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The Blessing of the Commons

Small-Scale Fisheries, Community Property Rights, and Coastal Natural Assets

Political Economy Research Institute | June 26, 2004

PERI Working Paper Series Number 72, by John Kurien

From the Intro: Following the influential article of Garrett Hardin titled "tragedy of the commons," it is part of both popular and scholarly belief that unless natural resources are strictly in the domain of private or state property, their fate is inevitable ruin. Closer examination of the actions of low-income communities who depend on natural resources for their daily livelihoods has recently brought to the fore a more positive view about human proclivity for caring and nurturing common resources found in nature (Hardin 1968).

A good example is found in the state of Kerala, in India, where small-scale, community-based fisherfolk initiated collective action to invest in rejuvenating the natural assets of the sea that had been destroyed by the incessant fishing operations of large-scale bottom trawlers in the region. They went about erecting artificial reefs at the sea bottom in coastal waters to create anthropogenic marine environments. Reefs act as fish refugia and become sources of food for them as the structures are soon covered with bottom-dwelling biomass. Artificial reefs placed in strategic positions in the coastal waters can in time increase the overall biomass and the fish stock in the local ecosystem. An unintended side-effect of sufficiently large artificial reefs is that they act as barriers to the operation of bottom trawl nets, effectively performing the role of a sea-bottom fence against incursions of trawlers into coastal waters. Such reefs have not yet healed the wounds inflicted on the coastal ecosystem of the area, nor can the fishing communities depend exclusively on them as a major source of livelihood. But such community investments by small-scale fisherfolk, and their appropriation of coastal sea area to form community property rights, point to the potential for strategies for visualizing natural resources in a new light—as natural assets that can contribute significantly to sustainable resource use, community empowerment, and well-being. Only with such strategies can we have the blessing of the commons.

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