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The Drama of the Commons
What difference does the resultant interplay between (sub)national systems of public property and local systems of common property make with regard to overall patterns of land use and to the sustainability of human/environment relations in various areas? The answer to this question emerges from a consideration of differences in the incentives of national policymakers and local stakeholders. For the most part, governments can be expected to look upon public property as a means to promote the national interest through activities inspired by the search for export-led economic growth and the effort to attract foreign direct investment. More often than not, this means treating forests and nonrenewable resources as commodities to be harvested or extracted to meet the demands of world markets. Two other factors reinforce this approach to the use of public property, especially in the developing world and in countries in transition. National governments tend to cater to the interests of politically powerful individuals who have no roots in local areas and who look on concessions covering natural resources located on public property primarily as a means of amassing personal wealth. A particularly virulent form of this phenomenon involves the practice of crony capitalism and the emergence of black markets that many observers of Southeast Asia have described in detail (Dauvergne, 1997a). Environmental groups and some other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) often endeavor to counter or at least mitigate these forces. But intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the multilateral development banks, whose mandates emphasize the acceleration of economic growth in developing countries, frequently act to reinforce the resultant bias against the preferences of local peoples with regard to patterns of land use (Lipschutz and Conca, 1993). The actions of the World Bank in supporting large-scale irrigation systems, road construction, and nonrenewable resource extraction throughout the developing world offer striking illustrations of this pattern.
It would be a mistake to idealize local peoples as stewards whose social practices do not cause major changes in ecosystems. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that swidden agriculture, the deliberate burning of forest understory, and the harvesting of wildlife all can produce major ecological consequences (Krech, 1999). Unsustainable practices involving the use of natural resources appear to have contributed to the collapse of some small-scale systems in areas as diverse as the Middle East and Central America. But so long as their informal socioeconomic systems remain intact, local peoples do not have strong incentives to harvest timber for export, to extract hydrocarbons or nonfuel minerals to sell on world markets, or to build massive dams to support large-scale irrigation systems and industrial agriculture.8 Where systems of common property controlled by local users prevail, therefore, we can anticipate that patterns of land use will differ markedly from the patterns likely to arise where systems of public property prevail. In essence, we should expect to find a pronounced tendency toward large-scale exports of products like timber, palm oil, hydrocarbons, and nonfuel minerals in systems where public property arrangements govern the use of land and natural resources. In comparison, local users operating under common property