Property rights are essential in western market societies and often taken for granted. They are ubiquitous and we do not question them. They are also a crucial element in the discussion of natural resource management.
Photo by Kevin Grecksch, 'Speicherbeckeen'
Many would see property rights as ‘natural’ – yet they are far from natural. They express a social relationship that is very specific to western liberal democracies. For instance, many indigenous people have a concept of property and possession that does not serve the individual but society. It is often based on customary law with complex structures and rules to protect and regulate access to natural resources and the knowledge about it.
Property rights have been the subject of study of almost all well-known political theorists and philosophers. No matter if we talk about Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, property rights always form an intricate part of the social contract that defines the relationship between individuals and the state. For John Locke, a key justiﬁcation in favour of property rights is that the state guarantees the exclusiveness of a property and defends a person’s right to it. To this day Locke’s justification is a cornerstone of political and economic reasoning in the United States of America. To question property rights is to question the very reason of the state.
In recent decades, property rights have been discussed mainly within a law and economics framework, thereby neglecting other perspectives. With environmental and societal challenges such as climate change reaching the top of political and social agendas, property rights may prove again to be a crucial issue. However, we find that the concept is still used in a simplistic manner. Good examples of this one-dimensional interpretation are The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an initiative with focus on the economic beneﬁts of biodiversity, and the Nagoya Protocol on the fair and equitable sharing of beneﬁts arising from the utilisation of genetic resources. Both reduce the value of natural resources to its economic value and the introduction of property rights is seen as a panacea, thereby paying little or no attention to the social and cultural value of natural resources.
Hence, a new perspective, taking into account narratives surrounding property could provide useful insights and add to the mere administrative and regulatory perspective of property rights. Narratives are people’s accounts of events by which they or others were affected. They often come in the form of stories. In the context of property rights, narratives look at stories told about property rights, at how people see themselves and others in this social construct, at stereotypes, collective memory and how property inﬂuences identities – especially collective identities.
Hence, property rights may exist and they provide legal certainty, but they are not the end of the story. People have an attachment to nature, to places and often refer to ‘my river’ or ‘my forest’. Successful adaptation to climate change should take these narratives into account. In addition, people often have a deep knowledge about natural resources in their area and tapping into this knowledge could prove to be very useful, and also support acceptance and legitimacy of climate change adaptation measures.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Grecksch, K. and Holzhausen, J. (2020). Who owns our natural resources?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-and-subject-groups/property-law/blog/2020/01/who-owns-our-natural-resources (Accessed [date])