These background beliefs about peasants, communities, rural life, and their future have had quite specific implications for environmental conservation. As a number of analysts have pointed out, dominant beliefs structuring environmental policies until as late as the 1980s held that markets and states were the appropriate institutional means to address externalities stemming from the public goods nature of resources. Many scholars have held that only through a recourse to these institutional arrangements would it become possible to promote sustainable resource use.5 Many still do.
However, discussions over what kind of institutional arrangements account for sustainable resource use have undergone a remarkable change since the mid-1980s. The shift has occurred in part as a response to developments in the field of noncooperative game theory (Falk et al., this volume:Chapter 5; Fudenberg and Maskin, 1986; Schotter, 1981; Sugden, 1984, 1989), but more directly as a result of the explosion of work on common property arrangements and common-pool resources (Berkes, 1989; McCay and Acheson, 1987; National Research Council, 1986; Ostrom, 1990). New understandings of resource institutions take common property as a viable mechanism to promote sustainable resource management. The work of scholars of common property has thus forced home a much-needed corrective to general policy prescriptions of privatization. This achievement cannot and should not be underrated. Scholars of common property, by shifting the focus of their investigations toward the analytical and structural elements that comprise successful management of the commons, have been in the vanguard of the bearers of the message that the commons and the community are an integral and indispensable part of contemporary efforts to conserve environmental resources. They have rewritten the text on how the environment should be governed.
Scholarship on common property spans many disciplines. Anthropologists, resource economists, environmentalists, historians, political scientists, and rural sociologists among others have contributed to the flood of writings on the subject. More recent empirical work on the commons draws significantly from theories of property rights and institutions.6 It also uses many other approaches eclectically, including political ecology and ethnography. Using detailed historical and contemporary studies, writings on the commons have shown that resource users often create institutional arrangements and management regimes that help them allocate benefits equitably, over long time periods, and with only limited efficiency losses (Agrawal, 1999a; McKean, 1992a; Ostrom, 1992). Much of this research typically has focused on locally situated small user groups and communities.7
Of course, not all users of common-pool resources protect their resources successfully. Outcomes of experiences of commons management are highly variable. Documentation of the performance of regimes of local resource management provides us with many cases of successful local management of common-