The importance of ownership – protecting the environment from plunder


Despite the strong interest in property rights in Catholic social thought and teaching, their importance is rarely linked to the topic of the preservation of the natural environment. There is a clear prima facie case for doing so. It starts with what is often described as the ‘tragedy of the commons’.


This blog has also been published by the Centre for Markets, Enterprise and Ethics, where there are also many other useful resources on Christian social thought.

Imagine, we have a forest, and nobody owns the forest: that is, it is a ‘common’. What will happen? People will come and harvest the trees for firewood, for sale or for industrial use, and they will not replace them. They will take as much as they can without restraint because, if one person or corporation does not harvest the timber, another will. And will anybody plant trees to replace the ones harvested? Of course not. If anybody plants trees, there is no chance they will be there in 20 years’ time for the person to harvest. We cannot expect all people to behave altruistically all the time and certainly should not organise our institutions assuming that they will do so.

If we do not have some way of controlling use, ascribing ownership and usage rights, and enforcing those rights, environmental resources will be exhausted.

Effective protection of property rights is a vital stepping stone to promoting good environmental outcomes.

If we have a private owner of the forest resources, that private owner will get the benefit of harvesting the trees in the indefinite future. The owner will want to make sure that there is sufficient replanting done to ensure that the forest is self-sustaining. The trees are a valuable resource. But the land is even more valuable if it carries on growing trees for harvesting year after year.

This does not just apply to private ownership: government or community ownership might work in some circumstances. Indeed, it might be necessary at times, though it would be highly inefficient if the government owned all our environmental resources.

At the same time, property rights have to be enforced. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, estimates that, in Peru, illegal logging is 80 per cent of total logging; it is 85 per cent of total logging in Myanmar; and nearly 65 per cent of total logging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Illegal logging is the lead cause of degradation of the world’s forests.

We need both strong property rights and strong institutions to protect those rights.

This table is instructive. The top half has the top seven countries by their rank for the protection of property rights in 2020 and their reforestation rate from 1990 to 2020. The bottom half has seven of the bottom eight countries in the international property rights index (the exception of Yemen which hardly has an trees at all!) and their reforestation rates which are negative – in almost all cases, they have high levels of deforestation.

Country Property rights rank 2020 Reforestation rate (%) 1990-2020
Finland 1 2.4
Switzerland 2 10.0
Singapore 3 6.7
New Zealand 4 5.6
Japan 5 -0.1
Australia 6 0.1
Netherlands 7 7.3
Country (Yemen – bottom country has not been included) Property rank index  2020 – places from bottom Reforestation rate 1990-2020 (%)
Venezuela 1 -11.1
Bangladesh 2 -1.9
Nigeria 3 -18.5
Madagascar 4 -9.2
Zimbabwe 5 -7.3
Nicaragua 6 -46.7
Pakistan 7 -25.3

The second table just looks at those South and Central American countries for which there are data and ranks them by security of property rights and levels of reforestation (so a higher rank means higher levels of reforestation or lower levels of deforestation).

Property rights index 2007 Reforestation rank – (higher means higher reforestation or lower
Examples reforestation
1990-2020 %
Uruguay 3 1 155%
Dominican Republic 10 2
Chile 1 3
Costa Rica 2 4 4.00%
Peru 9 5
Mexico 7 6
Panama 4 7
Colombia 5 8
Honduras 13 9 -9%
Haiti 19 10
Venezuela 18 11
Bolivia 17 12
Ecuador 11 13 -15%
Brazil 6 14
El Salvador 14 15
Argentina 8 16
Guatemala 12 17
Paraguay 15 18
Nicaragua 16 19 -47%
rank correlation coefficient

There is high correlation between protection of property rights and reforestation levels. Even the exceptions are instructive. Although the Dominican Republic has a poor record in general for the protection of property rights, it has had a focused, government-led scheme to protect and promote forest growth. Government intervention can work in this field but, in general, it is the package of institutions (private property rights, well-functioning and uncorrupt courts and criminal justice systems, and an efficient state operation for where government intervention is needed) that is necessary.

More generally, private property rights are not a panacea. There may be limited situations in which governments should legitimately intervene to protect natural resources that a private owner might destroy for commercial or other reasons. However, such particular interventions are far more likely to be effective if they take place in a situation in which there are effective legal institutions for the protection of property rights more generally.

This reasoning applies to all environmental resources – forests, the conservation of water, the conservation of fish and ensuring that farming is sustainable. Effective protection of property rights is a vital stepping stone to promoting good environmental outcomes. Iceland, for example, has transformed its fishing grounds by establishing private property rights in fisheries. More generally, good institutions, the rule of law and private property are the foundations of harmonious and prosperous societies.

Catholics often cite St. Thomas Aquinas’s justifications for private property. He argued that: ‘Private property encourages people to work harder because they are working for what they would own’. It is a short step from that to the related: ‘Private property encourages people to conserve environmental resources because they are looking after and conserving property, the fruits of which efforts they will own’.

If we wish to tackle deforestation (or the degradation of many other environmental resources), we need to examine a range of institutions related to property rights. As Pope John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus: ‘Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principle task of the State is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labours and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. The absence of stability, together with the corruption of public officials and the spread of improper sources of growing rich and of easy profits deriving from illegal or purely speculative activities, constitutes one of the chief obstacles to development and to the economic order.’

Photo by Matthis Volquardsen

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Author: Philip Booth

Published: 16th May 2024

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020