Unpacking Use of the Commons: Dealing with Socio-economic Factors

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Use of commons by local peoples has often carried with it an image of waste and degradation. This imagery has been used in forest policies in India and elsewhere since at least the nineteenth century, even before Hardin wrote his Tragedy of the Commons. The imagery and Hardin's pastureland metaphor, along with the poverty-environment hypothesis, have often aimed at exclusionary policies to the detriment of lower income individuals, households and communities.

This paper challenges these notions. In the first part of the paper, the burgeoning literature from the commons is reviewed to argue that an increase in the extent of use of the commons increases incentives to participate in collective management and conservation. However, it is also recognized that not all users within the community may have the same incentives to contribute and participate in collective endeavors. Therefore, the second part of the paper examines the socio-economic factors that may influence use of the commons under a common property regime. This issue is addressed based on fieldwork carried out in forest communities in the western Himalayan region.

The study finds that wealth and social differences affect the extent of forest use and hence the incentives to participate in collective management of forests. The results support the claim that inequities in distribution of benefits from the common property regimens may be prevalent even when there is equal access to the resource. This suggests that the assignment of poverty rights to the community may not be beneficial without addressing an unequal social structure. In economies where people are dependent on natural resources to maintain even a minimum level of well-being, this issue is relevant to policies that regulate the use and management of the commons and informs interventions to produce greater equity.


This paper was presented at the Biennial Conference of the U.S. Ecological Economics Society in New York, New York, June 23-27, 2007