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By K Chopra
Published: Tuesday 31 May 1994

-- IN THIS provocatively titled book, the authors point out that laws governing the use of "the commons" were not usually written because the complexity they dealt with was not amenable to generalisation. Laws were also subject to constant change, as a balance had to be struck between the availability of natural resources and the requirements of humans.

The breakdown of such commons' regimes at the hands of more global regimes is the subject matter of a large part of the book. While arguing persuasively that the environment is local and any human adaptations to its use must also be local, the development of the global economy is viewed as the antithesis to such a requirement.

A major feature of the development process was the enclosure of the commons in the search for uniform methods of resource use that could be subjected with ease to rent extraction by landlords and tax collection by governments.

The book documents these negative external effects with precision, and with extensive referencing to the literature on the subject. The enclosure of the commons, the spread of the market, the imposition of unfamiliar contract laws, and the imposition of taxes which drive one into the web of the market economy, are all components of a process. This culminates in the erosion of local power. The unique one-to-one relationship between resources and their use for human needs is broken. The expanding role of the market and the state and the consequent expansion of the multinationals' networks, which control the resources, then leads to the overexploitation of the resources.

Tragically, cultural checks and balances that limit the power of any one group or individuals within the commons are over-ridden by distant companies and peoples. The latter take a clinical, aseptic and sometimes incorrect view of resource management, resulting in degradation or over-use.

Resisting monoculture
Examining the overpopulation question, the authors take the stand that local communities were aware of the limited capacity of the resources at their command and evolved social institutions to limit population. Instances quoted are polyandry in the Ladakhi highlands of Tibet, and other non-invasive methods of population control. Changes in social organisation and the acceptance of modern contraceptive methods are 2 alternative routes to population control.

Finally, the chapter entitled Reclaiming the Commons quotes instances of communities from all over the world (well-documented by now) resisting the expansion of monocultures which degrade and overexploit the environment and have tried to disengage from the wider market economy. One question, however, remains unanswered: if localised control of environments is the best way of preserving them, how does one ensure the empowerment and sustenance of local groups in a world where the material rewards offered by the expanding industrial market economy are within easy reach of every individual? Local communities come together to protect and save their resources when they are at low levels of sustenance. When incomes rise, communication with the outside world is created and the urge to "graduate" into the industrialised world is strong.

There has to be a realisation that biodiversity preservation, the best use of soil and water and determining the course of sustainable development must be locally managed. Unless development interventions take account of such requirements, localised effort will remain a marginal albeit romantic alternative. The book does not live up to the promise of the second half of its title by putting forward policy options for reclaiming the commons.

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