoid the confusion caused by this particular example of multiple terminologies, we restrict the use of "common property" in this book to regimes in which rights are assigned to a specified group of people, and use the term "common pool" to represent those resources which have multiple users and for which individual ownership is difficult. In other cases where terms may have multiple meanings, we have asked authors to define them either directly or by example.
The chapters in this book comprise products of the research program "Property Rights and the Performance of Natural Resource Systems" conducted at the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden. The program began in 1993 with support from the World Environment and Resources Program of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Environment Department of the World Bank. Its goal is to further the scientific understanding of ways humans relate to their natural environments through the structure, function, and context of property-rights regimes.
A major objective of the program is to expand the scope of property rights research through collaborations of social scientists and natural scientists. The benefit of such collaborations is that research problems are addressed in their full social and ecological dimensions. Traditionally, the field of property rights research has been the domain of social scientists. The focus has been on humans as "managers" of natural systems, disregarding the environmental feedbacks that management may generate (Gunderson et al. 1995). The natural system itself has been left in the background as the provider of resources and the recipient of impacts. Similarly, the field of natural resource management has been dominated by biological scientists. Their focus has been on various species of concern, usually a single species at a time. Humans are viewed as intruders, peripheral to the system's functions. The failure of research to account for the full spectrum of natural system functions and human system complexity has often hindered its ability to produce realistic results that lead to informed policies. Social scientists working with natural scientists, however, have a unique opportunity to contribute to the solution of pressing scientific and policy problems associated with human interaction with natural systems through property-rights regimes.
The papers that were the foundation for the chapters in this book were originally written to provide background to participants in the Beijer Institute's research program on the different dimensions of property rights and the environment: the interface between social and ecological systems, the structure and formation of property rights, culture and economic development, and property rights at different scales. The book is therefore divided into four sections reflecting these same categories.
Part I (The Interface Between Social and Ecological Systems) considers the basic attributes of the human-environment interaction. In Chapter 2, Robert Costanza and Carl Folke examine the structural and functional properties of ecological systems that affect the way they provide natural resources and ecosystem services. They argue that well functioning ecosystems are models of sustainable systems that offer design principles for institutions that respond to changes in essential ecological features. In Chapter 3, Susan Hanna and Svein Jentoft examine the social and economic properties of human behavior in interaction with the natural environment, looking at how culture, values, economics and social organization influence the use of environmental resources. Although important, these influences are often unrecognized in policies of resource management. In Chapter 4, C.S. Holling and Steven Sanderson examine what natural and social systems have in common. They focus on the need for adaptive management of natural resources to accommodate the complex dynamics of ecosystems, and argue that the social dynamics of the reconfiguration of institutions needs to be understood. The success of adaptive management hinges on the degree to which the human institutional timeframe can be made to reflect the cycles of natural systems. In Chapter 5, Fikret Berkes extends the discussion of ecological and human systems into the realm of property rights. He describes the major issue as being the crafting of the appropriate mix of property-rights regime and ecological system, citing the need for diverse, flexible property-rights systems that effectively link ecological and social systems.
Part II (The Structure and Formation of Property Rights) addresses the way property-rights regimes are conceptualized, the way they form, and their associated costs In Chapter 6, Bonnie McCay discusses a number of concepts related to property-rights regimes, clarifying their meaning and raising issues that contribute to the further development of theory related to property rights and the environmental resource base. In Chapter 7, Elinor Ostrom and Edella Schlager review property rights to common pool resources where exclusion is costly, and harvest by one diminishes the total available to others. They present a general theory of how property rights are established, how they are affected by social and physical factors, and how they are organized at different scales. In Chapter 8, Thráinn Eggertsson looks at the costs of developing and maintaining property-rights regimes as systems of control over resource use. These costs are incurred to gather information, develop rules of governance, and coordinate exclusion.
Excerpted from Rights to Nature by Susan S. Hanna, Carl Folke, Karl-Goran Maler. Copyright © 1996 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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