Inside the Polygon: Emerging Community Tenure Systems and Forest Resource Extraction

Working Forests in the Neotropics (Daniel J. Zarin, et al. eds., 2004)

University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper

20 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2016

See all articles by Tom Ankersen

Tom Ankersen

University of Florida Levin College of Law

Grenville Barnes

University of Florida

Date Written: 2004


Formal tenure systems have generally focused on defining the outside boundary of community tenure systems resulting in a homogeneous polygon that is treated as communal property by the formal legal system. In fact, if one looks inside this polygon, most of these “communal” tenure systems are a complex web of individual and shared rights that deal with the use and allocation of community resources. In this chapter we describe and compare three community tenure systems and delve into the tenure system operating inside the polygon.

Many valuable forested areas in developing countries fall under a community tenure system. The traditional approach towards formalizing these areas is to grant a communal land title or concession transferring exclusive use rights to the forest dwellers. The title or concession defines the perimeter of the area (outside polygon) and serves to register the rights to the titled territory in the name of the group. In this way the formal tenure system divides up these territories into a set of polygons in space. The formal document may specify broad limits on deforestation and require some form of land use plan, but in many cases it does not really address the de facto land tenure and resource management structure inside the polygon. The result is a de jure “tenurial shell”5 which should facilitate interactions outside the polygon, but which in many instances actually constrains such interactions.

Bromley and Cernea (1989, p. 15) have defined common property regimes (CPR) as:

"… corporate group property. The property-owning groups vary in nature, size, and internal structure across a broad spectrum, but they are social units with definite membership and boundaries, with certain common interests, with at least some interaction among members, with some cultural norms, and often their own endogenous authority system."

Much of the mainstream literature on CPR focuses on the “critical enabling conditions” for sustaining common property systems.6 While sharing the ultimate goal of sustainability, we approach CPR or community tenure systems, from a somewhat different perspective. By focusing on the land and resource tenure system we seek to understand the current situation with respect to the allocation, use, transfer and control of forest and other resources inside the polygon. In analyzing this de facto tenure system, we also compare it with the external de jure system to identify inconsistencies and possible areas of conflict.

Given the dynamic nature of both tenure and resource systems, we are also concerned with identifying and managing the information requirements to support sustainable extractive practices between parties inside and outside the polygon. We contend that as community tenure systems come under increasing pressure, internal as well as external, it will be necessary for these communities to improve their local land administration capabilities and maintain more detailed tenure information if they are to be sustainable across generations. Information that focuses only on forest resources, and not on who holds the use and extractive rights, and the exact nature of those rights, is insufficient for the effective management of working forests. This point becomes clearer in the latter part of the paper when we examine some of the emerging scenarios in our three case studies.

Suggested Citation

Ankersen, Tom and Barnes, Grenville, Inside the Polygon: Emerging Community Tenure Systems and Forest Resource Extraction (2004). Working Forests in the Neotropics (Daniel J. Zarin, et al. eds., 2004), University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Tom Ankersen (Contact Author)

University of Florida Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

Grenville Barnes

University of Florida

PO Box 117165, 201 Stuzin Hall
Gainesville, FL 32610-0496
United States

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