When the Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2009, it was huge boost for the study of Common Pool Resources (CPR) like fisheries, forests, grazing lands and water resources. It gave the field new relevance and injected a bolt of enthusiasm into studies of how rural communities all over the word use their natural resources. Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Design Principles for Common Pool Resource Management have become one of the most successful summaries of the main conditions under which communities manage their resources successfully. They are not all required for success, and they are not all implemented to the letter in all communities, but as general design principles they have shown to have application in many situations. One of the foundations which underpins many of these design principles is the issue of trust.
“Extensive field research has found that when users of a resource do gain good feedback about the effect of their actions on a resource and can build norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness, they are frequently able to craft new institutions to solve puzzling dilemmas. We need to ask: How do different kinds of institutions support or undermine norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness?” (Ostrom, 2009).
I’ve started this post on the issue of trust because it has direct relevance to the current unsustainable harvest of timber in Zambia. The Mukula tree (Pterocarpus chrysothrix) is currently being harvested on a scale never seen before. It’s closely related to the more well known Mukwa, or Pterocarpus angolensis which is widely harvested as a timber species all over south-central Africa. Chinese buyers have stimulated this new demand for a species never harvested for timber in the past. We don’t know anything about Mukula. It’s geographic distribution hasn’t been mapped and we have no idea of the abundance of the resource on the ground to be able to set a limit for sustainable harvest. It’s likely that this tree will disappear before we’ve even had a chance to study it. No doubt everyone will be quick to blame the Chinese. But the trees need to be cut, transported and exported and this involves the participation of Zambians. Individuals are not allowed to cut timber for commercial purposes without a licence in Zambia, nor is timber allowed to be transported without a conveyance licence, and it is not allowed to be exported in the form of logs. All of these things are being facilitated by local people, forestry department officials, police, customs and employees of the Zambia Revenue Authority. Yes – it’s called corruption. When 50 to 60 trucks are driving hundreds of kilometres west from Nyimba and Luangwa Districts to the capital city of Lusaka, or east to Malawi, and no one stops them, there must be corruption at many different levels which facilitates this. Government is starting to confiscate truckloads of timber, but how big did this have to get before something was done? And is it being effectively stopped?
There is a deep rooted problem with ownership and governance of natural resources in Zambia. The people in rural areas do not have any part to play in sharing income or participating in management of these resources – they belong to the state. So when an economic opportunity arises – they take it. In this case the opportunity to sell timber to Chinese traders is in the headlines, but it applies to wildlife poaching too. There is also a fundamental problem with the morality and ethics within the civil service. It’s well known that civil servants see it as their right to collect whatever ‘extra’ money they can in the performance of their duties, and the failure of government to pay terminal benefit packages must be at the heart of this resentful attitude. According to Zambian labour law, workers are entitled to 2 months wages for every year worked on retirement. Government is not able to comply with its own labour laws, and this means that civil servants try to collect their legally entitled terminal benefits by any other means – by corrupt means in this case. It seems a hopeless situation. What government have created in the natural resources sector is a classic open access commons – by denying ownership to local people, and by failing to police the ownership they claim (either through lack of capacity or through inaction by corrupt officials) Zambian natural resources have become a free-for-all and a ‘tragedy of the commons’ is underway.
I started this post talking about trust. The situation is Zambia is not conducive to building trust between rural communities and government, or within rural communities themselves. Elinor Ostrom considers trust to be essential for successful natural resource governance. By creating an open access commons, government have created a situation where it’s every man for himself and that will never result in communities coming together to manage natural resources. The Mukula affair already has people accusing traditional leaders of being irresponsible about policing their resources. But the resources are not theirs. When the resources were theirs they governed the use of them very well. Those in government who want to use this as a justification for continued state ownership of resources are forgetting their past. In western province in particular, there is a well documented history of the Barotse Royal Establishment putting conservation measures in place to protect forests. The same will apply to other chiefdoms and resources all over Zambia. What government is doing is setting up a straw man by a combination of claiming ownership of natural resources, and then failing to police this ownership. The consequences of people taking advantage of the economic opportunity to poach timber or wildlife are as a result of this failure of governance. It does not make poaching right, because breaking the law is never right, but human nature is what it is and people who are poor have to take the opportunities available to them. The challenge which government needs to address is to give people opportunities which allow them to act responsibly, to come together as communities and solve problems. Two heads are always better than one. We need the ideas of the whole group to solve our problems. It’s called democracy and freedom of speech – one of the greatest problem solving methods ever invented by humans.
I’m going to Zambia later this year to have my first, and possibly my last look at the Mukula tree. I will photograph it, collect some leaves and seeds for botanical reference, and say goodbye to yet another species we didn’t have time to document properly. The ultimate reason it disappeared will not be Chinese traders, it will be because governance of the resource created the wrong economic incentives to which people responded. A perfect storm, which could have been avoided by the actions of the Zambian government and ordinary Zambians acting in the interests of their country and in the case of the civil service – doing the job they signed up to do. In Africa we are very quick to blame others for our lack of development, and there is an element of truth to that, but sometimes we have only ourselves to blame for unsustainable development.
Ostrom, E. (2009). Building trust to solve commons dilemmas: taking small steps to test an evolving theory of collective action. In Levin, S., editor, Games, Groups, and the Global Good, Springer Series in Game Theory. Springer Verlag.