06 April 2010

Ostrom again, and the management of commons

Excerpts from Ostrom's recent interview :

I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a general tendency to presume people just act for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many of those decisions are not just for profit and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.
We tend to want simple formulas. We have two main prescriptions: privatize the resource or make it state property with uniform rules. But sometimes the people who are living on the resource are in the best position to figure out how to manage it as a commons.

Fran: Is there a role for government in those situations?    Elinor: We need institutions that enable people to carry out their management roles. For example, if there’s conflict, you need an open, fair court system at a higher level than the people’s resource management unit. You also need institutions that provide accurate knowledge. The United States Geological Survey is one that I point to repeatedly. They don’t come in and try to make proposals as to what you should do. They just do a really good job of providing accurate scientific knowledge, particularly for groundwater basins such as where I did my Ph.D. research years ago. I’m not against government. I’m just against the idea that it’s got to be some bureaucracy that figures everything out for people.
Fran: How important is it that there is a match between a governing jurisdiction and the area of the resource to be managed?     Elinor: To manage common property you need to create boundaries for an area at a size similar to the problem the people are trying to cope with. But it doesn’t need to be a formal jurisdiction. Sometimes public officials don’t even know that the local people have come to some agreements. It may not be in the courts, or even written down. That is why sometimes public authorities wipe out what local people have spent years creating.
The following is almost Gandhian in concept:  The need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.
What we need is a broader sense of what we call “social ecological systems.” We need to look at the biological side and the social side with one framework rather than 30 different languages. 
This interview reminded me of this case study done of Bhutan, where the forest resources, traditionally managed by the communities, was faced by outside commercial interests - the govt response, the impact and the evolution of the current system where communities share in the management are all detailed in this study.
The Royal Government of Bhutan has taken a very strong stance on conserving their rich natural resources base, and were very successful in doing so. However, some of the conservation measures had negative side-effects on the quality of some CPRs. The most prominent example is the nationalisation of all non-private land into ‘Government reserved forest’. This took away the control and responsibility away from the local communities. As monitoring was limited (especially for non-timber resources), open access was created, which led to ‘tragedy of the commons’.
On the other hand, during the last 5 years, several government initiatives had sprung up to facilitate CPR management and commercialisation in close cooperation with local communities. A few success stories are emerging. Moreover, new legislation to encourage community participation in common resources management is coming up.

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