Tree Owners are Tree Huggers

by on February 12, 2007 at 7:15 am in Economics | Permalink

The big story in Niger is not uranium but trees.  According to an interesting article in the NYTimes:

Recent studies of vegetation patterns, based on detailed satellite
images and on-the-ground inventories of trees, have found that Niger, a
place of persistent hunger and deprivation, has recently added millions
of new trees and is now far greener than it was 30 years ago.

These
gains, moreover, have come at a time when the population of Niger has
exploded, confounding the conventional wisdom that population growth
leads to the loss of trees and accelerates land degradation, scientists
studying Niger say.

And the key to this growth?   Property rights.

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial
times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the
state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were
chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the
environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure
the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to
police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

But over time,
farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property,
and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that
outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from
the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those
sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree
for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

Won February 12, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Alex,

Great pointing out that this phenomenon hinges on the existence and enforcement of property rights. This is interesting because property rights in general seem to be a factor in incentivizing development in a lot of contexts; I don’t remember if it was De Soto who pointed this out but in Latin America, slums of squatters were turned into viable, sustainable neighborhoods virtually over just a few years because they were granted title, and in turn had a vested interest in their property, felt responsibility for maintaining it, etc.

And in a limited way, it has been pointed out that one of the rationales behind housing vouchers here in the states, is that compared to urban housing projects, actual ownership has a huge beneficial impact on neighborhoods; i.e. people take care of their homes and are more responsible for maintaining their facades, are more deeply vested, etc. Whether or not it works is a different story, but in any case very interesting.

alex February 12, 2007 at 2:53 pm

This post is unlikely to be convincing to anyone concerned about environmentalism. What will happen should the ratio between the prices of fruit/wood in the world market change? The farmers may realize it maximizes their profits to chop down the trees and then bye-bye forest.

People who care about the environment tend to look for systematic ways to protect it (which usually involves government oversight in countries where the level of corruption is low enough), rather than protection measures which only work if the world prices for various goods are in the right range.

Keith February 12, 2007 at 3:40 pm

“This post is unlikely to be convincing to anyone concerned about environmentalism.”

Your wording is exactly correct. Those concerned with “being environmentalists” may not be convinced, those concerned with the actual environment might find it more convincing.

Matt Tievsky February 12, 2007 at 5:29 pm

Alex: “What will happen should the ratio between the prices of fruit/wood in the world market change? The farmers may realize it maximizes their profits to chop down the trees and then bye-bye forest.”

Which also happens if the gov’t owns the trees and can’t (because of high enforcement costs) or won’t (because its preferences mirror the farmers’) enforce conservation.

The difference is that, if the farmers own the trees, at least they have an incentive to ensure there’ll be trees next year.

Virginia Postrel February 12, 2007 at 10:16 pm

Note that the change in behavior and property-rights customs happened before the change in the legal regime.

kurt February 12, 2007 at 10:47 pm

I wonder if Hernando De Soto had any influence on this process in Niger. Anyone knows?

David M. Brown February 14, 2007 at 2:06 pm

>…economic incentives heralded by the article depend on a whole host of factors, like the price of “branches, pods, fruit and bark” or the gains of using the land for commercial developement.<

Seems that per “alex,” if markets which improve human well-being are involved, any attendant preservation and enhancement of environmental resources can’t possibly be valid. The incentives comprise a “whole host of factors,” you see — untethered to the bureaucratically cobbled central plan you “really” need to husband resources without consideration of merely human purposes. From this perspective, it’s perpetually traumatic both that central planning chronically fails, and that market processes chronically succeed. Reality isn’t cooperating with the way it’s “supposed” to be. Reality is “supposed” to be the kind of place in which no relationship whatever obtains between the stuff that persons can call their own and the care they take with that stuff.

george howell March 7, 2007 at 5:06 pm

Interesting discussion.

Property rights need to be discussed in the context of natural capital accounting. .

I am all for property rights for natural capital resources. However, I believe the should be held collectively.

We also have to look at this from the other way around. Property rights also give you title to degrade the bit of land that you own. How about a degradation tax.

Hypothetically, an agency representing the collective natural property rights of country could force businesses that are only profitable because of their environmental cost shifting to internalise their environmental costs of production.

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