The history of property-based environmental governance (Late eighteenth century-present; Europe, the U.S.A, the colonial and post-colonial countries)

Systems of property are a central authority which institutionalise the environment: they define its legitimate use, implement its exploitation and protection, and transform it according to ownership constraints and criteria. Thus, in a single engaging movement of symbiosis with human societies, property reshapes both anthropized areas and social relationships.

GOVENPRO explores this question from a specific angle. The project studies the history of property-based environmental governance from the late eighteenth century up to the present, in three different parts of the world: Europe, the United States and the colonial and postcolonial countries. The phrase designates the range of practice, knowledge and equipment that provide the guidelines for the use of property in three specific directions: organising the exploitation of natural resources; ensuring their availability and sustainability; countering the effects of human activity deemed deleterious (such as preservation, conservation and mitigation). The objective is to analyse from a historical perspective these specific types or forms of environmental governance, their impact on ecosystems and human communities, the conflicts they generate, and their economic, social and political dimensions.

For this purpose GOVENPRO has brought together an international team (whose members are from France, USA, Holland and England) comprising a majority of historians, and also economists, anthropologists and political scientists who adopt a temporal approach to their subjects of research.

A broad concept of property underpins the project. It views property systems as a range of institutions of a legal, technical, political, administrative and theoretical nature. For each specific context, these institutions interact to produce a bundle of rights and capabilities to take action over environmental issues. This broad and specifically located concept matches the global methodological approach of GOVENPRO. It is based on the analysis of concrete historical cases in order to apprehend, beyond normative aspects, the complex processes brought about by property-based environmental governance for given situations.

Although some of its practices, knowledge and equipment have already been partially studied in certain research agendas, the history of property-based environmental governance has never been studied for its own sake. But this project aims to study them systematically and understand their relationship of interdependency as a whole via a thematic, spatial and chronological framework of great magnitude. This emanates from a specific choice. First, GOVENPRO focuses on the entire contemporary period up to the present. Although certain aspects of property-based environmental governance have been studied so far, this has been in a rather segmented, over brief periods and with a strong disconnect between the period before 1945 and the post-war era. However, the aim of this project is to consider the long-term trajectories of these forms of governance, to characterise the changes, discontinuities and disruptions, permanence and continuity, and also at the same time shed light on the contemporary situation and the long history of socio-ecosystems. The second specific choice is that of a wide spatial framework. The project has been conceived in particular to provide global and comparative perspectives on three major legal fields (Roman-civil law, common law and colonial law); on a variety of economic systems, including post-socialist Russia and Vietnam; on historical situations comparing written rights and customary rights in nineteenth century Europe and in colonial and postcolonial countries.

The project focuses on four main areas:

  • The history of the different forms of Public policies and regulations influencing the environment by means of property (from the systems which have been used by different States for a long time, such as expropriation and servitude, to the recent bringing in of intellectual property rights on living organisms, in the name of economic development and/or environmental protection).
  • The long history of the environmental Commons, the institutional mechanisms that have generated a wave of research in the social sciences, in ecology and in developmental science over the last ten years, and for which GOVENPRO is going to deploy a systematic program of research for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • The environmental history of enclosure patterns and ownership of ecosystems and resources, explored from a comparative and a long-term perspective.
  • Social and political history of theories and ideas linking environment and property, from Adam Smith to Elinor Ostrom, which represent an essential dimension for the history of environmental thinking, never studied as such, but which have nevertheless been influential in guiding, within a historical context, concrete practices of property-based environmental governance.

The GOVENPRO project is funded by the French National Research Agency under its attribution scheme. It associates its main partners EHESS and the Centre for Historical Research with the PALOC unit of the Institute of Research for Development (IRD).