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Access and use rights

Among the institutional arrangements regulating human–nature relationships, rights and obligations to natural resources, and access and use rights play a crucial role (Bromley, 1991; Ostrom and Schlager, 1996; Van Griethuysen, 2006). Such rights or rules exist in all societies, whether they are tribal, feudal, capitalist or socialist. They basically respond to the universal question of social reproduction and are obviously culture-specific and exhibit considerable diversity and variation. On the one hand, they determine the types of interactions that members of society may or may not have with the natural environment. On the other hand, they are essential factors of power and social status because of the control they confer over natural resources, and as such constitute strategic elements in the dynamics of wealth creation and reinforcement of power. Bromley (1991) uses the term ‘institutional regime’ to refer to the set of institutional arrangements relating to a resource or a set of natural resources.

The typology most commonly referred to in the literature is the one proposed by Ostrom and Schlager (1996), which defines a cumulative gradation of rights:

• Access right: right to access a resource for any use not involving its consumption; Peluso and Ribot (2003) have defined access as the ability (not necessarily the right) to derive benefits from things;

• Withdrawal right: right to withdraw some elements from the resource;

• Management right: right to determine how, when and where a withdrawal may take place;

• Exclusion right: right to determine who has rights of access, withdrawal and management, and who is excluded from these rights;

• Transfer right: right to transfer a resource or a right over a resource to a third party.

These rights have a cumulative nature (Ostrom and Schlager, 1996). For example, management rights usually include access and withdrawal rights. Generally, when agents have more rights, they have greater control over the relevant resources and have greater influence over the evolution of the institutional framework. On the other hand, those who must respect the instituted rights have less power to influence the institutional framework according to just how excluded they are from these various rights.

A typology of institutional regimes

Following Bromley (1991), four types of regimes are usually distinguished, depending on the competent authority responsible for the definition and application of resource use rights:

1. Open access: This defines a ‘non-regime’ case, as it refers to the absence of institutional arrangements regarding the natural environment. This is for instance the case of access to fisheries in the high seas in the absence of any regulation.

2. State regime: The state has decisional authority regarding resource rights; this regime can also include cases where resource management is delegated to other social actors such as NGOs, private actors or local communities.

3. Common regime: The decisional authority for resource rights is jointly assumed by members of a community according to the model of social organisation defined by that community (for instance, use of water from a river through communally determined allocation rules).

4. Private property regime: Private property owners (individuals or organisations) hold property titles over resources, which assures them all rights over resources (access, withdrawal, management, exclusion and transfer).

The four regimes presented here represent theoretical categories that can be used to describe characteristics of actual cases, which usually correspond to a combination of regime types.


Bromley, D.W. (1991) Environment and economy – property rights and public policy. Oxford, Blackwell.

Ostrom, E., and Schlager, E. (1996) The formation of property rights. In: S. Hanna et al. (eds.) Rights to nature: ecological, cultural and political principles of institutions for the environment, 127-156. Washington, D.C., Island Press.

Peluso, N., and Ribot, J.C. (2003) A theory of access. Rural Sociology, 68 (2) 153-181.

Van Griethuysen, P. (2006) A critical evolutionary economic perspective of socially responsible conservation. In: G. Oviedo, P. Van Griethuysen and P. Larsen (eds.), Poverty, equity and rights in conservation. Gland: IUCN; Geneva: IUED.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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