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Governing Access to Essential Resources

Monday, October 28, 2013 to Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Center on Global Legal Transformation at Columbia Law School launched a multiyear research project on Governing Access to Essential Resources From New York to Mumbai, Nairobi and Beyond, jointly organized with Olivier De Schutter, University of Louvain Law School.

The first step was a workshop held in New York on 21/22 June 2013. It brought together researchers and advocates with diverse disciplinary and geographic backgrounds to explore the theoretical challenges of governing access to essential resources.

We need alternative approaches to governing essential, scarce resources that focus not exclusively on economic returns productivity, but also on equity and sustainability.

The second stage of the project will contextualize this debate by bringing it to regions of the world that have seen essential resources dwindle and are grappling with the question how best to govern them. We are currently envisioning workshops at Columbia’s global center in Mumbai, India, Nairobi Kenya, and Rio, Brazil to be held in 2014/2015. We will convene a two-day workshop at each site for up to 30 participants drawn from academia and policy circles. The workshop shall form a central node for debates and policy strategies that are grounded in local experience and practices yet take advantage of experience and theoretical insights from elsewhere. To this end, participants will be drawn not only from the region where the workshop is held, but also from elsewhere.

The third stage of the project will implement the research proposals and policy strategies discussed at the regional workshops and expand the regional and global network of academics and policy makers participating in this debate. In addition, we environ a global conference at Columbia University.

A number of factors have led to dramatically increased pressure on land and the essential resources it harbors: population growth and a corresponding rise in demand for agricultural and other commodities; competing uses of land between different forms of agriculture, resource extraction, large-scale industrial projects and urban sprawl; environmental degradation from climate change and unsustainable practices; and trade and investment liberalization, among others. As a result, water, food and shelter are increasingly considered scarce and subjected to commercial pressures that make them inaccessible to many.

Private property rights regimes have traditionally been considered the most effective institutional arrangement to allocate scarce goods and combat what has been termed the “tragedy of the commons” – the depletion of scarce common resources by actors who disregard the carrying capacity of the land and bear no costs for their actions. Individual property rights regimes lead to allocation of land to the highest bidder, who is presumed to put the land to its most efficient use. But conversion to private property regimes has also resulted in widespread displacement of small holders and indigenous people and the exclusion of many others from access to resources essential to their livelihoods.

Two well-studied alternatives to private property rights are collective governance by local authorities and centralized control. However, neither fully addresses the problems of scarce, essential goods. Collective governance is limited by a community’s ability to manage collective action problems, but the governance issues we are facing are those of a heterogeneous world with high social mobility and rapidly changing social norms. Similarly, centralized control depends on the authority and wisdom of the central decision-maker, who may lack local knowledge and accountability. Political voice might address problems of accountability, but how to organize voice in a global world remains an open question.

In short, we need alternative approaches to governing essential, scarce resources that focus not exclusively on economic returns productivity, but also on equity (universal access to those resources that are essential for human life); and sustainability (arrangements that do not unduly interfere with future productivity or availability of essentials). In a scoping paper developed for the stage 1 workshop, Pistor and DeSchutter develop a new conceptual framework for addressing these issues, the “triangulation” or property rights.


Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law


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