Reversing the tragedy of the commons

April 06, 2017
Ser Percival K. Peña-Reyes, Eaglewatch
An interesting video posted by TV Patrol has made the rounds of the Internet recently, and it features an estuary in Purok de Oro, Barangay Poblacion in Iligan City. What used to be an unsightly, foul-smelling canal has now become home to more than a hundred colorful koi fish, attracting many tourists to the area.
It was only last year when two friends found out that a neighbor’s tilapia could still survive in the polluted water, and this discovery sparked some hope for rehabilitation. Of course, having to gather almost 300 sacks of garbage was a daunting task, but the friends’ relentless efforts would bear fruit in the end. They put up steel fences to filter out garbage and make cleaning the canal much easier. They also installed low barriers to ensure that the current would not carry the fish away.
Aside from providing a relaxing view, the koi fish actually have a more beneficial spillover effect on the community. Before, disease-carrying mosquitoes infested the polluted canal, but ever since the introduction of the koi fish, mosquito populations have noticeably dwindled. This is because the koi fish would eat  the mosquito larvae.
In Luzon a similar story exists, but this one involves a much bigger project. Hinulugang Taktak is a waterfall located in Taktak Road, Barangay de la Paz, Antipolo City.  According to legend, back in the 16th century, the local people forced their parish priest to drop the church bell in the river due to the harsh and unbearably loud sound it made during Angelus. Thus, the name “Hinulugang Taktak” came to be, and its literal translation is “where the bell was dropped”.
In the 1960s Hinulugang Taktak was a tourist destination famous for its refreshing and idyllic landscape; nevertheless, migration and congestion would eventually take a toll on this once pristine location. There came a point where sewage from nearby households made it unpleasant—perhaps even unsafe—for people to swim.
In 1990 Hinulugang Taktak was declared a national historical shrine by the National Historical Institute. It was later listed as a protected area by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). In 2009 the local government and the DENR agreed to manage the area and work toward its rehabilitation for three years. The two agencies announced plans to pool about P100 million for the task. The Antipolo City Hall and the DENR pledged P30 million each for the effort.
Although much work still needs to be done to bring Hinulugang Taktak back to its original splendor, locals observe the recent return of the egret, a migratory bird that has been absent for quite some time. This could only mean that ongoing rehabilitation efforts are gradually bearing fruit.
Indeed, these stories should serve to inspire many Filipinos, for they clearly defy what economists call the tragedy of the commons, which refers to a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The estuary in Iligan and Hinulugang Taktak in Antipolo are examples of common resources because of two main characteristics: rivalry in consumption and non-excludability.
Rivalry in consumption means that a person’s enjoyment of a good encroaches on and diminishes another person’s enjoyment of the same good. Having many people living near a common resource creates congestion that diminishes everyone’s enjoyment of the resource. However, since no one can claim ownership of the resource, no one can be excluded from enjoying its benefits. The tragedy usually comes in the form of pollution that has negative spillover effects on nearby communities. The ugly sight, the stench  and the huge potential for life-threatening diseases are examples of these externalities.
Promoting the common good is not an easy objective, because it often goes against human self-interest. In the case of the Iligan estuary, it took extraordinary altruism to get the job done, since the two friends who initiated the cleanup would presumably shoulder considerable private costs in terms of time, effort and money, in exchange for minimal private gain. Likewise, the case of Hinulugang Taktak entailed such huge economic costs that government intervention
became necessary.
Nevertheless, “difficult” does not mean “impossible”. While the tragedy of the commons is a textbook example of a market failure, it does open up the possibility of cooperation between private and public actors. More than financial resources, individual volunteerism and malasakit are needed to carry out changes that will bestow key benefits upon society.
Ser Percival K. Peña-Reyes is a faculty member of the Ateneo de Manila University Economics Department. He thanks Dr. Philip Conrad M. Acop, District Two City councilor of Antipolo, for valuable inputs to this article.