Property, Politics & Global Environmental Change

An Examination of Private vs. Common Land Tenure Regimes in Theory and Practice

Mention the ‘tropical forest crisis’ to UN officials, timber dealers, taxi drivers or New York Times readers and they will tell you it is due to ‘overpopulation’, ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘primitive slash-and-burn agriculture’. Asked about solutions, they will point to technical rather than political measures – to ‘family planning’ rather than land reform, to economic growth and resource management rather than limits on Northern consumption, to education and technological progress rather than campaigns to prevent the World Bank and transnational corporations from decimating peasant societies. (Lohmann 1993, 17)

The author of this provocative statement is attempting to uncover a subtle relationship between pervasive development discourses – which propose technocratic explanations of and solutions for complex political, social and economic problems – and power. The view that ‘development’ involves a series of stages moving from less to progressively more affluence, security, freedom and well-being is deeply entrenched not only in often remote academic discourses (e.g. neoliberal economics, modes of production theory, modernization theory, etc.), but also in cultural and institutional structures like schools, the liberal media, and the arts.[1] As Lohmann implies, this rational conception of development is reassuring for development thinkers and practitioners because it presents relatively straightforward, universally applicable and essentially ‘technical’ solutions to the problems of, among other things, ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘poverty’.

The modern technocratic development discourse, which pervades current discourses surrounding ‘liberalization’, ‘free trade’, ‘deregulation’ and ‘globalization’, is founded on the principles of neoliberal economics.[2] It is within the bounds of this discourse that modern discussions about land reform occur in national and international policy circles. Since the late 1980’s, there has been a shift away from redistributive land reform measures towards ‘market-based land reform’.[3] These policies are based on a presumption that individual, tradable titles in land are an essential ingredient in economic development due to the incentives they provide for owners to innovate and invest in land, thereby preventing its degradation and enhancing the productive and sustainable use of resources.

This analysis, however, runs counter to a voluminous literature that points to serious problems underlying the efficacy of market-based land reform. Numerous critical scholars and researchers have argued that the underlying assumptions and casual relationships embedded within market-centric reasoning – i.e. private property is a prerequisite for investment and rural development – is either demonstrably wrong, or only circumstantially valid. [4] Consequently, they argue that policy interventions based on them may fail to achieve expected results or to amplify the very problems they intend to address (Lund 2002, 2).

Contrary to the evolutionary perspective of proponents of market-based land reform, it is argued in this paper that the demise of common property arrangements and resources and the frequently negative social and environmental impacts that ensue are the results of particular political choices. A primary objective of this paper, therefore, is to demonstrate the fact that the persuasiveness of the arguments used to justify privatization of land are tenuous and alternative models of reform and rural development are possible and, in many cases, desirable.

To this end, the contours of the arguments surrounding the relationship between private property and common property are examined in order to assess the role that various possible forms of land reform might play in facilitating or mitigating deleterious global environmental change. The study is divided into five sections: Section I sets the stage through a discussion of the re-emergence of land reform as a priority for national and international decision-makers. Section II presents and discusses several of the basic arguments used to justify the implementation of neoliberal land policies. Section III examines the ways in which these arguments have been used to explain deforestation and to legitimate the privatization or nationalization of forests. Section IV surveys some of the arguments that have demonstrated that individualized rights are neither the only, nor necessarily the most socially or environmentally desirable means of organizing land tenure arrangements. Finally, Section V sums up and concludes the analysis.


In most countries, the causes of increasing competition and contestation over land have been similar. In much of Africa, for example, Sara Berry writes, “rapid population growth, environmental degradation, and slow rates of economic development that leave many people dependent on small-scale farming, livestock raising and foraging have combined to transform the continent from a land of abundance in the first half of the twentieth century to one of increasing land scarcity by its end” (Berry 2002, 2). Land scarcity, however, has not been the only source of conflict. The effects of social, political and environmental crises, together with those of unstable world markets, inappropriate development policies, corruption, and in some cases, open warfare, combine to render life extremely insecure.[5] Given these circumstances, there has long been enormous pressure placed on governments to transform land ownership structures to reflect democratic principles of equitable access and to redress the histories of dispossession and exclusion suffered by the poor during the colonial period. Land reform has, as such, long been regarded as a key part of national development strategies.

In the period immediately following independence in most developing countries, State-led redistributive land reform was an important social priority for many developing countries.[6] However, the commitments of governments to equitable distribution of land through ‘redistributions with speed’ were relatively short-lived. There has been an appreciable shift away from government-implemented redistributive land reform toward reliance on the formal credit market and on property transfer, freely negotiated in the open market. Known as ‘market-based land reform’, this has become the dominant policy approach of developing countries since the late 1980’s.

The emergence of market-based reform as the dominant policy approach of developing countries was intimately associated with the advent of economic reform policies or structural adjustment packages by the World Bank and IMF. Usually as part of a strategy for agricultural liberalization or rural development, it is often a precondition to qualify for loans and aid from international funding agencies which is laid out in donor-driven packages of macroeconomic reforms (El-Ghonemy 1999, Ghimire 2002).[7] As such, major international agencies (e.g. WB, FAO, IFAD) and bilateral aid agencies (e.g. USAID, CIDA, DFID), have emerged as sponsors of land tenure reforms in developing countries. Given the large dependence of many developing nations on primary agricultural commodities for large percentages of their GDP and the vulnerabilities of rural producers to price fluctuations on international markets, a significant amount of attention is being directed at developing strategies for rural/agrarian reform. Policies for market-based land reform enter here, in “the context of evolving and credible government strategies for poverty alleviation” and “an appropriate agrarian reform strategy” (WB 1993, 11; emphasis mine).

The particular mechanisms through which market-based land reforms would bring about poverty reduction is less clearly spelled out. ‘Appropriate’ strategies are implicitly equated with the promotion of capital intensive farming. The implications that this will have for the poor who are displaced due to the concentration of land and resources in the hands of those who are able and willing to purchase them are, according to many scholars, “secondary considerations at best” (Clochester 1993, 14). It is highly unlikely, however, that one would come across a justification for the liberalization of land markets that did not present poverty reduction, and resultant improvements in social and environmental conditions among its primary objectives. It is worthwhile examining in closer detail some of the claims made by proponents of land-market reform, especially with regards to its supposed capacity to reduce rural poverty and environmental degradation.


The nature of and relationship between private property and common property has long been the subject of controversy within academic, policy and practitioner circles. The issues debated relate to the efficiency, equity and sustainability of private property as contrasted to common property. The arguments, concepts, and assumptions emerging from these discussions have influenced government approaches to land policy around the world, and continue to do so. An understanding of western notions of property rights, as developed by what has come to be known as the Property Rights School (hereafter the PRS) is important because it is the origin of core concepts and arguments that continue to dominate both theory and practice (Ellsworth 2002; Plateau 1996).

The PRS has long supposed that private property is far superior to common property arrangements. When PRS members speak about ‘property rights’, they mean individual, tradable titles in land or other resources which they believe are an indispensable precondition for economic growth. This view is based on the conception that the transition from common property institutions to private property institutions in Western societies was a significant aspect of their development. Thus, it is assumed that, by default, when a society reaches a particular stage of development common property institutions will evolve in the direction of individual tenures (Demsetz 1967; North & Thomas 1977).

The supposedly ‘natural’ transition from common property systems to private ones is thought to be a reflection of the inner limitations of communal land ownership, which is unable to adapt to market or demographic changes. The PRS hypothesizes that growing competition for the use of land, as a result of population growth and/or growth in product demand (e.g. food and lumber for urban populations and industries), causes communal ownership to become unstable and produce harmful ecological and social effects in the form of overexploitation of now valuable resources.[8] In this vein, Demsetz writes:

The emergence of new property rights takes place in response to the desires of interacting persons for adjustment to new benefit-cost possibilities. The thesis can be restated in a different fashion: property rights develop to internalize externalities (i.e. social and environmental costs of common property under increasing demographic and market pressures) when the gains of internalization (i.e. privatization) become larger than the costs of internalization. (Demsetz 1967, 350; explanations in brackets mine)

Thus, the transition is seen as an internal, natural, and rational response to exogenous changes.[9] Simply put, PRS theory states that as land becomes scarce as a result of rapid population growth and/or increased commercialization of agriculture, the value of land increases and collective landholders begin to feel uncertain about their (customary) rights. As a result, conflict over ownership of land, inheritance and land boundaries increase and people will begin to demand more specific and secure property rights in land. In response, tenure regimes will ‘spontaneously’ begin to evolve towards private use rights (Platteau 1996, 49; Field 1989, 319).[10] Ensuing and ever-increasing conflicts over land will incur new social and economic costs (e.g. dispute resolution) for the State. The expected response of the government is to carry out administrative reforms, eventually involving formal registration of private land rights or land titling procedures, in order to put an end to wasteful uses of resources and new social tensions. As a result, it is assumed that conflicts will be solved and that social and political stability will follow. Other expected ‘benefits’ from the new security of tenure accruing from individualized, transferable property rights include: the transfer of land from less to more dynamic or efficient users, increased availability and access to credit, increased willingness and ability of owners to invest in their land and to manage it with future benefits in mind and, overall, improved economic well-being (Platteau 1996; Sjaastad & Bromley 2000).

Private property is, as such, considered by PRS economists to be an essential ingredient in economic development due to the incentives it provides for owners to innovate and invest in their land. Communal rights, by comparison, are believed not to provide these incentives. It is assumed that, because of a lack of certainty about individual rights and control over land usage by others, it is not in an individual’s rational self-interest to invest in enhancing the value of collectively owned land.[11] Common property arrangements, as such, are seen as inherently inefficient and ‘backward’.

This idea was masterfully articulated in Garrett Hardin’s (1968) influential article, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, where he argues that commonly owned and freely accessible resources tend to become depleted when or if the population exploiting them is large enough.[12] For example, a common field that is made available for grazing to numerous users will, ‘rationally’, be overgrazed and its replenishment neglected because each user, while striving for private gains, can spread some of the costs of his or her use to the other users. “Therein”, writes Hardin, “is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited” (ibid, 1245). It is theorized, thus, that as long as the costs of unregulated use are not borne by individuals, the commons will be recklessly exploited and ruined. If, however, Hardin’s pasture was privately owned, it is assumed that the scenario would be different. If the owner paid for its use, there would be an economic incentive to maintain it so as to continue enjoying its profits.[13]

“Tenure security” and economic development, for PRS theorists, is therefore only attainable through the privatization of land and other resources which would otherwise fall victim to overexploitation or mismanagement. As such, governments and international donor and lending organizations justify support for market-based land reform, and structural reform packages in general, on grounds of economic efficiency. It is believed that individual property rights will increase access to credit, encourage investment and growth, and thereby reduce the social and ecological costs presumably associated with rights that are not clearly demarcated. From the policy point of view, as such, the PRS reduces security of tenure to a paper title that can be traded in land markets.

At its very core, however, the concepts and arguments posed by the PRS were and continue to be controversial and contested (see Bohannan 1963; Barry 1989; Atwood 1990; Lund 2002). Claims by critics that these historical and economically-deterministic interpretations are overly deductive and unaccompanied by sufficient empirical analysis (Coase 1937, 386; Atwood 1990, 660) are largely disregarded because of the deeply and widely held conviction that ‘development’ requires the institutionalization of a capitalist system, particularly private property in the means of production. The fact that these were factors involved in the ‘rise of the West’ is, often implicitly, taken to be enough proof of the legitimacy of the PRS’s evolutionary assumptions.

The strength of the property rights discourse is undeniable, and its legacy can be seen in many contemporary approaches to land reform especially as they are currently propounded by powerful international development organizations and the national governments of developing nations. As will be demonstrated below, the application of this discourse can and has led to inappropriate ways of viewing the complex dynamics involved in various changes in land use and management.


Deforestation and the degradation of common-pool resources has local as well as global implications for the environment. Deleterious local and regional effects of deforestation include erosion of soils, reduced rainfall, reduced capacity of soils to hold water, and increased frequency and severity of floods. The conversion of forests to agricultural plots, pasture and wasteland also contribute to global warming.[14] In addition, forests provide a habitat for diverse life forms, contain valuable genetic information, contribute to water and nutrient cycling and provide an important source of services to those who inhabit them (Houghton 2001, 37).

The causes of deforestation are not well understood. Many observers attribute the shrinkage in global forest cover to population growth, processes of economic development and misguided development policies (Deacon 1994, 414) – others attribute it to slash-and-burn agriculture, logging and demands for fuel wood, fodder, and forest products. Much of the economic literature on deforestation has tended to stress the role of property rights and the role of ownership security in promoting conservation of forests. Deforestation and the degradation of forest resources is, as such, explained as an outcome of two interrelated factors: (1) a result of a modified ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation, where population pressure and economic change causes local communities to overexploit forest resources; and (2) the inadequacy of government-management regimes in maintaining forests due to limited monetary resources and personnel to monitor and enforce use rights by various claimants.

Depending on their political persuasion, scholars, policy-makers and activists seek a solution to these quandaries by either advocating for the privatization of state forests (e.g. Southgate, Sierra, & Brown 1991), or in demanding their transferral to local communities (e.g. White & Martin 2002; Forest Trends 2002). The view of those in support of the argument for privatization is that the institutions that maintain common property arrangements are doomed by the increasing costs of management resulting from demographic and commercial pressures which cause high individual incentives to ‘free ride’. As was proposed by Hardin, thus, it is alleged that when the costs of management outweigh their benefits that communal structures of management will break down and forests will become tragically overexploited.

This was the reasoning behind the influential ‘Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation’, which proposed that population growth drives widespread and relentless environmental degradation through increased demand for forest products as well as agricultural land. Massive deforestation and the clearing and terracing of land on ever more marginal slopes accelerate soil erosion, landslide incidence, and hydrological disruptions, causing floods, siltation of reservoirs, and the dumping of sandy soil downstream to the Gangetic plain. (Eckholm 1976; for critique, see Ives & Messerli 1989; Guthman 1997).[15]

It was precisely this kind of widespread, causal reasoning that legitimated the nationalization of forest lands in many developing countries during the 1960’s.[16] Forest-dependent communities, constituting over 100 million people around the world (Forest Trends 2002, 11), were seen as incapable of properly managing the forests as a result of their perceived propensity to overexploit resources when faced with demographic and / or new market pressures. It was seen, as such, to be within the best interests of society at large to nationalize forests. As a result, the institutional arrangements that local users had devised to limit entry and use lost their legal standing. Ostrum comments on the paradoxical results:

Resources that had been under a de facto common property regime enforced by local users were converted to a de jure government-property regime, but reverted to a de facto open-access regime. When resources that were previously controlled by local participants have been nationalized, state control has usually proved to be less effective and efficient than control by those directly affected, if not disastrous in its consequences (Ostrum 2000, 337).

The distinction Ostrum makes here between de facto common property regimes and de facto open-access regimes is important. Common property theorists have made a concerted effort to differentiate between ‘open-access’ and ‘common-property’ regimes. In the former, no one has the right to exclude anyone from using a resources, whereas in the later, members of a clearly demarked group have recognized (formal and informal) rights to exclude non-members from using a resource (see Ciracy-Wantrup & Bishop 1975; Bromley 1992, Ostrum 2000). Ostrum is suggesting here that the ineffective exclusion of non-owners in the de jure government property regime paradoxically led to an increase in the number and extent of local resources that were effectively open access. The concentration of ownership, thus, did not result in more appropriate or efficient use of resources, but rather the development of an incentive amongst users of the expropriated resources to exploit them because it was no longer in their jurisdiction or long-term interests to control access and harvesting. Many empirical studies substantiate this (Jodha 1996; Colchester & Lohman 1993; Guthman 1997).

Clearly, the underlying causes of and solutions for environmental degradation are more complex than property rights theory might lead one to believe. One must look at multiple national and international social, political and economic histories and contemporary transformations to understand its causes and effects. Colchester and Lohmann (1993) make important linkages, for example, between the impacts of national market-based land reform policies implemented as part of packages for agrarian reform in Latin America and patterns of deforestation. The concentration of ownership amongst those who are able to invest in intensive agricultural production for export leads to the displacement of rural populations. Given economic stagnancy in urban centres, displaced populations increasingly turn to marginal lands for sustenance, resulting in deforestation in order to clear land for production.

It is, as such, not as easy to separate out cause and effect. In most cases, complex interactions of external and internal factors combine to transform resource use patterns and the imbalances that result in degradation. The static view of common property arrangements maintained by proponents of the PRS fails to acknowledge evidence that local-level institutions (both formal and informal) have performed well in mediating the effects of macro-structural and demographic factors on resource use patterns(see Agarwal 1997 & 2001). Moreover, numerous studies suggest that, contrary to the assumptions of the PRS, communal ownership patterns may be more effective at minimizing social and environmental costs.


A common conclusion of most of the studies of the erosion of common property resources is that policy or legal changes played a catalyzing role. Examples discussed above include conflicts between centralized legislation and customary institutional arrangements that result in an overexploitation of resources; tenure legislation which regards land as idle or in danger of over-exploitation and therefore subject to appropriation; and policies supporting vested interest groups (e.g. loggers, large-scale farmers). Most of the problems involve the redefinition of property rights away from communities and to individuals and/or the state. These findings, across a variety of cases, have led observers to argue that resource degradation occurs not primarily as a result of demographic and commercial pressures (as the PRS posits), but due to the enclosure or the privatization of formerly common lands.

In many cases, privatization of land – especially when accomplished through market mechanisms – results in highly skewed access to property rights.[17] This is what May (1992), in an ironic twist, termed the “tragedy of the uncommons”. Many researchers, scholars and activists have posited similar conclusions and effectively challenged many of the fundamental assumptions of PRS theory and the promises of market-based land reform. It is, by no means, clear that private rights always or necessarily result in greater investment, less conflict, and greater socio-economic development for everybody.

The first difficulty that many critics have with the PRS and its institutionalization in modern policy discourses regarding the supposed ‘desirability’ of market-based land reform is with the inconclusive and even flawed evidence that is produced to support its claims. One commentator on the ‘evidence’ that private tenure systems constitute a clear ‘Pareto improvement’ over common property concluded:

(T)he putative relationship between security provided by a modern land title and capital investment in land has simply not been established with sufficient precision to allow any explanatory value when confronted with conflicting evidence. (Ridell 2000, 6)

Platteau makes a similar observation regarding evidence about property rights from Africa after a detailed survey of empirical literature:

In light of the facts and considerations (covered in this literature), it is not surprising that empirical evidence on the relationship between land rights and land improvements or agricultural yields in Sub-Saharan Africa is generally inconclusive. (Platteau 1996, 64)

Other authors including, for example, Atwood (1990), Migot-Adholla (1993), Place (1993), and Roth (1994) offer similar observations.[18] Sjaastad and Bromley go further in their refutation of PRS assumptions, positing that they are nothing more than “prejudices pertaining to property rights”. They argue forcefully that the extent to which the transition from common property to private property rights represents a hypothesized shift towards more individual, specific and secure land rights are thought to be desirable, “they are only so because of the normative system out of which they arise” (2000,365). They argue that communal rights to land and other resources can facilitate the provision of the same benefits as private rights, albeit through different institutional structures that are varied and less easily demarcated and defined (2000, 376). Thus, the claim that private rights are ‘superior’ to common property rights is “nothing more – and nothing less – than an assertion that territorial boundaries are more efficient and therefore universally to be preferred when compared with other types of demarcation rules” (ibid, 379).[19]

The tenure systems of most developing countries (especially those of Africa and South Asia) are characterized by the existence of multiple tenures – land may be used by several people in different ways for different purposes (e.g. farming, grazing, collecting fuel-wood, water, etc.). Sjaastad and Bromley and others have indicated that another serious problem with the privatization = tenure security = investment and increased production equation is that although titling will increase tenure security for the excluding party, the opposite must be the result for the excluded.[20] Thus, as Christian Lund puts it, “when we talk about increasing tenure security, there is most of the time a corresponding aspect of increasing tenure insecurity as well, something that has a much less benign ring to it” (Lund 2002, 16).

Moreover, contrary to the arguments of the PRS, private tenure arrangements have been shown to often increase environmental ‘externalities’. Sjaastad and Bromley make a strong case that social and environmental externalities are far lower in common property systems because their effects are internalized within the group(s), which increases incentives to remain more socially and/or environmentally accountable than private owners would be inclined to be (2000, 376). In the extreme, they argue: “institutions that ratify individualism at the expense of social cohesion can be questioned on grounds of sustainability” (2000, 365).

There is, as such, substantial evidence that there is an incompatibility between the apparently logical causal connection made between private property, “tenure security”, investment and social and economic development assumed by the PRS and empirical realities.[21] Ellsworth (2002) puts it bluntly: “The fact is that the empirical evidence for the virtues and mechanics of the founding story of the Property Rights School is mixed for most parts of the world that don’t share the legal history of Europe and the United States” (11).


The ideas and theories advanced by property rights theorists and proponents of market-based land reform are not only ‘academic’ – they have had and continue to have far-reaching implications insofar as they are used to legitimate the enclosure of the commons in developing countries through market-based land reform policies. The fact that this model has become the dominant framework for planning and executing land reform initiatives is troubling because empirical reality suggests that privatization policies often increase rural poverty, pave the way for the further marginalization of already poor members of communities affected, and ultimately enhances land and resource degradation due to increased land insecurity among the larger number of those who are displaced or marginalized.

It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that privatization is commonly justified by international development organizations and national governments as a blanket remedy for poverty reduction, food insecurity, social conflict and demographic pressures on resources.

Although per capita growth indicators may indeed suggest that agricultural development strategies requiring the concentration of land in the hands of a few ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘efficient’ producers decreases poverty overall, such statistics will tell us very little about the distribution of benefits and micro-level social and environmental impacts.

One must, as such, remain wary of the assumptions inherent in the property rights discourse. In many developing countries, a tremendous diversity of community property rights systems still exist, many of which have been shown to be socially and environmentally sustainable. Although it would be a mistake to propose that common property arrangements are by default and universally ‘better than’ private tenure arrangements, it is entirely appropriate to propose that they are worthy of considering on their own merits. While common property theorists generally agree that ‘tenure security’ is important and land reform necessary (given the legacy of highly discriminatory and inequitable colonial land policies) they urge that there are many alternative models of achieving these ends. Privatization of land is only one model and its benefits and outcomes are not universally predictable. The view that common property regimes are an obstacle to market development or the ‘efficient’ allocation of resources is based on particular views of development and, to the extent to which these views are institutionalized in international and national policy orientations, on distinct political choices – not structurally predetermined inevitabilities. If modernization through the marketization of resources is designated as a supra-historical inevitability, one is in danger of losing sight of the fact that there are alternative visions and realities that are in danger of being obscured.



[1] This notion of ‘hegemony’ – i.e. power mediated not only through the coercive arms of the state (military, administrative bureaucracies, etc.), but also through cultural ‘consent’ – was developed first by the Italian political theorist, Antonio Gramsci. Modern thinkers have drawn on this unique conceptualization of power extensively. See, for example, Edward Said (1978), (1993), who examines how the colonial project was legitimated in Western society through cultural mediums, especially literature, poetry, the arts and discourses about religion. The whole field of ‘post-colonialism’, or ‘post-modernism’ and subaltern studies take their lead from these conceptualisations of power and a perceived necessity to uncover cultural discourses in order not to be subsumed by them. See Bakan and MacDonald (2002) for a series of essays discussing the current hegemony in development thinking.

[2] Put simply, the basic premise is an impetus to and achievement of economic growth eventually reduces or alleviates poverty and other social and ecological problems (e.g. population growth, child mortality, environmental degradation, etc.) and the best and most sustainable way to attain economic growth is to seek integration into the global capitalist economy through the liberalization of national and international markets. Accordingly, proponents of neoclassical economic theory and policy accord priority to economic ‘efficiency’ in the market-determined allocation of resources to realize export-led growth and a particular version of ‘development’.

[3] The market orientation of land tenure arrangements typically involves the freezing or slowing down of redistributive policies, and the promotion of property transfer between willing buyers and sellers at market prices. Donors like the World Bank tend to advocate for private tenure, on productivity and investment grounds. This assumption is based on contentious, highly debated theories like those propounded in the property rights school, which draw causal linkages between formal, legally mandated ownership arrangements and investment. See J. Bruce, et al. (1994).

[4] See, for example, Atwood (1990); Bromley (1991, 1992); Sjaastad and Bromley (2000); Roth (1993); Platteau (1996); Migot-Adholla (1993); Lund (2002).

[5] Under these conditions, “Land (becomes) increasingly attractive as a source of relative stability in a volatile and threatening world. By the late twentieth century, many Africans appeared to agree with the Kenyan farmer who explained to a foreign observer ‘a piece of land never shrinks’” (2002, 3).

[6] El-Ghonemy situates this period roughly between 1940-1980, and calls it “the golden age of genuine land reform”, when reforms were enacted primarily in response to “a deep dissatisfaction with the abject poverty, inequalities and social instability resulting from colonial policies”.

[7] Faced with the stark realities of large financial shortages and deficits that are normally filled in the form of loans and aid from foreign countries and development agencies, developing country governments were more or less obliged to accept the conditions and policy frameworks of those that had the willingness and ability to support their development. In response to a prolonged economic crises of the 1970’s, western creditors wanted to recover debts and refused to make new loans to indebted countries unless they signed agreements with the IMF and World Bank for debt recovery linked with time-limited market liberalization.

[8] North and Thomas posit: “The pressure to change property rights emerges only as a resource becomes increasingly scarce relative to a society’s wants” (1977, 19). Evidence for this is drawn from 13th century England, when populations pressures enhanced the value of land, meaning “both lord and peasant had reason to seek more exclusive use of land and to place more restrictions on its use by others” (1977, 12).

[9] Platteau notes that this conceptualization of the evolution of land rights is informed by the ‘theory of induced innovation’. Its central idea is that “new institutions tend to evolve whenever changes of factor endowments, technical changes, or preferences that get reflected in price variations create discernable disequilibria between the marginal returns and the marginal costs of factor inputs, thereby giving rise to new benefit-cost possibilities to which old institutions are no longer attuned” (1996,34). These ideas are clearly recognizable in Demsetz’s statement quoted here. See North and Thomas (1977) and Johnson (1972) for clear expositions of this theory as well.

[10] This could involve, for example, preventing or limiting holders of group or secondary claims to communal lands – such as women, pastoral herders – from exercising their traditional rights; extending cultivation and shortening fallow periods; etc.

[11] Ostrum explains: “A farmer who owns his own labour, land and other factor inputs…is likely to see a direct relationship between investments and the level of benefit achieved over the long term. A farmer who belongs to an agricultural production cooperative, on the other hand, may see only a loose connection between personal contributions and benefits” (2000, 334). This ‘loose connection’ will, in theory, cause the common stakeholder to have limited incentive to invest in land.

[12] Hardin entreats: “Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes a day of the reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorsefully generates tragedy” (Hardin 1968, 1243-44).

[13] As Machan puts it “the long run benefit for each herdman of continuing availability of the pasture for his use would be worth the short-run costs” (2001, xv).

[14] Forests provide a sink for greenhouse gases. The process of deforestation involves burning the standing biomass which causes the immediate atmospheric release of stored carbon.

[15] “Feedback effects” exacerbate this vicious pattern – as peasants replace dwindling firewood with animal dung, the soil is robbed of nutrients and productivity declines, meaning more land must be cleared. This theory has come under intense criticism on empirical and ideological grounds. Guthman, for example, argues that the regional generalizations propounded by this theory are inappropriate, and that the “underlying causes of environmental degradation are more complex and of longer duration than (this) Theory allows” (1997, 46).

[16] In many countries, including India for example, nationalization of forests occurred much earlier. Indian forests were nationalized during the British raj, and remain so to this day. Other resources have also come under national control, including water.

[17] Many scholars and researchers that have set out to examine prevailing land patters in developing countries. These investigations generally conclude that rural landscapes in developing countries are characterized by highly inequitable social structures, or what has been called “bi-modal agrarian systems”, where expansive commercial estates control vast tracts of fertile land while large numbers of landless or nearly landless people cultivate little or no land. Where measurable evidence is available, indications suggest that polarization is increasing and that new inequalities and conflicts are emerging. Many studies have indicated that market-based land reforms have tended to concentrate land holdings amongst the already powerful rural elite (see Ghimire 2002; El-Ghonemy 1999; Beck 2000).

[18] During their work in Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda, for example, Migot-Adholla et al. (1993) found that agricultural productivity did not vary under private land rights arrangements and suggest that factors other than land tenure are more constraining for agricultural development and food security in rural areas. They report that the fields they studied were generally acquired through non-market channels such as inheritance, gifts, and government allocation, and the land was held under a variety of tenure forms ranging from temporary use-rights to permanent use-rights. They found that people were more inclined to invest in their land if their use-rights could be handed down to or inherited by their children than if use-rights could not be transferred. However, they also emphasize that “there is not difference in the incidence of land improvements between ‘preferential transfer’ (i.e. rights to transfer to kin) and ‘complete transfer’ (i.e. the right to sell to whoever they wanted—full alienation) land”. Further, they found “no relationship between land rights and plot yields in Kenya and Ghana”, and that “the mode of acquisition had no effect on plot yields” (Migot-Adholla, et al. 1993, 281-282; cited in Lund 2002, 14).

[19] Citing Bromley’s works on the prejudices of PRS (1990), they also note that there is value judgment implicit in the argument that efficiency is a sufficient basis for superiority.

[20] See MacKenzie: “the manipulation of customary law is instrumental in increasing gender and social differentiation” (1990, 609); Roth (1993), Atwood (1990), Ghimire (2002).

[21] The literature supporting this point is extensive and obviously cannot be covered here. Platteau (2000) provides a masterful and exhaustive survey of the African evidence that trading in land does not by default lead to ‘efficient’ outcomes. Some others include Atwood (1990), Carter and Wiebe (1995), Migot-Adholla (1994), Molina (1997), Trivelli (1997), Riddell (1998), Ghimire (2002).


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