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)

Dividing the Commons: Politics, Policy, and Culture in Botswana by Pauline Peters. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. xv + pp. 273, index.

Reviewed by Dan Bauer, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Lafayette College.

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 groups.

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, farms, etc.

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.

References Cited:

Bauer, Dan

1987. The Dynamics of Communal and Hereditary Land Tenure among the Tigray of Ethiopia. In The Question of the Commons: The Culture and Ecology of Communal Resources, ed. B. J. McCay and J. M. Acheson, 217-30. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Hardin, Garrett

1968. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162:1243-1248.

Weber, Max

1946. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, translated by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. London: Oxford University Press.