African nature preserves and the tragedy of the commons

July 8, 2008 – 12:22 am by John

In the July 4, 2008 issue of Science, there was a news & views article about over-hunting and poaching of animals on nature preserves in Africa, due to the large increase in human populations surrounding the preserves. It seems the establishment of nature preserves attracts people to settle around them, and subsequently they hunt the animals in the preserve to dangerously low levels.

[Berkeley conservation biologist Justin] Brashares teamed up with ecologist George Wittemyer of UC Berkeley to get the big picture. They analyzed United Nations population data for the areas surrounding 306 rural nature reserves in Africa and Latin America. In 245 of the reserves, population growth was higher in the 10-kilometer swath outside the reserve borders than it was in equivalent rural areas elsewhere, the team reports in the 4 July issue of Science. On average, population growth rates were almost double those in other rural areas. "Parks have become magnets for human settlement," Brashares says.

What's attractive about living near a park? The researchers note that international conservation grants often have a development component that aims to improve the lives of local residents, providing schools, roads, clinics, and other services. Indeed, population growth near the reserves was positively correlated with the amount of international conservation funding received. The local job market may play a role, too: People tend to move preferentially to parks that have relatively more employees. "The message comes through pretty loud and clear," says tropical ecologist S. Joseph Wright of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama. "Parks are attracting and improving the life of people."

But the immigration doesn't improve the situation for wildlife in the parks. Brashares and Wittemyer cite other studies that show higher rates of logging, mining, hunting, and fires inside protected areas surrounded by humans.

In my amateur opinion, I lean towards believing this is all explained by the concept of the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons means that if a space is open to the public, if it isn't owned by any one private entity, the general public will act irresponsibly towards it because there is no monetary incentive to preserve it and there is monetary incentive to exploit it until its ruin. Here are the pages that come up when you search for "tragedy of the commons." Here is the Wikipedia article on it.

Though, I should admit that it's not apparent that the public has anything approaching legally "free access" to these nature preserve lands, so their access might be as limited as if the lands were privately owned. It does seem that State protection of the lands isn't being very effective, though.

Either way, the two conservation biologists mentioned above probably don't have the right solution:

One solution, Brashares and Wittemyer propose, might be to invest development dollars in towns farther away from nature reserves to give an incentive for people to move away from parks. "The edge of parks have become battlegrounds for control of resources," Brashares says. "These battles are only going to intensify over the next decades, and we have to plan for that."

If I read that right, they are suggesting that if they just divert enough tax dollars into central-planning and social-engineering schemes, they can combat the poaching/logging problem without killing or starving too many people in the process. Such dirigiste economic plans are exactly what enabled governments to kill nearly 200 million of their own subjects in the 20th century alone. When Statists cite African nations and villages as examples of why anarchy doesn't work and why the State is necessary to provide things to its subjects, I'll remind them of fascist central-planning debacles like this and reiterate my point that central planners, even Ph.D.'s employed in Berkeley, California, can't engineer prosperity or independence in African people.

A natural-rights perspective on land and natural resources, the supremacy of private property rights, and recognition of the homesteading principle are far better foundations for protecting natural resources and preventing the emergence of "battlegrounds for control of resources" than socialism is.

If economic history and especially the history of the 20th century have shown us anything, it is that expansion of private property, shrinkage of "public" property, and abandonment of central planning are what any society needs to grow and prosper.

Ironically enough, Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay in which he popularized the concept of the tragedy of the commons appeared in the journal Science. Read that essay in its entirety here; I can access the full article at Science's website without logging in or anything, but if anyone can't access the whole thing, just leave a comment and I'll copy and paste it somewhere.

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