The Possible Use of Common Property to Address the Commons Problem


The global population has grown exponentially over the decades, and so has the demand for resources to produce goods to meet the population’s insatiable needs. This growth continues to exert pressure on natural, finite resources, posing a threat to the current and next generation’s sustainability. For this reason, some governments, NGOs, and generations of communities employ resource management techniques, such as possessing common property, to address issues related to exclusive access to finite resources. While some writers, such as Hardin, criticize this resource management approach and brand it “the tragedy of the commons,” it is evident that common property can address public problems by promoting territoriality, imposing coercion, establishing restrained access to resources, and creating informal norms by which individuals must comply with to access the resources. 

Understanding Common Property

Before exploring the possible use of common property to address the commons problems, it is vital to understand the term “common property” in the environmental economics context and the root causes of common problems. Seabright describes the local common property as a wide range of resources with collective management or resources with property rights exercised collectively by a group of people (113). Essentially, common property is not privately owned; however, it is not an “open access” resource, implying that its exploitation is limited to small groups of people, such as villagers surrounding the resource. On the other hand, common problems are issues arising from rational individuals’ independent decision-making on resource use. In his writing, Hardin uses an example of common grazing fields to explain the concept of common problems. According to the writer, rational herders are inclined to maximize their gains by increasing their herd (Hardin 1244). However, the independent decisions made by the several herdsmen may cause common problems such as overgrazing as each pursues more profit.

The concept of common property is widely adopted in some communities in the Pacific to control resource use, enhance resource security to the community members, prevent degradation, and foster future sustainability. For example, Islanders settling in the Andra and Ahus Islands in Manus own a common property of reef lagoons over which they claim exclusive rights and prevent its access by mainland communities. The Islander uses this resource management technique to improve their livelihood security because marine resources are their primary terrestrial resources. This case exemplifies the integration of common property in some communities to promote resource security and prevent other communities’ access to control depletion.

Possible Use of Common Property to Address the Commons Problem

While scholars acknowledge the tragedy of commons, they also discuss the potential of using them to address common problems in ways such as establishing territoriality. In his article, “The Lobster Fiefs: Economic and Ecological Effects of Territoriality in the Maine Lobster Industry,” Acheson argues that territoriality can be used in lobster fishing to limit a harbor to fishermen with license or those that are ordinarily allowed to fish in the traditional territory harbor (187). The community regulating the fishing grounds maintains control over the territory, sets boundaries, and destroys or confiscates gear from interlopers. The author opines this form of common property use by the “harbor gang,” and the community has the biological benefits of increasing the chances of female lobsters reaching maturity than other nucleated areas with open access by limiting fishing traps and establishing closed fishing seasons (199). While some may view trap limits as a way to reduce fishermen’s catch, the policy has long-term benefits of increasing the annual harvest and preventing resource depletion. Essentially, territoriality over common property can address common problems such as depleting marine resources by setting policies that limit fishing to a small group of lobstermen, which, in turn, enhances marine biomass and increases yields to the community.

Besides territoriality, communities can impose coercion over common property to address common problems. In Acheson, coercion is discussed in the context of setting informal rules that restrict fishing efforts by certain groups of people (186). Hardin also strongly advocates this aspect and describes coercion as a mutually agreed-upon arrangement by most stakeholders to mitigate common issues (1247). Coercion is broad and may include setting taxes over common property, such as fishing grounds, to control fishing and mitigate overfishing, reducing oceanic biomass and marine yields, and threatening future sustainability. The author emphasizes that while coercion is not appealing to anyone, it is a gateway to escaping the horrors of common (Hardin 1247). Therefore, policymakers, socially or politically arranged groupings, can impose taxes or license requirements on common property to address common problems.

Furthermore, establishing restrained access to resources on common property is another way to address common problems. This idea is posited by Acheson with regard to restrained access to Lobster fishing grounds and emphasized by Wade, who argues that communities can collectively manage property over extended periods and mitigate degraded grazing commons, despoiled forests, over-exploited groundwater, and depleted fisheries without opting for privatization or stake regulation (219). Restrained access to shared resources may be conducted in different ways. For example, a community agency may be set to formulate suitable rules on resource use to restrain the use of shared resources in ways that mutually benefit all community members. Alternatively, communities could set informal bodies to oversee and supervise resource use. An example of such management techniques is elaborated by Wade, where he discusses the Kurnool district, a semiarid area that restricts resources to common properties to protect the community’s resource safety. According to the author, the district has four institutions; a village council, a village standing fund, a group of village guards, and “common irrigators” who oversee different components of the common-pool resources (222). The restrictions and supervision imposed by these institutions help address common problems such as social conflicts and production losses by preventing trespassing and ensuring the community has access to adequate irrigation water.

Besides restrained access, informal norms may also be established and reinforced over the common property to help address common problems. Acheson argues that the effectiveness of formal, statewide laws is questionable and has been found to exacerbate issues of economic efficiency and affect fish population levels (186). Therefore, the author proposes implementing informal norms to limit entry into fisheries and restrict fishing efforts (Acheson 186). The proposed strategy involves creating informal criteria that individuals must meet or comply with to access specific resources. The norms may be imposed by “harbor gangs” or individuals with political power over a community. Essentially, informal standards may be set over the common property to limit entry to fishing grounds and restrict fishing to protect marine biomass.

In summary, establishing territoriality, imposing coercion, establishing restrained access to resources, and creating informal norms by which individuals must comply to access the resources are viable ways through which common property may be used to address common problems. As is evident from the essay, these measures have been implemented in some communities in the Pacific, thus solidifying their viability. Moreover, when implemented, these regulations and norms help address social problems such as social conflicts and production losses caused by resource overexploitation.


Works Cited

Acheson, James M. “The Lobster Fiefs: Economic and Ecological Effects of Territoriality in the Maine Lobster Industry.” Human Ecology, vol. 3, no. 3, July 1975, pp. 183–207.

Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science, vol. 162, no. 3859, 13 Dec. 1968, pp. 1243–1248.

Seabright, Paul. “Managing Local Commons: Theoretical Issues in Incentive Design.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 7, no. 4, 1 Nov. 1993, pp. 113–134.

Wade, Robert. “The Management of Common Property Resources: Finding a Cooperative Solution.” The World Bank Research Observer, vol. 2, no. 2, 1987, pp. 219–234.

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