Open access commons

Environmentalists Shocked That Local People Protect Forests Better Than Do Governments


University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Over at the New Scientist Fred Pearce has a nice article, "Local people preserve the environment better than government," in which he discusses an issue well known to Reason readers—recognzing the property rights of local people protects resources from overexploitation. Pearce is focusing on a new report from the environmentalist think tank, the World Resources Institute. The report, Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change: How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Ciimate Change, surveys the literature and finds that private ownership of land by local communities greatly reduces deforestation. For example, the report notes:

When Indigenous Peoples and local communities have no or weak legal rights, their forests tend to be vulnerable to deforestation and thus become the source of carbon dioxide emissions. Deforestation of indigenous community forests in Brazil would likely have been 22 times higher without their legal recognition. In Indonesia, the high levels of carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation are driven in part by no or weak legal rights for forest communities. For example, oil palm concessions cover 59 percent of community forests in part of West Kalimantan.

The conclusion that local people are much better at managing forests than are governments, according to Pearce, supposedly flies…

…in the face of the "tragedy of the commons", the idea that collectively owned resources are doomed because everyone grabs as much as they can until they are used up.

Not at all. It's not the commons that is the problem. Overexploitation arises from open access. Environmentalists have long been misled by Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" fable, in which he argued that only government coercion can forestall environmentally destructive private greed. Libertarians have long known that government "ownership" almost always ends in mismanagement, most especially in poor countries with little or no democratic accountability. In most cases, government "ownership" amounts to creating an open access commons.

As the case of U.S. fisheries has sadly demonstrated, even with democratic accountability, government management of resources often ends up destroying them. On the other hand, private collective ownership that limits access helps protect them. Private ownership, either collective or individual, is the key to the proper management of land, water, and nearly any other resources.

I will repeat my mantra: Wherever you see whatever you want to call an environmental problem, catastrophe, screw-up, it's occurring in an open access commons. That is, since nobody owns the resource, everybody exploits it as much as they can because they know if they leave something behind, the next guy is just going to take it. I live in hope that someday soon environmental activists will heed this lesson.

For more background on how recognizing the property rights of local people help protect the environment, see my article, "The Nature of Poverty: Property Rights Help the Poor Even More Than Rich."