Xavier Basurto: Looking Beyond the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

New Nicholas faculty member looks for innovative ways for communities to sustain their environment

Xavier Basurto, standing in boat's middle, leads students on a tour of the Gulf of California.

Economists have a term to describe fishermen catching too many fish or loggers cutting down too many trees on public land.

They call this depletion of public resources the "tragedy of the commons," like sheep overgrazing a village square, and they often propose two solutions to alleviate it. One is to privatize the resource, giving someone an incentive to protect it. The other is to create a government body to impose rules about how many fish, trees or other resources people may harvest.

Xavier Basurto, a new assistant professor of sustainability science at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, says both strategies can be effective but need to be supplemented with a third approach, one that emphasizes local communities solving these kinds of problems on their own.

It's an idea he's been pursuing for the past decade with fishing villages along the Gulf of California in Mexico, and more recently by studying those in charge of managing protected areas in Costa Rica.

"There's been an assumption that local people are ignorant and can't organize themselves," he says. "But there are many examples of communities developing their own environmental solutions" through village councils, informal agreements and other means.

Basurto has been studying why some villages manage to conserve their natural resources while others fail. The answer, he says, lies not only with the biological and physical factors that affect habitats, but also with the social systems through which fishermen and others interact with one another.

"You need to have arenas for conflict resolution," Basurto says. "You need incentives for people to be fair to each other and a sense of autonomy for solving the problem, along with other factors." This third path, he says, relies more on effective human interactions and the mechanisms of civil society than on the traditional approaches of privatization or central control.

It's an idea Basurto explored as an undergraduate in Mexico, through graduate studies at the University of Arizona and most recently as a research scholar at the University of Indiana, where one of his mentors, Elinor Ostrom, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her pioneering efforts to broaden how scholars and policymakers think about environmental issues.

In one recent joint paper, Ostrom and Basurto called for more attention to be paid to "the complex interrelationship between social and biophysical factors" that affect how effectively communities protect their resources.

At Duke, Basurto pursues his "deep conviction that it is through integrating different disciplinary perspectives and methods that we will be able to find solutions to challenging dilemmas in natural resource management, conservation and environmental policy." He's broadened the scope of his small-scale fisheries studies, begun compiling databases on local resource management and remained involved with Comunidad y Biodiversidad, a nongovernmental organization he helped launch that has become a leading proponent of marine biodiversity on Mexico.

In his Nicholas School courses, Basurto helps students explore how this approach might apply beyond Mexican fishing villages to environmental challenges in the United States and elsewhere, such as with groundwater depletion in California. He currently is teaching a class on the "theory and methods for policy analysis of the commons."

This past spring, he led students from his class on the "governance of social and ecological systems" on a two-week trip to the Gulf of California, where they learned how local communities managed fisheries and other resources. "I'm really impressed by the energy, excitement and high caliber of Duke students," says Basurto, who also is forming close ties with other faculty in the Nicholas School and across Duke's campus.

Basurto developed his own love of the ocean while growing up at his grandfather's farm near the coast of Veracruz. He was born in Mexico City but "never felt like I belonged in a big city." As a child, he was fascinated by television broadcasts about Jacques Cousteau, the famous French marine explorer.

Now living with his wife and family near Duke's Marine Lab in Beaufort, where he is based, Basurto hopes his two daughters will develop a similar passion for the sea. "I love the coast and always dreamed about living near the ocean," he says. "Now I'm doing that."


Xavier Basurto
Xavier Basurto discusses environmental policy on a field trip with students. Photo: Casey Zweig.