Academic journal article Human Organization

The Tragedy of Property: Ecology and Land Tenure in Southeastern Zimbabwe

Academic journal article Human Organization

The Tragedy of Property: Ecology and Land Tenure in Southeastern Zimbabwe

Article excerpt

The approach to land management taken by Zimbabwean government agencies in the Communal Areas (the former African Reserves) depends on social and ecological divisions in the landscape that prevent effective ecosystem management-as opposed to the management of discrete natural resources contained within units of land holding and land use. The commons systems maintained by rural Zimbabweans are important to understand both because they have supported people in the face of highly discriminatory legislation, notably in the colonial period, but also because they provide for access to a wider range of resources than would be possible under a freehold system. The commons system holds the potential for more effective ecosystem management, at least in southeastern Zimbabwe.

Key words: land tenure, common property, Zimbabwe

Good fences make good neighbors.

Robert Frost, "Mending Wall," 1915

The wisdom of this popular truism is being put to the test more than ever in Zimbabwe with the wave of recent land occupations. In Zimbabwe, illegal occupation, or "squatting," has been a hot political issue and a survival strategy since the arrival of European property institutions in the 1880s. The current land occupations raise more pointedly than ever what has probably been the most politically volatile question in the region for at least two centuries (Lan 1985:19): "Who owns the Land?" In this paper I look at some of the linkages between land tenure, ecology and development through a case study in southeastern Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, as in the former colonial Rhodesia, various government agencies have attempted to structure land use practices through a dualist system of land tenure: private property in the European dominated "commercial" sector and communal tenure in the former African Reserves (now the Communal Areas). The state's attempts to maintain a rigidly divided landscape have limited the range of relationships rural Zimbabweans have developed with the land and reduced the chances of effective ecosystem management. However, these attempts to regulate land use within spatially segregated zones have not always been successful, and this raises some interesting questions for the study of resource management and development.

Environmental Entitlements and Land Tenure

My starting point for understanding community-based resource management is the assumption that both communities and their associated local environments are highly complex and dynamic. The concept of environmental entitlements is particularly helpful in making sense of the dialectic between human populations and the ecosystems of which they are a part. This approach (and the term itself) originates with the work of Amartya Sen (1981), who noted that food insecurity is not caused by a lack of food but by a lack of access to food. Authors such as Robin Mearns (1995) and Des Gasper (1993) have elaborated on this concept to build a more complex analytical stance that treats the environment as a series of potential resources and communities as collections of individuals and groups who exercise differential access to and control over specific resources or bundles of resources. Rather than working with an entirely disaggregated actor-centered model, however, the environmental-entitlements approach seeks to understand how action is mediated by and through social institutions at various social scales and through time (see Leach, Mearns, and Scoones 1999:234). This framework seeks to elucidate how ecological and social dynamics influence the natural resource management activities of diverse groups of people and how these activities in turn help to produce and to shape particular kinds of environment (ibid.:226).

The entitlements approach is useful in understanding how particular social groups intersect with aspects of local ecosystems and control rights to benefit streams that flow from the use of those ecosystems. The control of benefits from local ecosystems may or may not be expressed through formal, public-management institutions such as land tenure rules or regulations on land use. …

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