Reclaiming Nature: Environmental Justice and Ecological Restoration

Reclaiming Nature: Environmental Justice and Ecological Restoration


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In Reclaiming Nature, leading environmental thinkers from across the globe explore the relationship between human activities and the natural world. The authors draw inspiration and lessons from diverse experiences ranging from community-based fishery and forestry management to innovative strategies for combating global warming. They advance a compelling new vision of environmentalism, founded on the link between the struggle to reclaim nature and the struggle for social justice. This book advances three core propositions: first, humans can and do have positive as well as negative effects on the natural environment. By restoring degraded ecosystems and engaging in co-evolutionary processes, people can add value to nature's wealth. Second, every person has an inalienable right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. These are not privileges to be awarded on the basis of political power, nor commodities to be allocated on the basis of purchasing power -- they are fundamental human rights. Third, low-income communities are not the root of the problem. Rather they are the heart of the solution. In cities and the countryside across the world, ordinary people are forging a vibrant new environmentalism that is rooted in the defense of their lives and livelihoods.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843312659
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 06/07/2007
Series: Anthem Frontiers of Global Political Economy , #1
Edition description: First
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

James K. Boyce directs the Political Economy Research Institute’s Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment.

Sunita Narain is currently director of the Centre for Science and Environment and publisher of the fortnightly magazine ‘Down to Earth’.

Elizabeth A. Stanton is a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Read an Excerpt

Reclaiming Nature

Environmental Justice and Ecological Restoration

By James K. Boyce, Sunita Narain, Elizabeth A. Stanton

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2007 James K. Boyce, Sunita Narain, and Elizabeth A. Stanton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-265-9



John Kurien


Following the influential article by Garrett Hardin titled 'Tragedy of the commons', it is part of both popular and scholarly belief that unless natural resources are strictly in the domain of private or state property, their fate is an inevitable ruin (Hardin 1968). Closer examination of the actions of low-income communities who depend on natural resources for their daily livelihoods has recently brought to the fore a more positive view about human proclivity for caring and nurturing common resources found in nature.

A good example is found in the state of Kerala, in India, where small-scale, community-based fisherfolk initiated collective action to invest in rejuvenating the natural assets of the sea that had been destroyed by the incessant fishing operations of large-scale bottom trawlers in the region. They went about erecting artificial reefs at the sea bottom in coastal waters to create anthropogenic marine environments. Reefs act as fish refugia and become sources of food for them as the structures are soon covered with bottom-dwelling biomass. Artificial reefs placed in strategic positions in the coastal waters can in time increase the overall biomass and the fish stock in the local ecosystem. An unintended side-effect of sufficiently large artificial reefs is that they act as barriers to the operation of bottom trawl nets, effectively performing the role of a sea-bottom fence against incursions of trawlers into coastal waters. Such reefs have not yet healed the wounds inflicted on the coastal ecosystem of the area, nor can the fishing communities depend exclusively on them as a major source of livelihood. But such community investments by small-scale fisherfolk, and their appropriation of coastal sea area to form community property rights, point to the potential for strategies for visualizing natural resources in a new light — as natural assets that can contribute significantly to sustainable resource use, community empowerment and well-being. Only with such strategies can we have the blessing of the commons.

Natural Assets of the Oceans and Seas

Life on our planet began in the oceans and seas. It is widely recognized that humanity's present and future will continue to depend very significantly on the way we are able to identify, understand and foster life in this vast watery milieu of our planet (Lovelock 1987). From time immemorial, many millions of persons the world over, living in coastal communities, have obtained food, work and income for a decent livelihood from the vast stocks of living resources of the oceans and seas. Nurturing these resources as natural assets that are the common heritage of humankind can ensure their effective and sustainable use.

The coastal fishing communities in the developing maritime states and numerous native communities in the developed countries, using small-scale fishing equipment, continue to depend on these resources as their primary source of subsistence. These communities are the repositories of traditional knowledge, skills and cooperative fishing techniques that exhibit a highly nuanced ecological sophistication. This is particularly evident in the Asia-Pacific region, where large human populations exert pressure on all manner of natural assets. In this region, the current relatively 'free access' to the seas and oceans often make coastal waters the avenues of last resort for the poor to eke out a living.

It is difficult to establish property rights to the living, predominantly mobile and wandering natural assets of the oceans. Through their long and continuous association with the oceans, however, coastal communities devised a variety of rules and norms — institutional arrangements — with regard to territorial claims and the manner in which living resources were to be harvested. These arrangements were especially important in societies where coastal resources constituted a significant part of daily livelihood. An elaborate array of such arrangements was typically found in island societies and regions where bays and lagoons constitute a significant feature of the coastal morphology. Where these economic and geographic conditions co-exist, some of these arrangements still remain vibrant despite the passage of time.

It is customary to refer to such collective rights over resources as 'common property rights' — meaning the private property of a group of individuals. In this paper, however, I refer to such collective rights as 'community property rights', to stress the role of the group as a community and not simply as a number of individuals.

These community property right regimes were largely traditional, unwritten arrangements that were respected and adhered to by the coastal communities. They were not necessarily egalitarian or democratic institutions, but were part of the 'moral economy' of the community (Scott 1978). Consequently, they typically ensured that the benefits from the use of the natural assets of the coastal seas, as a matter of first importance, were utilized to ensure food and livelihood for all before any surplus was utilized for sale outside the community or for other ceremonial and extravagant uses. The community used a variety of arrangements to modulate the manner in which its members tapped the flow of the resource from its stock. These included the design of equipment for harvest, taboos on its use, controls over times of access and cultural norms of distribution of the harvest. These arrangements often contributed indirectly to the conservation and sustainability of the resource (Akimichi 1984; Amarasinghe et al. 1997; Berkes 1999; Doulman 1993; Dyer and McGoodwin 1994; Freeman et al. 1991; Hviding and Jul-Larsen 1993; Lim et al. 1995; McConney 1997; Normann et al. 1998; Johannes 1978, 1982; Pomeroy 1995; Ruddle 1988, 1993; Swezey 1997). Yet the diverse technologies, skills, knowledge and institutional arrangements that evolved over the centuries to harvest these living and mobile natural assets are now not always easy to maintain or restore. They are also no match for recently introduced new technologies, modern scientific knowledge and property right arrangements — particularly when viewed from the perspective of 'extraction efficiency'.

In the latter half of the 20th century, when most developing countries began to get or wrest their political independence, they started on various paths of 'planned modernization and development'. It was optimistically assumed that modern science and technology could serve as a major force in stimulating and sustaining development in the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Development strategies in tropical coastal fisheries followed much the same assumption. There was a considerable amount of blind imitation of the large-scale fishing technology that was fabricated in temperate marine ecosystems and in a social milieu marked by greater urbanization, centralization and capital intensity. Much of this technology transfer was based on the mistaken presumption that the existing rich heritage of small-scale technologies was 'primitive and inefficient'. The rural, spatially dispersed settlement structure in these coastal regions was also viewed as inimical to economies of scale. Conservationist resource-use principles and community property rights over the fishery resources were seen as contrary to the individualistic, entrepreneurial ethic needed to maximize economic growth and raise the throughput from the coastal marine ecosystem. Abandoning what existed due to these perceived weaknesses, and replacing it with large-scale technologies, more centralization of activities and settlement, and an ethic of unfettered access to living resources, spurred and was further spurred by the extension of the fish economy. This took place first through the aegis of development aid and then international trade. But the initial euphoria of increased harvests, enhanced revenues, and higher profits was followed by ecosystem changes and resource depletion. At the same time, this strategy led to economic marginalization of coastal fishing communities and reduced their autonomy for participation in the new structure of the fish economy. It ruined the commons and the commoners (Kurien 1992).

The need of the times is for alternative strategies to revive locale-specific, small-scale technologies, coupled with community-oriented, participatory measures to protect the ecological integrity of the living coastal resources. Such approaches will return the natural assets of the coastal sea to the hands of the poor, empowering them to reduce their poverty. There is an element of 'going back into the future' in this approach. In this context, it is appropriate to examine the relevance, potentials and limitations of four strategies for coastal natural asset building: investment to increase the total stock of natural assets; internalization to increase the ability of the poor to capture benefits generated by their stewardship of natural assets; redistribution to transfer natural assets from others; and appropriation to establish community rights for the poor to erstwhile open-access resources (Boyce 2001). These are visualized as routes for rebuilding the living natural assets of the coastal seas and through this ensuring more secure and convivial livelihoods for the labouring poor in coastal communities.

The remainder of this chapter is divided into two main parts. The first part sets the scene by further describing the nature of the oceans and human use of the living natural assets therein. It discusses technology and institutional arrangements through which coastal communities interacted with these living resources, and the political economy of the movement from small-scale to large-scale fishing operations and from community rights to open access. The second part of the chapter examines the potentials of natural asset-building strategies. I draw upon examples from the Asia-Pacific region to highlight how small-scale, community-based fishing is both ecologically and economically suited to make a blessing of the coastal commons that simultaneously will ensure sustainable natural resource use and community well-being.

Part I: From Community Rights to Open Access

For millennia the oceans have been a source of livelihood to millions of humans who settled along their shores, and an important source of food to wider populations in the hinterlands. The interaction between humans and nature resulted in the evolution of patterns of life and livelihood supported by suitable technologies and community-based institutions. The hallmark of these patterns was the widespread prevalence of small-scale fishing communities, whose limited geographic extension was matched by great control over their natural resource base. The establishment of modern nation-states and the formation of the League of Nations and then the United Nations led to greater formalization and statutory laws regarding rights to use the living resources of the oceans. At the same time, international aid and trade led to the import of new ideas and large-scale technologies into the Asia-Pacific region, with the aim of enhancing the flow of living resources out of the oceans and into the marketing channels of the food supply of the developed world. While the stated intentions of these initiatives were to promote overall economic development, the end results were more ambiguous. The most adverse and unintended impacts were on the integrity of the living natural resources of the coastal seas and the well-being of coastal communities.

Living Marine Resources

The living resources of the oceans, if harvested sustainably, hold promise as a major source of quality food for the future. The yearly world ocean production of organic matter is about 130 billion metric tons, most of which is recycled and reused within the food chain composed of plants, prey and predators. Humans harvest only a small fraction of the total production, about 100 million metric tons per year.

The natural capital of the world's marine and terrestrial systems has been estimated to provide services worth US$33 trillion annually (Costanza et al. 1998). The marine ecosystems are subdivided into open ocean and coastal areas. The latter include estuaries, seagrass/algae beds, coral reefs and the continental shelf systems. Other than food production, marine ecosystem services include disturbance regulation, such as storm protection and flood control; nutrient cycling; provision of wildlife refugia; raw materials; recreation and cultural services. As much as 36 per cent of the total value of global ecosystem services — an estimated US$12 trillion per year — is contributed by coastal areas.

The mobile nature of the living resources of the ocean distinguishes them from many terrestrial resources. Contrary to popular notions, these resources are not evenly distributed across the 362 million square kilometre area of the ocean. Some regions, particularly those waters close to the coastline into which sunlight penetrates easily, are characterized by higher biological productivity. In fact, roughly 65 per cent of the living resources of the oceans are concentrated in the near-shore zone, which accounts for just six per cent of the total ocean area. Much of the vast ocean area far from land is virtually an aquatic desert.

These characteristics of mobility and uneven spread constitute both a barrier to and an important opportunity for the sustainable utilization of these living resources. The barrier is that while it may be possible to constitute a framework of property rights over marine spaces, it is difficult to institute a framework of rights over the mobile living resources in this milieu. When such frameworks are adopted, they are generally hard to define, often contested and invariably subject to change over time. The resulting 'fuzziness' of rights impedes achieving optimum harvests from the oceans.

The opportunity is that the large share of living resources close to the coastline can be designated as a source of livelihood and food to many millions, particularly in the developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region. Coastal communities, often loosely defined as small-scale fishing communities, have pursued a full-time avocation of fishing from time immemorial. These 'ecosystem people' (Dasmann 1988) or 'marine biomass communities' (Kurien 2002) share a strong 'connectedness' to the resource and have a long-term stake in its secure future as their lives depend on it. Given an appropriate structure of incentives and encouragement, they can become the stewards and protectors of the 'sea ecosystem' (Kurien ibid).

Small-scale Fishing Communities

Small-scale fisheries flourish in the marine, riverine or lacustrine ecosystems of many developed and developing countries. They can be found from the inshore sea of Atlantic Canada, the Amazonian floodplain of Brazil, the fjords of northern Norway and the Mediterranean waters of Spain, to the lakes of the eastern Africa, the backwaters of India, the rivers of China, the bays of the Philippines and the lagoons of the Pacific islands. An accurate estimate of the number of persons directly and indirectly dependent on small-scale fisheries is hard to come by. After gleaning data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Berkes et al. (2001) conclude that 'of the more than 51 million fishers in the world, over 99 per cent are small-scale fishers.' They estimate that 250 million people in developing countries are directly dependent upon the fisheries for food, income and livelihood, and that some 150 million people in developing countries depend on associated sectors such as marketing, boat building and gear making.

In most of the developing countries, fishing has been a hereditary occupation in coastal communities. This has resulted in an accumulation of knowledge about the marine environment and its resources through a process best described as 'knowledge-through-labour' (Kurien 1990), and a plethora of technologies for fish harvesting attuned to specific seasons and species. These long-term interactions have also led to the creation of institutional arrangements that modulated collective behaviour vis-à-vis the resources. The resulting technologies and institutions created objective conditions for the sustainable harvesting of the resources.


Excerpted from Reclaiming Nature by James K. Boyce, Sunita Narain, Elizabeth A. Stanton. Copyright © 2007 James K. Boyce, Sunita Narain, and Elizabeth A. Stanton. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables; Acknowledgements; Introduction; Part I. Adding Value; Part II. Democratizing Access; Part III. Capturing Benefits; Part IV. Defending the Commons; About the Contributors; Index

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'A refreshing liberation from the alluring half-truths of conventional economics and public policy.' —David Bollier, Editor, ‘’ and author of ‘Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth’

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