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Do Resource Users Learn from Management Disasters? Indigenous Management and Social Learning in James Bay

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Berkes, Fikret
Conference: Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Conf. Date: June 10-14
Date: 1998
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/1026
Sector: Social Organization
Region: North America
Subject(s): IASC
indigenous institutions
environmental ethics
hunters and gatherers
Cree (North American people)
resource management
tragedy of the commons
open access
Abstract: "Practice is not always true to belief. Philosophers point out that 'ethics bear a normative relation to behavior; they do not describe how people actually behave, but rather set out how people ought to behave' (Callicott 1982). For example, the Koyukon people of Alaska often violate their own rules on limiting harvests when they hunt caribou (Nelson 1982). Anyone who has worked with hunting peoples knows that rules of ethics are sometimes suspended. But one can say that about any culture or any group of people; there is always a gap between the ideal practice and the actual. The story of caribou is important in this regard. Cree elders in Chisasibi readily admit that they once overhunted the caribou. But the events that took place in the community in the mid-1980's indicate that the Cree hunters as a group learned from that experience. The caribou story illustrates how traditional beliefs play out in the real world, and how community-based systems can learn and evolve. It also illustrates the role that traditional stewards and elders play in providing leadership for collective decision-making. It shows why almost all traditional cultures consider elders so important. Elders provide corporate memory for the group, the wisdom to interpret events, and they help enforce the rules and ethical norms of the community. "The main issue here is the development and application of a conservation ethic in a social group. 'Conservation ethic,' defined here after Johannes (1994), is the 'awareness of one's ability to deplete or otherwise damage natural resources, coupled with a commitment to reduce or eliminate the problem.' We will hypothesize that a conservation ethic can develop if a resource is important or limiting, predictable and depletable, and if it is effectively under the control of the social group in question so that the group can reap the benefits of its conservation (Berkes 1989a). We explain each point of the hypothesis in turn. "If a resource is superabundant there is no adaptive advantage in developing a conservation ethic for it, nor a territorial system for its defense. The resource has to be predictable and abundant, and important for the group, if not outright limiting (Dyson-Hudson and Smith 1978; Richardson 1982; Nelson 1982; Berkes 1986). If the resource is not depletable, it is perfectly logical (and, one may argue, ecologically adaptive) to kill excess numbers. Under such conditions, 'a natural response is not to limit harvests intentionally, but the precise opposite -- take as much as possible, whenever possible, and store the proceeds for later use,' as Nelson (1982) points out in his discussion of Alaska caribou hunting. "Finally, there is the question of the control of the resource. Societies do not establish conservation rules and ethics for the benefit of outsiders. The evidence on this question shows that the incursion of outsiders, and the inability of the group to defend an important resource, causes the lifting of rules and conservation ethic (Feit 1986; Berkes 1986). Once open-access conditions are created, perfectly conservation-minded stewards may well become participants themselves in a 'tragedy of the commons' rather than to allow the outsiders to take the remaining resource. Such free-for-all depletions of resources seem to have happened in the case of beaver in James Bay in the 1920s, and the overkill of North American bison at the turn of the century (Berkes et al. 1989; Feeny et al. 1990). In some cases, the condition is reversible; if local controls can be re-established, the group can again reap the benefits of its own restraint, and conservation rules and ethics become operative once more (Feit 1986; Berkes 1989b)."

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