|This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on October, 2001.||
Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
Commons: Politics, Policy, and Culture in Botswana by Pauline Peters.
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. xv + pp. 273, index.
Pauline Peters "Dividing the
Commons" is many things. It is a descriptive analysis of political
processes surrounding access to herding resources (land and water) in
Botswana over this century. It is also an attempt to further debate on
development policy itself, through a masterful analysis of an ethnographic
and historical example. Two features are instrumental in uniting the work:
Garrett Hardin s paradigm of the "tragedy of the commons," and
the image of the fence as the device that either makes good neighbors,
or divides us from one another, and from ourselves. Hardin s famous 1968
model of the "tragedy of the commons" is seductively simple.
In using common resources it is always to the individual s interest to
add an increment of use to the common property because that individual
gets the whole return on that increment but shares with the community
the cost of the reduced common resource. For example, should ten of us
be using a field that optimally supports ten cows with each owning a single
cow the system is in good shape. However, it is to my individual advantage
to add a second cow. Eleven cows will overgraze the field a little, reducing
the milk yield from each cow, but I have two of the reduced portions.
Since each individual is in this situation, the commons will inevitably
be destroyed. This paradigm has been applied to every conceivable resource,
from global warming to talking loudly in the theater. Pauline Peters writes
a contemporary history of the process of dividing the commons as it has
been applied in the herding-dominated nation of Botswana.
Peters argues that we cannot understand
the establishment and dismemberment of the commons in Botswana without
analyzing the three forces of her subtitle: politics, policy, and culture.
Implicit in the analysis is the assumption that one must also understand
the ecology of herding in the region. Peters devoted an intensive period
of fieldwork (1979-80) to firsthand observation of politics in the district
of Kgatleng in southeast Botswana. The detailed understanding of the positions
of local leaders she provides makes it clear why the commons did not evolve
into quite the tragedy Hardin might have envisioned. When boreholes (wells
for watering animals) were established, it ended the material restriction
on herd expansion imposed by shortages of water. One might have expected
that overgrazing would have followed. Local leaders interests, however,
were not merely financial but also partly political. They benefited to
some degree both from exclusivity and from greater inclusion. As political
leaders, they needed both the support of the people who would benefit
from rights to borehole access being narrowly defined and the support
of those with an interest in inclusion. The complexity met by local political
leaders coping with a variety of interests moderated the tendency to move
toward the Hardin tragedy.
Beyond the balancing act of local
politics, Peters sees policy as having equally important effects. The
speed at which boreholes were established was largely the result of the
development policies of the protectorate in the 1930s. Policy is subject
to more than local forces. Policy is characterized by debate, debates
over such issues as how best to develop unexploited resources, over the
virtues, or deficiencies, of native land-tenure systems, or over the means
to protect fragile environments. Such policy debates are influenced, not
just by the problems emerging on the regional scene, but also by the larger
debates of the period. Such debates are formed in the larger cultural
arena of policy makers. The author examines the shifting discourse found
in government documents of the 1930s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. She does
this to the end of "...draw(ing) out their logic more explicitly
than they do themselves and to show how these expert statements are marshaled
to explain, guide, and justify a series of administrative and political
actions" (Peters 1994: 19). For example, the failures of the Tribal
Grazing Policy of 1975 are traced by Peters to an inappropriate application
of the thesis of Hardin s Tragedy paradigm and to a distorted view of
herd and range management as it was practiced by Tswana herders. Culture
comes into play in two major ways. In some time periods, we can see the
culture of policy makers as dominated by the Hardin paradigm. Policy makers
also lacked a thorough understanding of culture (of Tswana practices).
Peters sees these cultural features as contributing to policy failure.
Culture comes into the analysis in other interesting ways as well.
That the chief has been cast as
a "hero" in Tswana culture constrains what chiefs can and cannot
do, as well as how others must deal with them. It, of course, also effects
how colonial figures and their policies were received, and even how they
view themselves. The larger-than-life, 1930s resident commissioner Lieutenant
Colonel Charles Rey comes across as having a view of himself and his job
that had a powerful parallel with the Tswana depiction of chief at that
point in history.
From a theoretical perspective,
"Dividing the Commons" is not explicitly Weberian. Nevertheless,
Pauline Peters work resonates nicely for those of us steeped in that tradition.
The analysis makes the historical influence of ideas central without ignoring
the roles played by the more material factors of economics and ecology.
The analysis portrays the historical process behind current grazing policy
as having parallels with that of the nineteenth century enclosures of
English history. In such historical processes, parties contend over the
very meanings of things and acts, as well as wealth itself. To fence or
not to fence creates and destroys wealth, and it alters or maintains the
way people relate to one another as members of communities and of status
The organization of the book gives
us a good understanding of the work s breadth and depth. The work begins
with an analysis of the historical process that transformed the precolonial
state, called the "Morafe," first into a colonial reserve and
then into a district. Seeing Morafe s organization as a named political
and cultural entity under a chief with an internal structure rank and
wealth is essential to the understanding of the events that followed.
As we might expect, the precolonial states were not simply replaced with
Western administrative structure, but went through a transformation characterized
by political maneuvering by actors on all sides. Pauline Peters represents
the 1930s as a watershed in water development. This was the period of
the great depression and of great development in the form of boreholes.
One senses that it was also a period of great dramas, a little like that
depicted in John Huston s film, "Chinatown," set in water-starved
southern California. As with any process involving major resources, boreholes
created both beneficiaries and privileged. The terms of what has become
the debate were set in the 1950s and 1960s. Were policies causing degradation
instead of development? And, looking back, was the British government
motivated by concerns over such issues as the causes of overgrazing or
by imperialistic ambitions? Who would pay? Should access to resources
be public or private?
We are then presented with cattle
herding as it appears to those attempting to cope with making a living
from cattle: to family strategies, intrafamily strategies and syndicates.
The critical issues revolve around access to water and pasturage, and
to who and what should be fixed or mobile. The situation is perhaps not
as dramatic as that described by Evans-Pritchard for the Nuer, where the
flooding and receding of the Nile places pasturage at times under water,
and at other times too far from water. In Botswana, individuals and groups
feel that they are hemmed in by a rising tide of other entities: syndicates,
Peters moves from the level of families,
where negotiation over cattle is a major focus, to the level of syndicates.
At this level negotiation focuses on competing claims to access to water
and pasture. Syndicates, like other organizations, are faced with the
problem of regulating numbers. In the simplest terms, with too few members
it is difficult to defend claims; with too many, prosperity is threatened.
Tensions must be resolved over what constitutes membership, who are heirs,
and the rights of hired labor. It was in the context of the contradictions
engendered by tensions over grazing and water claims that The Tribal Grazing
Land Policy of 1975 was promulgated. The other key context for the development
of this policy is the paradigm of the tragedy of the commons. Framing
the argument in this way placed the blame for overuse on traditional practices
and sets a foundation for exclusive rights. In complex ways these more
exclusive rights to borehole access confounded with grazing rights helped
create greater degrees of social inequality.
"Dividing the Commons"
successfully allows us to understand the historical activity through which
the commons are being divided in Botswana through examining the perspectives
of actors at all levels of the process, from the herding family to those
involved over more abstract issues of policy. The book is of interest
to those focused on southern Africa, to those devoted to policy, and to
those struggling to successfully place local ethnography in larger contexts.