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The economics of Cain and Abel: Agro-pastoral property rights in the Sahel

by Rogier van den Brink
Agriculture and Environment Operations Division, Southern Africa
Department, World Bank.

Daniel W. Bromley (E-mail:
Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Jean-Paul Chavas
Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Posted with permission of the authors: Professor Daniel Bromley and Dr Rogier van den Brink
[Download complete version - 107Kb ~ 1 min (39 pages)]     [ Share with a friend  ]

The complementarity of the economic systems of nomads and farmers is often overshadowed by the conflicts inherent in the competition over the control of land. The conflict is one of property rights. A dynamic programming model of the West African Sahel is presented that simulates the emergence of a dual economy based on the comparative advantage of the farmer and the pastoralist. The model illustrates that exclusive private property rights have no claim to optimality. The analysis of risk in an intertemporal framework suggests the optimality of another type of property right - the right to flexible adjustment typically claimed by the pastoralist. Multiple property regimes provide optimal settings for farmers and pastoralists.


Some say that the quarrel arose at Earth's division between the brothers, in which all land fell to Cain, but all birds, beasts and creeping things to Abel. They agreed that neither should have any claim on the other's possessions. As soon as this pact had been concluded Cain, who was tilling a field, told Abel to move his flocks way. When Abel replied that they would not harm the tillage, Cain caught up a weapon and ran in vengeful pursuit across mountain and valley, until he overtook and killed him [Graves and Patai, 1964: 91].

We draw on the story of Cain and Abel to focus attention on the differing property rights regimes inherent in sedentary agriculture and in pastoralism. This perspective is necessary in light of the recent rather widespread belief among development experts that private--individualized--and exclusive title to land in Africa is the sine qua non of improved economic performance [Feder and Noronha, 1987; Feder and Feeny, 1991]. This new perspective is also timely given the recent developments in property rights theory, particularly with respect to land uses at the extensive margin [Bromley, 1992, 1991, 1989; Bromley and Cernea, 1989; National Academy of Sciences, 1986; Larson and Bromley, 1990; McCay and Acheson, 1987]. Finally, this perspective strongly amplifies the recent developments in the field of rangeland management suggesting the need for more flexible strategies of natural resource use [Cousins, 1992; Behnke and Scoones, 1991].

The conflict between Cain - the farmer - and Abel - the herder- should be understood as one of property rights. In agriculture as well as livestock production, property rights emerge to secure income streams generated by production activities. The nature of the income stream, then, may affect the type of property right that is likely to be established. The crucial difference between sedentary farming and nomadic livestock production is that they differ in ability to react ex post to temporal uncertainty; in other words, they differ in flexibility.i

Unfortunately, property rights essential for livestock production in the Sahel have been eroded by a long history of conflicts. More recently, a number of state interventions that expropriated pastoralists of property rights crucial to their economic systems have clearly favored farmers over pastoralists in the allocation of private property rights. These changes have created general uncertainty over property rights to natural resources, thereby inducing a de facto open access situation. The resulting tragedy of open access, induced by public policy, has substantially increased the costs of running the pastoralist economy (i.e. its transaction costs) and adversely affected the pastoralists' ability to overcome periods of drought. Ever since the publication of Sen's [1981] seminal essay on the relation between famines and Entitlements, the implications of the loss of property rights to the Sahelian nomads need no further elaboration.

In this paper we develop the case for property regimes as instrumental variables in development policy, and we show that highly diverse and variable agricultural ecosystems demand property regimes that allow quick human response to new exigencies. We establish the microeconomic relationship between environmental variability, choice of technique, and property rights in a dynamic, partial equilibrium context. We demonstrate the importance of flexibility as an optimal strategic response of individuals faced with input uncertainty and develop a model simulating a dual economy that arises as the result of rational choice by individuals faced with temporal uncertainty. Such rational choice includes the choice of optimal property rights regimes which allow capture of the income streams of techniques appropriate for a particular agroecosystem.

The model, while in the vein of Demsetz [1967], does not lead us to conclude that exclusive private (individualized) property rights in land are necessarily optimal. Given spatio-temporal risk, other types of property regimes may be more appropriate. Over-exploitation of natural resources in the Sahel has often been associated with the introduction of techniques that allowed for a more intensive use of a given range without the formulation of the type of property rights regimes that could regulate and coordinate such use. As development policies reassess the role livestock in Africa and elsewhere, it is essential that programs be formulated with clarity and coherence so as to avoid the mistakes of the past when "private" or "group" ranches were regarded as the solution to pastoralist "problems."

In the second section of the paper we develop a theoretical model of the dual economy of Cain - the farmer - and Abel - the nomad. The Biblical parallel is used to emphasize both urgency and universality of the problem. The model simulates a dual economy based on the comparative advantages of two different production techniques faced with environmental uncertainty. An economic theory of optimal production techniques and property rights is developed in a context of dynamic risk. In the third section we use the model to describe the agro-pastoral production system of the West African Sahel. In the fourth section we touch upon policy issues, both in a historical as well as in a current framework.

  1. On the concept of flexibility and the economic analysis of risk in an intertemporal setting, see [Dreze and Modigliani, 1972; Epstein, 1980].

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