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Around 65 percent of Earth's land and vast tracts of the ocean are composed of common-pool resources — areas like forests, fisheries, and irrigation systems to which many people have access. These common resources pose a sustainability challenge: they are susceptible to overconsumption, so communities need effective governance strategies. While examples of successful governance exist, the circumstances and mechanisms behind their development have often faded from records and memories, obscuring the processes of how such governance arises.

A new study in Nature Sustainability lays out a simulation model to examine the emergence, stability, and temporal dynamics of collective property rights. The paper is co-authored by SFI External Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology and Boise State University.

The paper “Evolving Ostrom’s first principle” builds on the work of Nobel Prize laureate and former SFI Science Board member Elinor Ostrom. For several decades, community-based natural resource management has been dominated by the importance of Ostrom’s design principles for successful management. The new study sheds light on the cultural emergence, persistence, and dissolution of collective property rights built to govern natural resources. The evolutionary focus of the paper shifts the discussion around natural resource governance from questions such as 'How important are each of the design principles to successful resource governance?' to 'How, where, when, and why might such principles emerge?'

“Shifting attention to the conditions under which institutions emerge and persist opens up a whole new set of questions and answers,” says Monique Borgerhoff Mulder. “This model highlights not only the well-acknowledged role of conflict in undercutting community sustainable management norms but also the much more surprising positive effects of competition, and particularly competition between different communities. What is exciting is that we can now provide some explanation for the continuing emergence and spread of cooperative forest management institutions across Pemba island to our colleagues in the Department of Forestry in Zanzibar, where we conduct our empirical work on these dynamics.”

“More generally,” she adds, “learning how to leverage the potential positive consequences of competition over the harvest of Zanzibar’s community forests can directly help our collaborators, policy-makers and other institutions responsible for implementation.”

The team's modeling framework elucidates three critical system features: First, collective property rights most likely evolved sequentially — certain puzzle pieces must be in place before others can evolve. Groups must secure borders and then focus on successful internal regulation. Second, support for both institutions that regulate access and harvests is subject to cyclical trends of waxing and waning support. Third, learning from 'out-groups' is critical to identifying sustainable practices and improving regulatory policies — a group in isolation or only looking at its own performance is often doomed.

Read the paper “Evolving Ostrom’s first principle: The cultural evolution of collective property rights in sustainable resource governance” by Jeffrey Andrews, Matthew Clark, Vicken Hillis, and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder in Nature Sustainability (February 19, 2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-024-01290-1