Communal Lands

The area covered by communal lands (common property resources) has tended to shrink in recent decades, as the formalization of customary rights progresses, but these lands still exist in all parts of the world and in some countries are the dominant form of rural landholding. Normally, both their ownership and management are in the hands of the community, but Nadia Forni has commented that:

. .. resources can be considered as common property irrespective of whether ownership is legally bestowed on the common property resource users, the State or another public body, provided the resources are actually managed according to common property norms. Village ponds, forests, rivers and rivulets, for instance, often fall under formal legal ownership of the State but their de facto management rests with the community. . .. Common property resources are management systems where resources are accessible to a

71. G. Feder and R. Noronha, 1987, p. 144. On the other hand, during the reforms to land laws initiated in Viet Nam in 1988, the central government appears to have effectively blocked attempts at land grabbing by local elites and to have ensured that poor households obtained their fair share of land allocations (see Martin Ravallion and Dominique van de Walle, 'Breaking up the Collective Farm: Welfare Outcomes of Vietnam's Massive Land Privatization', The World Bank, Washington, DC, USA, mimeo, November 12, 2001).

group of rights holders who have the power to alienate the product of the resource but not the resource itself.72

Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop, Platteau73 and other authors have made a clear distinction between communal lands and open-access lands, arguing that the former are not necessarily the latter. The 'tragedy of the commons' occurs on open-access lands, where no one has an incentive to conserve the resource and many may be motivated to use it as much as possible, to its detriment, before others do the same. In contrast, access to communal lands, and other common-property natural resources, can be regulated by the community, at least in principle:

Common property, with the institutional regulation it implies, is capable of satisfactory performance in the management of natural resources, such as grazing and forest land, in a market economy.74

Forni stresses the potential benefits of common property regimes in some circumstances, especially in cases of fluctuating returns to the land:

.. . Common property resources are not evolutionary relics; they exist because they produce certain advantages. They are to be preferred to open access or private property regimes in cases where the resource could be split into individually controlled units but the cost of controlling sole ownership would be prohibitive.. . . Jodha (1992)75 states that, in a sample of Indian villages, as much as 14 to 23 percent of income was derived from common property resource utilization, and the figures rise to 84 to 100 percent in the case of the poor. [It is difficult to apply] efficiency or optimality principles where there are significant yearly fluctuations of production, as is often the case in common property resources, and where short-term efficiency may undermine long-term sustainability.76

Larson and Bromley attribute the tragedy of the commons more to rural poverty than to the communal nature of the property, owing to the lack of effective incentives for sustainable use.77 While it may be difficult to sort out with precision the causes of land degradation, and communal land management can prevent or arrest degradation in some cases, in practice the community management of communal lands in developing countries often tends to be weak, and communal lands usually tend to become degraded faster than private lands. In Zimbabwe, for example, a physical and chemical study of soil erosion patterns found that:

• Commercial [private] grazing lands with low densities of livestock and relatively complete vegetation cover had a low rate of erosion.

• Commercial arable lands demonstrated similar moderate rates of erosion. This can be attributed to the maintenance of physical conservation measures. .. .

• Communal arable lands, though adopting similar physical conservation measures, had considerably higher rates of erosion compared to commercial areas. This was largely due to their poor state of maintenance, open access to grazing. .. .

72. Nadia Forni, 'Common property regimes: origins and implications of the theoretical debate', Land Reform, 2000/2, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome (pp. 2 and 3 in on-line version).

73. (a) S. V. Ciriacy-Wantrup and R. C. Bishop, ' "Common property" as a concept in natural resources policy', Natural Resources Journal, 15, 1975; (b) J.-P. Platteau, 1992, pp. 120-121.

74. S. V. Ciriacy-Wantrup and R. C. Bishop, 1975, p. 721.

75. N. S. Jodha, Common Property Resources: A Missing Dimension of Development Strategies, World Bank Discussion Paper No. 169, The World Bank, Washington, DC, USA, 1992.

• Communal grazing lands were the most eroded of all. Livestock numbers exceeded the carrying capacity of the land.78

Some observers feel that the degradation of communal lands in Zimbabwe is primarily attributable to the increased population density on the land, rather than to weaknesses in the community management of communal lands. It is likely that such management becomes less adequate as population pressures increase, and hence land values increase.

Ramón López found a clear tendency toward over-exploitation of common agricultural lands in Côte d'Ivoire. Some of his principal findings are the following:

The estimated contribution of biomass to gross agricultural revenues for Côte d'Ivoire is very similar to the values estimated for Ghana (López 1997).79... Moreover, several agronomic studies in tropical countries have shown that the fallow period makes a large contribution to agricultural productivity. . .. the agronomic evidence is consistent with the estimates here for the effect of biomass on farm revenues.

According to the econometric estimates, the agricultural income of an average village could be increased by 14 percent in the long run if the total cost of biomass were internalized by individual cultivators. This represents a large loss, many times larger than the losses usually estimated for price or trade distortions. The main source of this income loss is the fact that land is overcultivated by about 23 percent.

Rural communities have apparently failed to maintain a system of incentives and controls over individual cultivators that would induce a socially optimal allocation of land among forest, fallow, and cultivation and thus avoid the 'tragedy of the commons.' These results give support to authors who have questioned the effectiveness of indigenous forms of property in achieving a socially efficient allocation of natural resources. . ..

In general, it appears that efficiency of the commons tends to be present in communities with low population density where the transaction and monitoring costs are low. . . . The paradox is that it is precisely in cases of high and rapidly increasing population density that collective action is most needed to achieve an efficient use of common resources.80

For Zambia, Chinene et al. have observed that communal grazing lands are poorly managed with overgrazing and erosion as a consequence.81 Although not all empirical studies have reached the same conclusion as the studies of López and Chinene and colleagues, Platteau also acknowledges the failure of common property regimes to protect land resources as the prevailing reality: 'it cannot be denied that nowadays "tragedies of the commons" multiply to such an extent that they have become an important cause for concern in many African countries.. . . customary property regimes tend to be gradually transformed into open-access regimes'.82

In spite of these problems, communal lands still are important to many groups throughout the

78. David Norse and Reshma Saigal, 'National Economic Cost of Soil Erosion in Zimbabwe', in Mohan Munasinghe (Ed.), Environmental Economics and Natural Resource Management in Developing Countries, Committee of International Development Institutions on the Environment (CIDIE), distributed by the World Bank, Washington, DC, USA, 1993, Chapter 8, pp. 233-235.

79. R. López, 'Environmental externalities in traditional agriculture and the impact of trade liberalization: the case of Ghana', Journal of Development Economics, 78(1), 1997.

80. R. López, 'The tragedy of the commons in Côte d'Ivoire agriculture: empirical evidence and implications for evaluating trade policies', The World Bank Economic Review, 12(1), January, 1998, pp. 121, 123, 106 and 125.

world,83 including indigenous or tribal peoples in Asia and Latin America, as well as to groups in virtually every country in Africa. In the context of a strategy for communal lands, policies can be devised to assist these groups, first, by protecting them against loss of their lands and, secondly, by providing them with advice on options for management of communal lands and education of their membership in that regard. In the words of Binswanger et al., 'a community title could be issued to ensure the community's security of ownership against. . . outside encroachment and prevent the poor from being excluded from communal property'.84 This has been done in Mozambique.

Atwood is part of the consensus on this issue and is more specific on the nature of group forms of title:

If tenure insecurity does not affect transfer of land, but rather maintenance of existing land claims by local people, then other alternatives may be available. When insecurity is primarily with respect to people outside the community, reinforcing or creating group tenure with some legal legitimacy and enforcement may overcome the problem. Land corporations, group titles, and other forms of legally sanctioned common property may provide the needed security vis-a-vis the outside world. The advantage of such group tenure forms is that they are much less expensive, and therefore more sustainable, than land titling or registration. They rely on local, informal capacity for manage ment, information, and dispute settlement, rather than on the mechanisms of the formal State legal system. Such group tenure systems need to safeguard the rights of individuals, so they require both clear criteria for individual rights and the settlement of disputes, and mechanisms to ensure the accountability of local leaders.85

Group titles, of course, have their limitations as a tenure instrument. Group titles appear to be most appropriate for small communities, in which achieving and implementing a consensus on rules for regulating use is relatively easy. Larger communities may find controlling communal use patterns to be more difficult, and also frictions are more likely to rise when new investment opportunities are created by the arrival of new production or post-harvest technologies.86

Ruth Meinzen-Dick provides a salutary reminder that the decision processes of groups that are given title to land may themselves be exclusionary in some respects:

While in general group registration would be preferable on equity grounds to leaving common property resources undefined, and therefore susceptible to either land grabs by outsiders or State expropriation, it is important to consider how groups are defined. Any time you strengthen the control rights (esp. management and exclusion rights) of one person or group, you reduce the use rights (access or withdrawal) of others. This can be good for environmental

83. Forni offers an alternative explanation of environmental degradation of communal lands: 'Overgrazing is frequently ... a consequence of official restrictions on mobility. [In] Peru and Bolivia. . . indigenous practices were disrupted by obstacles to mobility [with] consequent overgrazing. In addition, the economic significance of herding, which included trading during transhumance and transporting . . . produce, was greatly reduced. Evidence from Morocco . . . seems to indicate that forage land is likely to be privatized when the potential value of the land is high enough to encourage investment for increases in productivity, whereas common property management is suitable in cases where investment is risky and the transaction costs of policing the area are more efficiently shared among larger user groups' (Forni, 2000, p. 7).

84. Reprinted from J. Behrman and T. N. Srinivasan (Eds), Handbook of Development Economics, Vol. 3B, H. P. Binswanger, K. Deininger and G. Feder, 'Power, distortions, revolt and reform in agricultural land relations', p. 2722, Copyright (1995), with permission from Elsevier.

86. Feder and Feeny (1991, p. 140) have discussed this point.

preservation, and may even strengthen the rights of the poor. However, the composition of the group is important. For example, if a young men's club is given the decision-making rights for community forestry, they may make decisions that protect the forest but decrease the ability of women to collect dry branches for firewood. Similarly, watershed management programs in India in which elite males dominate the decision-making have reduced access by women and pastoralists, with the benefits largely going to those with croplands that receive more water.87

An example of conferring communal legal protection to the lands of indigenous groups is found in the cited Honduran Law for the Modernization and Development of the Agricultural Sector. Article 65 of that law reads, in part:

Indigenous communities which can show occupation of the lands where they are settled for a period of no less than three years will receive titles to the property, completely free of charge, extended by the Agrarian Reform Institute [unofficial translation].

Policy options for communal lands are explored in more detail in Section 5.8. A major challenge for policy is to avoid undermining communal rights, and customary tenure systems in general, during the period in which more formal systems of rights are being put in place.

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