Academic journal article Journal of Business Administration

Property Rights as Authority Systems: The Role of Rules in Resource Management

Academic journal article Journal of Business Administration

Property Rights as Authority Systems: The Role of Rules in Resource Management

Article excerpt

Concern for disappearing hardwoods, global warming, and droughts in sub-Saharan Africa give special urgency to the improved management of the world's tropical forest. I want to address here one particular aspect of that concern -- one that underlines any effort at improved forest management. I have in mind the property regimes that define the structure of rights and duties that inhere in a stock (and flow) of a valuable natural resource such as a forest. I will discuss the essential characteristics of different types of property regimes. More fundamentally, however, I will emphasize the point that any property regime over natural resources must first be understood as an authority system. I will then discuss the extent to which we might expect success from efforts to re-establish property regimes as authority systems in tropical forests.


Much of early human history was characterized by self-conscious natural resource use, in which people would move or would take extreme actions (infanticide, gericide, imposed |family planning') to control their total demands on the natural resources on which they depended. The first major break in this pattern of indigenous (and clearly self-conscious) resource management appeared with the gradual breakdown of internalized social mechanisms for controlling resource demands -- a process that was greatly abetted by the rise of powerful leaders presiding over large territories that transcended traditional |villages.' Natural resources came to be regarded as sources of revenue instead of merely as sources of sustenance for the local population. Many such rulers sought to create quasi-military states, an exercise that required the generation of considerable revenue. These accumulators of wealth relied on two general sources for their income -- the agricultural produce of their subjects and the export of whatever natural resources were available. And this brings us to the second phase of breaking with the past.

Colonial powers were interested in the tropics for the timber an minerals found there and considered it expedient to undermine local-level administrative structures. It was necessary for alien sources of power and authority to undermine and destroy local systems of power and authority; otherwise, the legitimacy and authority of the alien power would be compromised and challenged. These changes -- territorial governments replacing local-level administration and, in its turn, colonialism, largely destroyed any vestiges of real authority residing at the local (or village) level.

My point here is that villages have, over time, lost their ability to be the locus of control and authority over the actions of their residents with respect to natural resource use and management. As the village became more atomized -- more individualized -- it became increasingly difficult to take the necessary, and customary, collective actions to address natural resource shortages. As populations grew, aided by new medical technologies that reduced infant mortality, many collectively managed |village' lands were invaded and illegally appropriated by families -- a process that was facilitated by the powerlessness of the village management regime to prevent such incursions. The poorest segments of the village, afraid or unable to privately appropriate the village |commons,' were left behind and forced to rely, increasingly, on the poorest lands that remained in the shrinking commons. With the collective area shrinking because of illegal |privatization,' a rapidly increasing population was forced to rely on an ever-smaller area. Small wonder that deforestation and resource degradation resulted.

The effectiveness of the village as an authority system was dependent upon the exercise of influence and control over actions of individual members of the community. Prior to colonialism, ruling monarchs/leaders exercised control over the political and economic life of villages. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.