Disputing the Floodplains: Institutional Change and the Politics of Resource Management in African Wetlands

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Disputing the Floodplains: Institutional Change and the Politics of Resource Management in African Wetlands. Edited by Tobias Haller. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. xviii, 452; maps, charts, photographs, bibliography, index. $112.00 paper.

Many edited volumes are patchy constellations of case studies around a central theme. This volume is refreshingly coherent and consistent, to the degree that each case study chapter discusses the same topics in the same order and format. The book is based on the work of a cohort of graduate students under editor Tobias Haller' s supervision and coordination at the University of Zurich, 2002-2005 (indeed, the volume reads at times as a condensed graduate seminar). Although the volume is narrowly focused on African wetlands, its theoretical ambition is the assertion of a general model of environmental and institutional change in postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa. The volume is inspired by Elinor Ostrom's contributions to New Institutional Economics, which center on the institutional characteristics that lead to functional common property management systems. One of the major critiques of Ostrom' s approach was that it paid insufficient attention to ideology and power, so Haller has merged this approach with a focus on bargaining power and legitimization from the work of economic anthropologist Jean Ensminger.1 The result is a historical and anthropological institutionalism that seeks to explain the course of environmental change.

This book starts from the assumption that the precolonial resource management institutions of African floodplains were not self -correcting functional systems; rather, they developed from a series of conflicts and solutions that gradually became institutionalized into social arrangement and legitimized by cultural meanings. Thus the authors collectively argue, for example, that rituals of sacrifices to various water spirits were the foundations of functional social-ecological systems, but this is not a naive functionalism self-designed for sustainability or conservation. Rather, these constellations of social practices, traditions, rituals, and beliefs served to enhance the social status of leaders and coordinate the exchanges among different social groups. Three hypotheses follow from this position. First, the authors argue that most wetlands' precolonial common property systems have collapsed and led to open-access degradation, except when the institutions provide social or economic capital to locally powerful people. The authors call this the "rent hypothesis." Second, this change occurred because the postcolonial states claimed resource management responsibility without effective institutional capacity, which meant that many cases of open access degradation result from non-local actors legitimizing their access to "national" assets as citizens in areas that had once been controlled by particular "ethnoprofessional groups. …