Property Rights

Greening the Sahel

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A fascinating story about property rights and environmental regeneration in Niger:

In this dust-choked region, long seen as an increasingly barren wasteland decaying into desert, millions of trees are flourishing, thanks in part to poor farmers whose simple methods cost little or nothing at all….And this has been achieved largely without relying on the large-scale planting of trees or other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification, the process by which soil loses its fertility….

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country more than twice the size of France.

But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of this by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money off the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because these sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the trees for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

Virginia Postrel notes that "the behavioral change came first and was ratified by law–a process that is more likely to succeed than a new property-rights regime imposed from outside." It isn't just ownership that's important. It's how you get there.