Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Resource Economics

Transformation of autocratic and socialist systems

During the last three decades, not only socialist countries with centrally planned economies, but also numerous autocratic regimes went through fundamental processes of institutional change. The question arises whether these transition processes are actually leading to sustainable systems, in particular as regards the use of natural resources and the protection of the natural environment. Environmental protection and resource governance in autocratic and socialist systems is often merely production-oriented and centrally organised. This has been considered the reason for unsustainable use of natural resources and their significant degradation. Accordingly, we often find we often water and air pollution by industry and agriculture, soil erosion and contamination, decrease of area under forest, in particular natural ones, in autocratic and socialist states. Similarly, nature conservation is also predominantly under central governance of in these countries.

The transition process which started at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s has changed political regimes and economic systems. This strongly influenced the system of environmental protection and natural resource management which was reorganised or even replaced by more polycentric structures. As research results on Central and Eastern European countries as well as post-Soviet European and Central Asian states indicate, institutional change in the field of the use and protection of natural resources often occurs with active participation of international organizations, such as the European Union and the World Bank, which in particular promote decentralized management.

This experience illustrates that the transition process is usually changes property rights on natural resources, above all land and water, with a strong preference for private property regimes. In contrast, institutional reforms for public goods or common pool resources which prevail in the area of environmental services and natural resources and often require common or public property regimes often received less attention. New bureaucracies, in particular at regional and local level, have been established, but also a revival of informal institutions, which have been lost in the centralized systems, took place. Moreover, transition countries increasingly foster international integration by joining international agreements for the protection of the natural environment and sustainable use of natural resources.

Institutional change in this field has proven not to be a straightforward process. It faces obstacles which arise at various administrative levels and have different reasons ranging from incompliance of policy target group and weak policy enforcement. As a result, revival of ecosystems and shift towards sustainable use of natural resources can often not keep pace with the speed of environmental degradation. Meeting the challenge of twofold transition, i.e. transforming a socialist and centrally planned system towards polycentric governance and a sustainable social-ecological system, is not equally successful in all transition countries.

In the Division of Resource Economics this problem dimension is addressed in the following research projects: