A mythical tragedy

At the root of the tragedy of commons lies not the inherent selfishness of people, but the imposition of practices and projects alien to the shared resources

Published: Tuesday 15 June 1999

thirty-one years ago, Science magazine published the famous article on the tragedy of the commons by Garrett Hardin. The commons were defined as an expanse of land under collective or open use. Hardin's article argued that the commons necessarily collapse because of the inherent selfishness of people over shared resources. The example of an open pasture illustrates the thesis: every individual will add extra animals to their herd to maximise their benefits from the common pasture, so the pasture will end up being ruined. Hardin's article, which has become the reference point for subsequent discussions on the issue, argues that the commons and its inextricable tragedy have no technical solution, except privatisation or public-based coercion. Hardin's article was part of a long tradition of worrying about population growth. He even suggested anti-liberal policies against large families as a means of escaping the tragedy.

Hardin's argument works in the case of some commons, like air pollution, and is being increasing supported as a universal phenomenon. However, on the basis of field research that I conducted in 1998 (three decades after Hardin's article), the Tragedy of the Commons thesis can be challenged on two accounts. Firstly, many commons are relevant in several issues such as maintaining biodiversity, access to resources, food security and local development. Secondly, the tragedy of commons is a product of modern developmental discourses, based on individual and private enterprises and intensified by strong economic globalisation at the end of the 20th century. At the root of the tragedy lies not the inherent selfishness of people, but the imposition of practices, projects and discourses alien to the local ecological practices and cultural meanings.
Lessons from Amazonia The indigenous peoples of Pastaza Province in Western Amazonia have been traditionally involved in collective management, conservation and spread of biodiversity in their common ecosystems. They have not only conserved biodiversity, but also constructed it through ecological practices like plantation of many different fruit trees in abandoned family farms. However, colonisation of some communities have disrupted the commons. Agricultural and forest biodiversity, food security and cultural identity are now threatened in these communities. Private ownership, ecological degradation and resource exhaustion will follow.

The consequence of the colonisation processes became evident when we compared the family farms of the Amazon Quichua people -- the largest indigenous group of Pastaza Province -- with those of indigenous communities in colonised areas. On the family farms of the Amazon Quichua people, there could well be 30 or 40 different varieties of cassava ( Manihot esculenta ), the main crop. Among the indigenous communities in colonised areas, cassava biodiversity has been reduced to around three varieties and the indigenous ecological practices are increasingly getting eroded and lost to future generations.

The responsibility for this tragedy lies mainly due to the nature of the processes introduced, which include land colonisation, uprooting of indigenous ecological practices, state or private implementation of export-oriented productive systems, and transfer of the decision-making process away from the indigenous peoples and communities. On the other hand, the indigenous territory still not colonised in Pastaza remains a common land still successful in biodiversity conservation, food provision, indigenous ecological practices and socio-cultural autonomy.

The commons embody not only the rainforests, rivers and natural resources, but also the indigenous knowledge and practices connected with these commons and the cultural meanings involved.

The lessons from Pastaza can be summarised as follows: the tragedy of the commons originates from processes alien to the commons and it involves a tragedy for the 'people of the commons' themselves. The surviving commons can serve as an means for mobilising the affected indigenous communities to restore, reinforce or evolve their own commons.
Lessons from Ecuadorian mangroves The second study focuses on the Afro-Ecuadorian people inhabiting the economically poor Esmeraldas Province on the Pacific coastline of northern Ecuador. These people possess a wide and deep knowledge of the mangrove ecosystem, which provides them food and shelter. However, the arrival of the shrimp industry -- a result of the Ecuadorian mainstream economic trends which stress on exports -- have led to large social and environmental problems, including a gradual destruction of the mangrove commons.

Ecological degradation follows the establishment of any shrimp ponds because mangrove forests are cut down, and land and water are polluted by the chemicals used in the industry. Food security is also eroded. For instance, 1 hectare (ha) of mangrove provides work and food for around 100 people; whereas a shrimp farm of 100 ha provides work for only around 6 full-time and 5 part-time workers.

Social processes are disrupted, too, as is the case with the Bolivar community in the south of Esmeraldas Province, which is facing internal conflict over the issue of expanding a shrimp pond. A small company has offered money for a village school building in return for an agreement on extending the pond. The men in the village are inclined to accept because their work is not directly affected as they fish in the open waters. The women, on the other hand, rely on the mangroves as the source of oysters -- an important component in family nutrition -- so they are strongly opposing the move to expand the pond. The community is beset by internal conflicts regarding the new aquaculture project.
Conclusions The two cases summarised above support the following principles:

- the commons are not only associated with resources or land, but they are also inextricably linked to traditional ecological knowledge and practices and cultural meanings;

- among other things, the commons are very crucial for maintaining biodiversity, food security and social cohesion;

- the supposed inherent selfishness of individuals does not necessarily prevail in the commons;

- a tragedy is not the necessary result of every common;

- the tragedy of the commons emerges from the introduction of alien projects and practices, which are generally implemented on the basis of state or corporate power;

- privatisation or state coercion, as claimed by Hardin and other supporters of the Tragedy of the Commons thesis, are not the only solutions.

- the mentioned cases of tragedy of the commons prove how relevant the commons were for the local socio-cultural processes;

The commons are a dynamic place where socio-cultural and ecological processes co-evolve. Besides, the commons prove a relevant institution for the pursuit of equity, locally-based development and community democracy. The new challenges to be faced by the 'people of the commons' do not require the dismantling of the commons, but their further evolution.

Josep-Antoni Gari is a D Phil researcher at the University of Oxford, Great Britain.

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