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Unequal Commoners and Uncommon Equity: Property and Community among Smallholder Farmers

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Netting, Robert McC.
Conference: Heterogeneity and Collective Action
Location: Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Conf. Date: October 14-17, 1993
Date: 1993
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10535/1472
Sector: Social Organization
Subject(s): Workshop
property rights
land tenure and use
Abstract: "Common property rights, falling as they do somewhere between private property and state territorial control, are an anomaly. They appear as part of recurrent institutions, widely distributed through space and time, and governing local access to such necessary resources as marginal grazing areas, swidden fallows, inshore fisheries, and irrigation water. But common property is supposedly doomed to pass away. For Louis Henry Morgan, the Rochester lawyer, railroad investor, and New York State legislator, the 'idea of property' emerged as a key factor in the evolution of the human mind, and 'its dominance as a passion over all other passions marks the commencement of civilization' (Morgan 1963:5-6). Clearly this kind of property is something more defined, more legally specific, than a Seneca hunting ground or corn patch. Common property may even be a threat to the environment as it is in Garrett Hardin's (1968) 'tragedy of the commons' where economically rational herdsmen increase the number of livestock on the common pasture, thereby gaining individual benefits from each additional cow while sharing the costs of overgrazing with all the other members, and eventually destroying the resource. 'It is usual to assume that resource degradation is inevitable unless common property is converted into private property or government regulations are instituted' (Berkes et al. 1989). Though the heedless herdsman may be an appropriate analogy for industrial air pollution or tourist crowds in Yosemite, it neglects the historic fact that European community grazing lands were never open access and endured for centuries without apparent degradation. The summer alp pastures of the Swiss village of Torbel where I did field research have operated under written rules of use, prohibiting noncitizens from sending their livestock there, regulating the number of beasts each member of the commune can feed there, and requiring annual labor for maintenance since 1483 (Netting 1981). I would speculate that the Celtic Swiss settlers did much the same thing in the Late Bronze Age that they do now in their assemblies and work groups."

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