January 31, 2006

What should parks be?

On the morning of 18 May 2005, 14 pickup trucks with about 150 people armed with machetes, pistols, rifles, shotguns, and automatic weapons rolled into a camp in the eastern part of the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre, Guatemala. At 338,000 ha it is the largest national park in Central America and an important RAMSAR site.
Thus begins an editorial by Kent H. Redford, John G. Robinson and William M. Adams in the latest issue of Conservation Biology. The armed gang belonged to villages illegally established within the park. They took four hostages; the regional governor promised them a school, technical assistance, and a road into the heart of the park; and they released the hostages.
Although the violence of this case may be unusual, the complexity of the scenario is not.
Conflicts of interest arise regarding land uses within parks. Redford et al. argue that we can't solve these conflicts until we recognize that
parks fit into a variety of categories and incorporate people and their economic endeavors in different ways. Parks set out to achieve different things, and they suit different situations.
This, however, does not eliminate conflict. People that regard themselves as parties to a park will disagree about the policy decisions for that particular park, and there is no way to make all of them happy. As the example above illustrates, when the government has the last word it is likely to adopt the policy that benefits the party that shouts loudest.

A solution is to leave the matter to the people who value the park most. The only way to know who values something most is to have well-defined and ample property rights. I. e., people must be able to buy and sell their property and use it as they see fit. Once you have a market, the land ends up in the hands of the people who find that land most valuable. And those people will use that land in the most valuable way.

Skeptics of markets counter that markets work if there are no externalities, and no transaction costs, and perfect information, and so on and so forth. They say that markets don't work in the case of nature conservation; that, as private individuals can't do the job, governments must intervene. But public parks are not a success. In theory they could work - they could preserve pieces of land for valuable social uses. They do not because government management suffers from poor information, enormous bureaucratic costs, and all sorts of externalities.

Proponents of state intervention also forget how often governments unjustifiably destroy natural resources. In Laguna del Tigre the government subsidizes wildland encroachment by building roads and schools, and giving "technical assistance". Once you let governments do things, they do good and bad things. But mostly, I am afraid, bad things.

Skeptics of markets think that people just don't work for the public good; that no landowner will use his or her land for the public good. They miss the fact that public parks exist because many people spend their time, effort and money to lobby for parks. Environmentalists profess to work for the public good. Ample and well-enforced property rights would allow them, and everybody else, to own land and care for it.

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