In effect, the Haitian side of the border is a huge, ungoverned and unowned commons. Haiti has been for much of the recent past a failed state (ranked eleventh in the Foreign Policy Fragile States Index) and has a terrible record of corruption (175 out of 182 in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index). In relation to Haiti, the 2016 Heritage Index of Economic Freedom states that “clear titles to property are virtually non-existent.” By no means is the Dominican Republic perfect, but it ranks about halfway up the latter index when it comes to the protection of property rights.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic are a particularly interesting contrast because of their proximity to each other. However, there is abundant evidence that the lessons from this example can be generalized. For example, Claudio Araujo and his colleagues argue that “insecure property rights in land drive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.” The authors demonstrate a causal relationship that arises through several channels. Their results are strong and lead to the conclusion that an exogenous escalation in property rights in security brings a significant increase in the rate of deforestation.
Interestingly, another paper that draws the same conclusions relates the problem of the lack of secure property rights to past imperial activity. David Novoa concludes, “[S]tronger property rights encourage less deforestation controlling for a number of variables.” He also argues that former British colonies have significantly better deforestation records (i.e., less deforestation) than former Spanish colonies. He believes that this result may have arisen because different colonial regimes had a different impact on the long-term security of property rights. Novoa argues that British regimes established local ownership of the forest so that local people (pioneers) had direct control over forest resources. “Thus, the British Colonial system provided incentives for joint maximization of the net present value of timber and nontimber forest products. In addition, the system promoted the internalization of external benefits that did not accrue to the owner of the land such as conservation of the soil or prevention of floods. Therefore, forest land use value tended to be comparatively higher than [in] a system of ill-defined property rights, consequently encouraging less deforestation.”
To make matters worse, because trees are often government-owned resources on private land, the private owners of the land have no incentive to manage them, and the owners take every opportunity possible to clear the forest so that the land can be used for private productive purposes. In this situation, the trees are utterly without value to the owners and cannot be managed sustainably.
This problem of a lack of well-defined and enforced property rights leading to environmental degradation is repeated in relation to a wide range of environmental resources in many different circumstances.
With respect to the statement in Laudato si’ that “[t] he natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all,” the general position held by Aquinas, the late Scholastics and the early social encyclicals would be that by allowing people to make something their own, that something is more likely to be administered for the good of all. This principle is so crucial in relation to environmental goods and so widely discussed among economists examining environmental problems that it should have been an important subject of discussion in Laudato si’.
Many other aspects of the relationship between property rights and the environment are important and, though not necessarily appropriate for discussion within an encyclical, might form a research agenda for Catholic scholars going forward. For example, where there are well-defined owners of an environmental resource in a regime characterized by good governance and juridical systems, individuals or corporations are less likely to damage property they do not own. In a regime of well-protected private- property rights, damage to one’s neighbor’s property will lead to prosecution or a requirement for compensation. This will not be the case where environmental resources are effectively unowned, as indicated by the rainforest examples given earlier.
There are broader ways, too, in which a regime of strong private rights in the context of good governance can help protect the environment. First, a country with good governance, effective rule of law and enforcement of private property in general is more likely to be able to protect effectively those environmental goods where limits do need to be put on commercial exploitation for the purposes of environmental protection. A state that performs well the task of enforcing property rights is more likely to be able to regulate the use of private property if that is deemed necessary, because such regulation requires uncorrupt and efficient legal systems, law enforcement and administration.