SpruceRoots Magazine - September/October 2000



Begging for Berries

by Brigid Cumming

In mid-April I received my copy of Seeing the Forest Beneath the Trees: The Social and Economic Potential of Non-Timber Forest Products and Services in the Queen Charlotte Islands/Haida Gwaii.

This final report in a 10-month South Moresby Forest Replacement Account (SMFRA)-funded project is a substantial 150-pages. It is informative. It is interesting. And, behind the bold, italicised disclaimers it presents the same old thing: a short list of potential business opportunities based on resource extraction. This is old-school economic theory applied to a new market, re-cast in inclusive language and replete with invocations of the new Trinitarian credo: that the economically viable should also be socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable.

This report presents an old system taking aim at a new target. While political and environmental issues are noted, they are clearly social footnotes to the economic potential the report explores. Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) are described as a "virtually unregulated resource" here on Haida Gwaii. Resource measurement and monitoring are tacitly presumed to be the next logical steps in an inexorable progression towards full-scale commercialisation and government regulation.
Conceptually, it is very openly based on identifying and addressing NTFP as yet another "problem of the commons".

First outlined by H. Scott Gordon in 1954, and popularised in Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons, the problem of the commons exists where there is unlimited consumption of an unregulated yet finite resource. This class of resources are "common-pool resources" (CPRs) and include the air we breathe, the oceans we fish, as well as smaller-scale examples such as public parks and beaches. The classic example Hardin used is cows grazing a pasture, or commons, open to all. Because benefits accrue individually (more cows means more animals to sell) and damages are absorbed collectively (more cows leads to overgrazing), individuals are logically driven by the nature of their access to increase their use until they ultimately collectively exhaust the resource.

Thus the tragedy: logical actions inevitably produce a damaging result. Because logical actions produce this outcome, the problem is said to have no technical solution. It's not a mistake, it's an unpleasant inevitability which, once identified, generates a social dilemma: how to preserve the resource at the expense of the indvidual.

Social solutions classically fall into two types, privatisation or outside regulation. Privatisation sub-divides the resource and thus matches individual gain directly with individual loss. Theoretically, when you have to live directly with the results, individuals are prompted to exploit a resource sustainably. Or, an authority can be designated to impose regulation limiting who can use the resource, how they use it and assessing penalties for misuse. Equally, in theory, government or external agency management of the resource ensures responsible, sustainable use. Most importantly, doing nothing is not an option. 'Doing nothing' in this case means to continue to individually exploit the resource and perpetuate the tragedy: using a common-pool resource means ultimately destroying it.

The flaw in the tragedy of the commons is not just that both social solutions have been repeatedly shown not to work. The flaw in the tragedy is that it presumes much. It presumes that property can only be administered by an individual. This precept is embedded in Canadian law, where governments and businesses are legally considered individuals. In the absence of an active owner, a resource is identified as 'unregulated'. What is lost is the concept of communally managing a collectively-owned resource. The tragedy of the commons presumes that people, if given a choice, will not cooperate. It presumes that ownership, controls access to, and use of a resource. In fact, the extent and nature of ownership varies within cultural context, including our own, as well as from culture to culture. One may own property, such as a trailer, and yet not the land it sits on. Or one may own land, and not the right to exploit the minerals under it. Or one may have the right to glean wheat from a field one does not own, provided the owner has had first cut at the harvest. Ownership is not an absolute, it is a flexible and conditional balancing of liberties and obligations between the individual and his or her social framework: family, community, clan, caste, creed, or local zoning agency.

It presumes that access to a resource cannot be limited. While this is the case with important global CPRs such as the air and the water, access to most CPRs is pragmatically self-limiting. The most likely users of any resource are those living right next to it. Coincidentally, they generally have the most to gain from managing its use.
It presumes that steadily increasing exploitation of a resource to obtain the maximum individual return is both an inherently logical approach and the only one rational individuals will apply. 'Nothing succeeds like excess;' 'you can never be too rich;' 'more is more.' Within the narrow confines of capitalist or market-driven economic theory, this is certainly so. However using a resource could include all uses, even ones which produce no cashflow and are thus economically invisible in conventional terms. These and other factors limit the applicability of 'the problem of the commmon.' They also show it for what it is: a narrowly-based construct. Certainly there are situations where, as Hardin predicts, the tragedy has and will play out. However, there are CPRs world-wide which have been effectively and collectively maintained and managed - some for hundreds of years. In Governing the Commons (Cambridge University Press, 1990), Elinor Ostrom detailed several, including Swiss grazing pastures, Japanese forests, Spanish and Philippine irrigation systems.

On the whole, people have shown themselves better at managing small CPRs. A 1998 working paper by Clark Gibson, Elinor Ostrom and Toh-Kyeong Ahn on Scaling Issues in the Social Sciences outlines attributes common to these experiences. Four attributes have been identified for the resource: moderate scarcity [of the resource], reliable and valid indicators of its condition, predictability and that the CPR is sufficiently small that its extent and nature can be accurately known. Ironically, a village pasture meets all of these criteria. The people using the resource, variously described as the users orappropriators also have common characteristics. They are dependent on the resource (salience). They have a shared vision of how it operates and how their actions affect it (knowledge). They take the long view, actively preserving future benefits by minimizing use (low discount rate), even thoughit may be more economically sound in the short-term to maximize. They trust each other and are capable of organizing themselves collectively. They are autonomous, determining access and harvesting rules without being countermanded by external authorities. And, there is a distribution of interests. This ensures there is broad-based acceptance among the community of users, particularly those with economic or political clout, that the resource needs to be managed.

If one assesses the Islands NTFPs by this criteria, one gets the sense that we have collectively-managed CPRs, albeit managed subtly. If one talks to people in the community of users - those of us living here - commonalties of approach emerge. "Only take what you need and can use" is one widely accepted principle. This can include harvesting for trade, but modestly. "Harvest your own" is another. Generally, people harvest near their own home and avoid other communities. "Know what you're doing" is certainly an important principle. How many of us do not harvest berries, medicinal herbs or mushrooms because we are not sure which are edible and which are poisonous? "Don't destroy it; leave some." How many of us have scolded our children for breaking branches off the berry bush? How many of us leave mushrooms in the patch, even if convinced 'the next guy along will take these'?

Penalties for breaking these unwritten codes vary. Most enforcement is by social disapproval, which probably explains why the authors of this report noted hostility and resistance to their suggestions. Rather than suggesting uses for an unregulated resource, they were perceived as promoting the exploitation of it and profoundly changing our existing pattern of resource use.

The hostility could also reflect an intuitive understanding: exploiting a resource for maximum economic return tends to disenfranchise those who exploit it on a sustenance level. The value of berries may not be just that one can sell them picked and cleaned for 50¢ a pound; the greater value of wild berries may be to have your children eat them and be better nourished.

These concerns are not addressed by conventional economic theory, but they are beginning to be addressed by two specialities: environmental economics and resource economics, which may be collectively termed ecological economics. In this view, the entire environmental resource-base is seen as a gigantic capital stock, and problems of resource management are integrated with problems of environmental pollution and degradation. Economic functioning is set within context, rather than isolated.
It is within this broader scope that islands NTFPs need to be examined. We must assess the value of our intact resources and consider the complex interplay of social and environmental factors before focussing on new business opportunities. ·

SpruceRoots Magazine - September/October 2000