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The Drama of the Commons
regarded as a bastion of private property and free enterprise, the federal government alone claims about one-third of the nation’s land as public property (Brubaker, 1984).
Yet this is not the whole story regarding systems of land tenure. Although effective control has flowed steadily toward national governments during most of the modern era, many small indigenous or traditional groups residing within states and engaging in distinctive social practices have not relinquished their claims to ownership of large tracts of land and natural resources in the form of common property (Berkes, 1989; Bromley, 1992). Often, these claims overlap or conflict with assertions on the part of national governments to the effect that the areas in question are part of the public domain. Indigenous land claims in British Columbia, for example, cover virtually all the land area of the province. In some cases, national governments have recognized these claims and taken steps to reach settlements with indigenous and traditional claimants. Particularly noteworthy in this connection are the comprehensive claims settlements that the government of Canada has negotiated with northern indigenous peoples over the past several decades and the cooperative arrangements under which the government of Denmark and the Greenland Home Rule handle matters of land use in Greenland. In other cases, the efforts of local communities to assert ownership—or even use— rights have met strong resistance on the part of national governments. The efforts of Sweden’s Sami to gain recognition of their rights to use grazing lands constitute a striking case in point (Svensson, 1997). In still other cases, national governments have made little effort so far to take seriously the claims of local communities to rights involving common property. Throughout much of the Russian Federation, where the legacy of collectivization introduced during the period of Soviet rule remains strong, serious land claims on the part of local peoples are just beginning to surface (Fondahl, 1998).
How can these clashes between the claims of national governments to public property and the claims of local communities to common property be resolved? In some cases, such as the settlement of Native land claims in Alaska, the eventual outcome has taken the form of a formal transfer of title to some lands to Native peoples (or organizations acting on their behalf), usually in return for acceptance on the part of these peoples of the extinguishment of residual claims to other areas.6 As experiences in places like Australia, Canada, Greenland, and Fenno-Scandia make clear, however, the concept of property encompasses a bundle of rights, and the contents of this bundle can be allocated in any of a variety of ways.7 This has given rise to lively debates about the nature and extent of usufructuary rights in situations where user groups have not been granted full title to land and natural resources. Among the most significant aspects of this debate are issues concerning the rights of national governments to authorize consumptive uses of forests, hydrocarbons, and nonfuel minerals in areas that are important to the conduct of longstanding subsistence or artisanal activities featuring the use of living resources on the part of local peoples.