Topic Area: Property Rights
Geographic Area: Mexico
Focal Question: Do community-based property rights systems lead to sustainable resource management?
(1) Alcorn, J. and Toledo, V., 1995. ÒThe Role of Tenurial Shells in Ecological Sustainability: Property Rights and Natural Resource Management in Mexico.Ó Property Rights in a Social and Ecological Context. The World Bank, Washington, D.C., pp. 123-140.
Reviewer: Carter B. Davis, Colby College Ô97
The late-1800Õs in Mexico saw serious land scarcity occurring due to wealthy and politically-connected land owners controlling a majority of land in Mexico. This phenomenon caused problems for the large number of indigenous citizens who were unable to acquire land. They were forced to live off the available open-access land as best they could, which often resulted in over-use of the surrounding resources.
Due to this difficulty of acquiring land, one of the main results of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century was the creation of community-based resource management within the 1917 Constitution. This property rights system utilizes the concept of tenurial shells, and was adopted in part to halt the unsustainable use of much of MexicoÕs land. The system designates tenurial rights and responsibilities as defined by local communities within the basic framework of the state. A majority of the decision making is made at the most local level, where decisions can be tailored to a community's needs. The outermost "shells" exist more for authority and dispute settling reasons (Hanna et al., 126-127).
In Mexico, two forms of community-based ownership are currently recognized. The first of these involves ejidos, which allows groups of people to petition for access to resources they previously did not have access to. The second form of ownership is a communidad, which is a pre-existing corporate entity whose rights are recognized if its members can demonstrate prior, long-standing community-based use of the surrounding resources. Within the ejido and communidad systems, many guidelines dictate how resources can be managed. Overall, each household in the community has the right to exploit resources necessary for its livelihood. Each community allocates a certain portion of its resources to individual households who manage these resources within the guidelines set by the community. Beyond these limits, a household can use its resources as it sees fit, though the allocated resources may not be sold or rented to anyone outside of the community. The sense of ownership instilled by this system creates incentives to invest in the land and manage it efficiently. The system eliminates the open-access problem which so often haunts developing countries through the disincentive created to invest in land. With a sense of ownership, citizens will invest in their land, knowing fully well they will realize the gains from these investments in the future (Hanna et al., 127-128).
As for the decision-making process of these communities, locally state-imposed institutions regulate ejido and communidad lands. The main authoritarian body is the General Assembly, to which all households are represented by one person. Attendance is required, and is enforced by the threat of fines. The ability to maintain governing bodies close to the community allows for more relevant regulations to be adopted which fit the communities' resources (Hanna et al., 130).
The breadth of these systems is quite impressive, as approximately 3 million households which manage 59% of Mexico's land belong to one of the two types of communities. Of these lands, only 22% are fit for agricultural use, while the remainder is used for pasture or forest. Between 70 and 80 percent of Mexico's forests are under the management of roughly 7,000 to 9,000 ejidos and communidades (Hanna et al., 128).
One particular area in Mexico, the Subhumid Temperate Forest, covers 33 million hectares and is occupied by 1.55 million indigenous people. The area is managed by Purepechan people and is broken up into two sites, one being the Lake Patzcuaro Basin, and the other being the community of San Juan Nuevo (Hanna et al., 133).
Purechepan communities around the Lake Patzcuaro Basin retain their language and a strong cultural heritage, which includes long standing tenure and resource management systems. Traditional tenure and resource management systems are important to maintain due to their historic success with sustainability. This area identifies 400 plant species and 138 animal species. Of these, 224 plant and animal species have multiple uses, including food, medicine and utilitarian value. Purepechan people utilize 14 different land management systems: three rainfed, one dryland, six irrigated agricultural types, two silvicultural and two home garden types (Hanna et al., 133).
San Juan Nuevo has used its forest products to acquire modern machinery for a vertically integrated forest products industry. Factories make products such as moldings, parquet, furniture and charcoal for export markets. In addition, the people generally supplement their income from other sources, such as outside jobs and home gardens (Hanna et al., 133).
As a sign of the flexibility and adaptation capabilities allowed by this property rights system, the San Juan Nuevo communal council decided it was in their best interests to reinvest all profits made from the surrounding lands. In the last ten years the community has seen profits increase 2,000 percent, and personnel has increased from 100 to 1,000, with salaries far exceeding the minimum wage of the region. These figures show the potential gains to be realized by instituting a property rights system (Hanna et al., 134).
The system of property rights instituted in Mexico allows for local control with higher agencies lending authority to these local decisions. This is a necessary condition for any successful property rights system. The community ownership provided by this system, coupled with diversified resource use and practices, has provided a sustainable resource base. Instilling a sense of ownership has provided incentives to efficiently manage the land. The flexibility allowed by the system, as shown by the two completely different strategies adopted by the two communities, has provided communities with opportunities to adopt practices which are the most beneficial for their land. This is the key, as they are not forced to adopt practices not suitable to their land. Nothing is more telling of the success of this system than the fact that the resource base has not declined, even though the majority of the residents under this management system are indigenous peoples, who traditionally quickly exhaust the surrounding resources in an effort to subsist.