Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I’ve been silent for several months. I’m hoping that in the new year I can get back to a regular monthly schedule.


In an earlier post, I argued that formal land tenure systems—including policies and laws aimed at recognizing communal land tenure—are just one tool in an overall land governance toolbox, and that in pastoral rangeland systems they are not the only tool that’s needed.  In fact, sometimes they are the wrong tool for the job.  I want to revisit that discussion, this time viewing it through a slightly different lens.


Shifts in land governance in northern Kenya

First, however, let me paint a picture of how the challenges of governing land and natural resources have been playing out for pastoralists in an area that I’m somewhat familiar with: northern Kenya. In the dry lowlands between Mt. Kenya and the border with Ethiopia, rainfall is low and unreliable, varying greatly both from year to year and from place to place.  Across much of the area, rainfed farming is impossible.  Yet pastoralists effectively create livelihoods in this harsh and unpredictable climate by moving their herds to where the rain has fallen and forage is available, and in the past their livelihood system was ecologically sustainable.  However, the way that they avoided overgrazing and maintained a sustainable livelihood system owed at least as much to the accumulated effect of each herder individually trying to avoid both overused pastures and the possibility of conflict, as it did to any kind of explicit collective actions that we might typically think of as “management”.  Their systems may have had has been called an “emergent sustainability”[i].

But over the years, various factors have progressively constrained pastoral mobility and undermined that emergent sustainability.  Sedentarization, human population growth, enclosure of key drought fallback pastures, the proliferation of small arms, and the politicization of ethnicity have all made it more difficult for herders to optimally move their herds, which in turn has led to overuse of some pastures, and ultimately to environmental degradation.  In response, community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) programs initiated by NGOs have attempted to facilitate more proactive management of rangeland ecosystems, albeit typically on a more bounded, localized scale than the pastoral systems generally operated in the past.

And because the degradation of the rangelands often has not proceeded very far, the results of these interventions in terms of improved availability of forage have often been rapid and dramatic.  With a bit of short-term sacrifice on the part of local livestock owners, mutually agreeing to not graze certain pastures at certain times and let them receive the rest they need, the rangeland quality often bounced back quickly. But this in turn created a new problem.  These community rangeland management activities have often resulted in islands of plentiful forage in the midst of a sea of poor quality rangeland.  I have heard this referred to as “creating honeypots”.  When you set out a honeypot without a lid, you can expect that it will attract ants.  Pastoralists from other communities—from near and far—would look at those conservancies or group ranches or traditional Borana dheeda territories being helped by CBNRM projects, and say to themselves, “Those folks have nice grass.”  When herders from other places arrive, the ability of the local community to prevent the other herders from coming, or even to get them to follow the local grazing plan has generally been weak.  And so, when outsiders come and refuse to follow local rules, it undermines the local community’s incentive to make the short-term sacrifices entailed in managing the use of their pastures.

It would seem obvious that at least some of these difficulties can be ascribed to a lack of clarity and security in land tenure and property rights.  If each pastoral community had clearly defined, recognized, and well-enforced collective property rights, then each community could enjoy the benefits of its investment into rangeland management and would have a clear material incentive to make modest short-term sacrifices for significant long-term benefits.

This is the conventional thinking.


Land tenure systems that shape incentives

The ideas of policymakers, practitioners, and scholars about how a land tenure system guides people’s behavior and produces tangible outcomes very often boil down to assumptions about a causal pathway based on influencing material incentives.  The components of a formal land tenure framework include several components: a the cadaster that maps out land parcels and the boundaries between them, a set of property rights described in a formal way that can be implemented through law, a related set of rules around land ownership, and mechanisms for enforcement of those rights and rules.  When those components are all in place, it is expected that together they will affect incentives in a positive way.  They are expected to make it easier for community members to cooperate, and to modify people’s perceptions of their “utility”.

Without clear property rights, so the thinking goes, people have little incentive to invest in and care for the land and ecosystems they use; but when states use their legal land tenure frameworks to clarify, formally recognize, and defend property rights, they make it more likely that people will benefit from investing in and caring for the land they own and the ecosystems they depend on.  In the case of common pool resources, so the thinking goes, resource users face a collective action problem in which each person’s pursuit of their individual self-interest can result in collective ruin; but by clarifying, recognizing, and defending communal property rights, state frameworks for communal land tenure can reduce the transaction costs for cooperation and make it easier for communities to prevent free-riding and solve collection action problems.

This brings me to the alternative lens that I’d like to apply….


Causal pathways in governance

Some strands of scholarship on environmental governance at the international level have tried to unpack different ways that governance systems affect human behavior—to understand different kinds of causal pathways for governance[ii].  Unfortunately, these ideas from the study of global environmental governance have had little cross-fertilization with the thinking on land governance.

Modifying utility and enhancing cooperation are the causal pathways that receive the most press.  But they are not the only ways that governance systems influence communities and societies.  They can also, for instance, shape identities, facilitate learning, or impel actors into new practices and procedures (see text box).  The prospect of governance arrangements influencing behavior through these other causal pathways is important because sometimes conditions aren’t right for rules, regulations, formal property rights, and systems of enforcement to actually change material incentives.

Diverse causal pathways of governance arrangements

  • Modifying utility
  • Enhancing cooperation
  • Shaping norms and expectations and bestowing authority
  • Facilitating learning
  • Shaping identities and defining roles
  • Instigating realignments within states, societies or other “institutional ecosystems”
  • Creating procedures and stepwise processes

Adapted from Young (1999)ii

Take our pastoral community described above.  Policies meant to recognize communal rights for pastoralists, have largely mirrored the conventional thinking about communal land and resource tenure generally being based on assumptions relating to the first two causal pathways mentioned in the list above: namely, modifying utility and enhancing cooperation.  Formal recognition of communal tenure is meant to enable communities to establish rules to prevent overuse of resources and to create what scholarship on environmental governance sometimes calls a regulatory regime. By clearly defining rights and articulating and enforcing rules, it is assumed that formal land tenure systems reduce uncertainty, link costs to benefits, and enhance cooperation, all of which can affect people’s behavior by changing their material incentives.

For a community of herders to be granted clear and enforceable property rights over a community territory is of little help when the rain often falls somewhere else in the broader landscape beyond their home territory. Click To TweetHowever, for a community of herders to be granted clear and enforceable property rights over a community territory is of little help when the rain often falls somewhere else in the broader landscape beyond their home territory.  It is not only uncertainty over property rights, free riding and the distribution of costs and benefits that dissuade pastoralist communities from making certain kinds of investments in their land—it is also the unpredictability of climate. There may be very little impact from reducing uncertainty over property rights and costs and benefits of regulating access to resources when the underlying uncertainty of climate persists.


Shaping norms and expectations, and bestowing authority

But regulatory regimes are not the only kinds of governance regime, and directly shaping material incentives is not the only causal pathway through which governance systems influence people’s behavior. The global multilateral environmental agreements for example—the conventions on biodiversity, climate change and so on—are perennially criticized for their lack of efficacy.  They lack the “teeth” of regulatory regimes.  But this does not mean that they produce no outcomes.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a case in point.  The SDGs entail no direct rules that constrain exploitation of resources, enforce actions that protect the natural world, or require states to take actions to ensure more just economic arrangements.  Nevertheless, they have been very influential.  Someone who sees the world in terms of rational actors each pursuing their own self-interest and in terms of what economists call “utility” could trace the influence of the SDGs to the incentives that they create.  But an explanation that requires fewer mental gymnastics is that the SDGs—through the creation of goals, targets and indicators, through their ubiquitous presence in international development discourse, and through their appeal to arguably universal aspirations—have shaped norms and expectations.

The former head of the Earth Systems Governance project describes another example.  The multilateral environmental agreements, particularly the climate framework, have helped establish the norm that different nation states in the global system have common but differentiated responsibilities[iii].  Notwithstanding the foot dragging over responding to climate change, the lack of enforceability of targets, and lack of consensus over details, it is now widely accepted that the wealthy nations of the global North bear a different and greater responsibility than those of the global South, and this norm has influenced national and international action on climate change during a period when the creation of a binding and comprehensive regulatory regime was not feasible.  It could be hypothesized in fact that by persistently articulating what the minimal necessary response of the global community must be, and which actions, which industries, and which countries bear which kinds and levels of responsibility, the multilateral climate framework is steadily laying a foundation for more ambitious action.  As much as I would like to see more serious action on climate change, I don’t think the crafting of global governance mechanisms should halt until the international community is capable of agreeing on rules with teeth. Rather, I suspect that the shaping of “differentiated responsibilities” and other such norms is setting the stage for the development of other kinds of governance mechanisms, including eventually regulatory mechanisms.


Shaping norms and bestowing authority in landscape governance

Consider how a causal pathway that functions primarily through norms, expectations, and authority might apply at a smaller scale.  In the case of pastoral rangelands in northern Kenya, one of the challenges at present is the decline in the legitimacy and authority of community institutions, whether traditional or modern.  For example, customary institutions tend to have only sporadic sway over young herders these days.  And norms that used to dictate that a herder bringing his livestock into a new area should inform local elders have declined.

In these kinds of conditions, where the variability of rainfall and forage growth impels herders to    move beyond their home pastures and where the authority of community institutions is weak, development strategies based on communal land titling may do more harm than good. On the other hand, initiatives that focus on establishing (or re-establishing) norms about how inter-community herd mobility takes place and on boosting the legitimacy of democratic community institutions could help to reduce conflict and to facilitate ecologically optimal mobility without emphasizing hard borders, regulations, and rigid, exclusive property rights.

My point is not that pastoral communities have no need for secure land tenure. Nor am I trying to suggest that the design of land governance systems for pastoralists (or for that matter the design of any governance system) can ignore material incentives or that there is no need for regulatory governance mechanisms.  But a band should have more than one tune in its repertoire and carpenter should have more than one tool in her tool box.  In some situations, dividing the land into a comprehensive mosaic of parcels to create land “ownership”, even communal ownership, in an attempt to engineer the right incentives is not going to be an effective strategy.

The good news is that titling, regulation, and material incentives are not the only ways that governance systems affect human behavior. For those of us who work in areas that involve shaping and strengthening systems of governance, we need to think more broadly about what different kinds of governance arrangements can do, different ways that they can shape behavior, and to be more creative.


[i] For an interesting elaboration of the concept of emergent sustainability, see Moritz, M., et al.  2018.  Emergent sustainability in open property regimes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(51): 12859–12867.

[ii] Young, Oran R. editor.  1999.  The Effectiveness of International Environmental Regimes: Causal Connections and Behavioral Mechanisms.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[iii] Biermann 2008. Biermann, F. 2008. Earth system governance: a research agenda. Pages 277–301 in O. R. Young, L. A. King, and H. Schroeder, editors. Institutions and Environmental Change: Principal Findings, Applications, and Research Frontiers. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.