Property Rights and Bioregionalism

November/​December 1994 • Policy Report
By Patricia Adams

Utter the words “property rights” in Canada today and you are likely to hear a chorus of protest from the old guard left, the progressive movement, and those fighting for social justice. Defenders of property rights are usually thought to be the moneyed class, capitalists, and those who are hell bent on destroying the environment. I want to present a different view of property rights. It is a view that comes from the Third World — from environmentalists, indigenous rights activists, and grassroots groups. Those Third World citizens have a view of property rights that I think is profound and enlightening, and I predict it will revolutionize political structures that determine how Third World environments are treated.

That revolution is not taking place in just the Third World. It is happening here, too. The principles and methods espoused by the Third World’s citizens in their attempts to protect their property rights are strikingly similar to those espoused by bioregionalists.

Let me explain with a few real‐​life examples involving international institutions for which we as taxpayers are responsible — the World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency.

In India the World Bank has funded the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River — one of the largest of a series of some 3,000 dams to be built on that river over the next quarter century. The Sardar Sarovar dam, which is almost completed, will flood tens of thousands of acres of valuable forests and farmland and force up to 240,000 people from their land. Neither the World Bank nor the Indian government is quite sure where to put those people: suitable replacement land has not yet been found.

So hated is the project that massive demonstrations have become routine in the Narmada River valley. Thousands of villagers have begun what they call “a long march” from one end of the river to the other. The police and military have been brought in to break up demonstrations, journalists are not allowed into the area, community leaders have been jailed, and warrants for the arrest of others have been issued. The place has become a virtual war zone. People along the river have even formed what they call “drowning pacts.” In the ultimate act of civil disobedience, people are committed to drowning themselves when the water levels start rising.

At issue in the Narmada River valley is land. The people just do not want to move. They want their property rights to their land, their water, their forests — in short to their ecosystem — respected.

Their desperate drowning pacts are unsurprising. Most of the people who will lose their land are tribal people. Their expertise — what to plant, how to cultivate, and when to harvest — is completely bound up in a particular ecology and determined by the seasons, the soil, and the vegetation they know. Their vast legacy of unrecorded knowledge about their environment, and how to survive in it, becomes almost useless in another.

That is why eminent American anthropologist Thayer Scudder, who has studied the effects of forced resettlements in many Third World countries, says,“It’s about the worst thing you can do to a people — to force them to move next to killing them.”

That may seem overly dramatic to us. While we well‐​off Americans and Canadians can imagine the anger and the sorrow of having our homes expropriated and our communities destroyed, few of us would take it to the point of suicide. But for many of the people in the Third World, expropriation and destruction of their bioregion is a matter of life and death. Their land is their means of subsistence. Taking their land from them is the equivalent of taking from us not only our land and our homes but also our bank accounts, our investments, our education, our professions, and our social security systems.

Little wonder that, for millions of Third World people, secure access to their bioregions takes on such dramatic proportions. The Narmada conflict stems from a long‐​standing view of the Indian government — and of most governments — that it has the right to trade off the environmental interests and security of some citizens for the supposed benefit of others.

But the Narmada conflict also stems from the World Bank’s disrespect for the property rights of Third World citizens, a disrespect deeply embedded in the bank’s policy guidelines, its economic analyses, and its mind set about development. As David Hopper, a former senior vice‐​president in charge of policy, planning and research at the World Bank, once explained, “You can’t have development without somebody getting hurt for the benefits that are going to accrue.” Underlying that attitude, which pervades the World Bank, is a belief that development creates winners and losers. The role of government — and the bank — is to decide who will win and who will lose, to strike a balance.

The World Bank Dams China

To give you an idea of just how many losers the World Bank is prepared to create in pursuit of purported benefits, consider the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River in China.

Back in 1986 the Canadian International Development Agency financed a $14 million feasibility study for the Three Gorges dam, and the World Bank supervised the study to ensure its soundness. The Canadian engineers who carried it out recommended that the dam be built at a height that would displace three quarters of a million people — more than the entire population of Washington, D.C. The benefits of doing so outweighed the costs, they claimed.

When we at Probe International heard of the engineers’ conclusion, we were stunned. So we thought we had better have a look at the calculations. We applied through the Canadian Access to Information Act for a copy of the Three Gorges Feasibility Study, and eventually we got it, despite the engineers’ efforts to keep it secret. I might say here that the Canadian government hoped that the Three Gorges Feasibility Study would lead to “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of business for Canada.” As for the engineering firms — which included SNC‐​Lavalin, Acres, Hydro‐​Quebec International, and British Columbia Hydro International — well, it was pretty obvious that they expected lucrative contracts if the dam were built.

Once we had the feasibility study, we contacted nine colleagues from around the world — an engineer, an economist, a chemical limnologist, and other experts — and we asked them to go through the feasibility study carefully and write a critique of it. Their findings were published in the book Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam‐​Builders Don’t Want You to Know. What they found was shocking.

The feasibility study was inconsistent, systematically biased, inaccurate, ans incomplete. For example, the project would make economic sense only if 500,000 people were left in the active flood storage area around the perimeter of the reservoir, where they, of course would be flooded. As for the submerges spillway bays — 27 in all and each one with the average flow of the Missouri River — the engineers were confident the could design, construct, and operate them, even though their size would be “well beyond proven world experience.” When it came to predicting the dam’s flood benefits — its main purpose — the engineers had to guess because the date were not available for a proper hydrodynamic analysis.

The expected costs and benefits of the development scheme, as it turns out were based on unsubstantiated engineering and compromised economics, not on the values that the winners and losers would arrive at under a regime in which the property rights of the victims were upheld. By declaring open season on the property of individuals and communities in the name of ill‐​defined and unprovable development benefits, governments and governmental institutions — such as the Chinese government, the World Bank, and CIDA — severed the development process from the values of the citizenry that would otherwise shape it.

On April 3, 1992, China’s National People’s Congress approved the Three Gorges dam, so high that it will now displace 1.3 million people. According to a leaked Chinese government security document, the resettlement operation, which has already forcibly moved 100,000 people, is “spawning outrage among resettlers.” The authors (public security cadres) recommend that the opposition be dealt with by a “swifter and heavier punishment policy.”

Property Rights Empower People

Ah, some readers may be thinking, if only India and China had environmental assessment procedures to allow the affected public to participate in crucial decisions, everything would be fine. I’m afraid not. Here’s why.

Environmental assessment procedures tend to entrench the rights of the wrong people — governments, regulators, international institutions, and environmental assessment boards — to make decisions to destroy other people’s environments. As long as final decisions are made by proponents or third parties, not by the individuals and communities who will pay the environmental price, the decision making system is corruptible by the political interests of decision makers. Local interests and those of future generations are almost certain to be sacrificed to “national interests” or to some abstract and specious “greater interest.” A decision making system is inherently illegitimate and failure prone when the rights of victims are subordinated to the rights of proponents.

We have discovered by participating in environmental assessment hearings that it is relatively painless for proponents of destructive endeavors — often government bodies — to go through an environmental review and then to proceed with the project much as they had originally intended, because at the end of the day, the decision is theirs. Environmental assessments thus become a cruel charade at the expense of the victims who are forced to plead but are not allowed to decide.

As long as rights are not properly identified, enshrined in law, and enforced, the balancing act between winners and losers will be prone to serious miscalculations. If losers in the development process are inevitable, as the World Bank seems to believe, then the winners never have to compensate the losers. Indeed, there is no limit to the number of losers that an unaccountable decision making system can create, as the Three Gorges dam illustrates so tragically.

The best insurance against careless decision making is to empower those who have to live with the environmental consequences of a decision, who have the most information about how their environment works and the most incentive to protect it for future generations. It means putting legal bite behind the universal NIMBY — or Not in My Back Yard — instinct.

That means a radical decentralization of decision making Decisions will often be based on ecosystems, or property as Third World activists call it — on land, air, water, and forest systems.

“Progress” vs. Tradition in Thailand

In much of the Third World decentralized decision making does not have to be invented; it already exists. Take Thailand, for example. Before the World Bank and other international institutions came bringing “development,” the millions of villagers who lived along northern Thailand’s swiftly flowing rivers understood that they depended upon one another. Each community needed its river to irrigate its crops, water its animals, and provide for its members’ personal needs. To ensure that everyone got clean water, communities negotiated rules governing who received how much water and when, and they implemented those rules through adjustable weirs made of bamboo and teak poles. By adding or removing poles, by raising or lowering the weirs’ height, by scouring the river and irrigation beds, they rationed water to all users with uncanny precision.

Land‐​use practices along the river were everybody’s business because they affected rates of erosion, and thus contamination of the river and irrigation systems. Upland forests, vital to bringing the rains each season and controlling runoff, could not be cut without permission. Upkeep of the 1,000-year-oldmuang faai

water management system, as it is still called, was proportional to landholding. Taxes to maintain the system were paid in the form of labor. The principle that everyone receive enough water to survive — an ancient version of the modern‐​day “social safety net” — was paramount. In dry years those with the most distant plots would receive water first; rice, a subsistence crop, had precedence over cash crops.

Out of that shared sense of dependence came a political structure that provided what would be called “due process” by modern legal theory: elected irrigation committees, guided by a duty to preserve the river for existing and future generations, had formal responsibility for monitoring water distribution and administering weir and channel maintenance. Theft of water and unauthorized cutting of forests were punishable by fines that, because they had a social stigma attached to them, were never treated as a mere cost of doing business.

Muang faai, which survives in much of Thailand, amounts to a system of property rights in which rights and responsibilities have been finely tuned over the centuries to maintain equity, protect the environment, and promote prosperity. Though hardly idyllic, frequently conflict‐​ridden, and constantly adapting through trial and error and discussion, the system was accountable and worked well to protect those who lived along the river, and the river itself.

Then came progress. Thai government officials, armed with foreign money, concrete, and plans for a Green Revolution, started arriving in the 1950s to replace the old‐​fashioned bamboo weirs with concrete barrages. Those who depended upon the river could no longer regulate it along its path. A giant dam and reservoir upstream, under the control of the Royal Irrigation Department in Bangkok, would control the flow.

As the river communities of Thailand lost control over their environment, their economy began to fail. Traditional crops, found in ecological niches along the river valley and dependent upon timely irrigation, could no longer be grown by the riverine farmers. Even the new varieties of seed were risky. Unknown and unknowable government authorities could simply not be trusted to provide water at the right time. Nor could they be trusted to manage the rest of the bioregion accountably. Remote government officials began dispensing contracts to dam rivers and log watersheds. The once law‐​abiding riverine communities, witnessing the government’s arbitrary licensing of logging, soon took to logging the forests themselves. As the complex, locally regulated property‐​rights regime disintegrated, so too did the economy and the environment: with deforestation, silt clogged the rivers and irrigation canals, reducing them to sludge in the dry season and causing them to flood in the rainy seasons. With water so uncertain, many farmers simply gave up growing crops.

What had once been a river ecology, use of which was regulated for common purposes, became a lawless commons to exploit in the name of progress.

Property Rights in the First World

Canada is not that much different from Thailand. My colleagues in Probe have often argued to Canada’s logging industry, mining industry, nuclear industry, and oil and the gas industry that better property rights would protect the citizens’ land, air, water, and forests. How do those industries, which have come to expect to exercise the power to expropriate and pollute with impunity, react? Like Chicken Little.

“Grandmothers would hold us hostage before letting us drill on their land,” said the oil industry.

“We’ll never get anything done,” said the gas industry. “When we want to lay a pipeline through native lands we have to operate on their schedule, and they have their own concept of time.”

“People have too many property rights as it is,” mining executives have been known to moan. “People complain about everything. They complain about noise and about debris from our blasting operations landing on their property.”

Chicken Little said the sky would fall. Those executives say we will all have to go back to the cave.

What utter nonsense! If the rights of the losers and the responsibilities of the winners are enforced, I have confidence that the ingenuity of engineers and the drive of entrepreneurs will serve to meet the needs and desires of society’s members without doing so at the expense of each other and each other’s environment.

Whether you are a farmer from India or Elmira, from a river community in northern Thailand or northern Ontario, a resident of Toronto or Shanghai, or a member of the Cree or Pehuenche First Nation, you want to decide what risks to take with your environment. You want your land rights recognized; you want your right to a clean, safe, and sustainable environment recognized; and you want the necessary legal and political tools to defend those rights.

Fairly and finely tuned property‐​rights regimes should incorporate environmental costs, and the values that individuals and communities place on their environment, into economic transactions by giving potential victims the legal power to make environmental destroyers pay or go away. Ultimately, a good propertyrights regime would decentralize power so decisions would reflect the prudence and knowledge of individuals and communities, and the complexity of the bioregions we are all trying to save.

About the Author
Patricia Adams