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Malthus Revisited: People, Population, and the Village Commons in Colombia

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Type: Working Paper
Author: Cárdenas, Juan-Camilo
Date: 1998
Agency: International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London U.K.
Series: Gatekeeper Series, no. 76
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/5129
Sector: Social Organization
Region: South America
Subject(s): sustainability
common pool resources
environmental change
Abstract: "Traditionally, communities in the developing world have been labelled as the source of environmental problems as they extract and use goods and services from the environment, sometimes beyond the natural regeneration rates of ecosystems. Usually this is attributed to population densities growing at an unsustainable rate. This paper argues against the common proposition that population growth alone is a threat to natural resources. It contends that technological and structural factors play a role in determining the net effect of population density on the conservation of key local environmental public goods (called village commons in this paper) such as soil, watershed regulation or natural vegetation, that affect the flow of ecological benefits to the community. Such an effect takes place through household decision-making about farming choices such as land and input use. The interaction between certain farming practices and social relations such as the distribution of land may create positive or negative net effects of population in the provision of environmental public goods or degradation from these village commons. The paper illustrates these ideas with empirical and statistical evidence from Colombia, where a long term study using a combination of remote sensing and participatory research built up a detailed data set for 164 villages. Analysis of these findings showed that villages with more equal access to resources and the distribution of benefits have more sustainable farming systems and show a lower negative, perhaps even a positive relationship between population density and local natural resources. Case studies of individual villages demonstrate that despite high population densities, equality of access to resources can support good environmental management. In terms of policy, there are several implications, depending on the level of inequality present in an area. Options range from wealth redistribution to supporting participatory and communal management of resources. However, in all situations, policy will be most effective if underlain by the assumption that communities can co-operate to sustain, rather than destroy, ecosystems when the conditions are right."

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