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«Emergence of Endogenous Legal Institutions: Property Rights and Community Governance in the Italian Alps MARCO CASARI This article examines changes ...»

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Based upon thirteenth- through nineteenth-century data on more than 200 communities in the Italian Alps, we study the transition from informal to formal property rights arrangements in the governance of the land held in common. The key to interpreting the choice of governance regime over the forest and grazing land held in common is the long-term interaction among the stake-holders. A close-knit group living in the same community for generations was eventually able to establish and enforce a new system of property rights, in the form of a “charter.” Given the long-term interaction within the group, the emergence of a charter could be an equilibrium.

At the same time, one may argue that, thanks to the long-term interaction, informal cooperation in using the common resource could spontaneously arise without the need for a charter or any other formal enforcement institution. The tragedy of the commons literature generally assumes a one-shot interaction among the resource users. Empirically, that is clearly not the case in many situations and specifically in Casari these alpine communities. Henceforth, the conditions that may explain the transition to a charter governance regime are the very ones that may foster informal community cooperation, thus making a regime transition not needed.

We show that this contradiction is only apparent because the informal cooperation regime was plagued by several weaknesses in the management of the common resources and the costly charter regime included several provisions that complemented and boosted informal cooperation. Through the lenses of the theory of infinitely repeated games (folk theorem), we identified five such institutional functions.

These functions set critical incentives in any organization where

members repeatedly engage in a collective action task or in team production:

Protection from outsiders’ appropriations. Through the charter, the state allowed the local community legal jurisdiction to prosecute outside poaching. Although it was an important precondition for cooperation among insiders, long-term interaction by itself was either ineffective or wasteful in protecting from outsiders’ appropriation.

Community building institutions restricted mobility in and out of the group. Settling into a new community, or cheating and immediately leaving the community carried implicit and explicit penalties. The charter had provisions to raise those penalties in order to make the group more stable over time.

Information-enhancing institutions gathered new information, consolidated and validated existing information. To sustain informal cooperation, everyone had to be able to monitor others’ resource appropriations. Using guards and public meetings, charters actively organized the public dissemination of novel and of private information, hence making it possible to sustain higher levels of cooperation.

Coordination institutions selected one of the multiple equilibria available to the group and selected a strategy to implement such equilibrium. Charters employed written rules on limits to resource appropriation and associated penalties, court verdicts, and legal procedures for collective deliberations, which solved the coordination problem.

Punishment institutions provided adequate incentives to group members to comply with the rules while minimizing the social loss of punishment. Although there were plenty of informal ways available to punish others, the charters employed monetary fines, which presented two advantages, they avoided physical injuries (the state would prosecute the punisher as a criminal) and they were not wasteful because they simply transferred resources.

Emergence 221 A charter may be more beneficial to some communities than to others. As a matter of fact, about one-third of the communities in the sample never adopted a charter. In particular, we found that charters were more likely to be adopted by less isolated communities (Implication 1) and larger communities in terms of population (Implication 2), and with a large endowment of common property resources (Implication 3).

We found no evidence that the transition from informal cooperation to a charter was problematic in this particular time period. Written documents became common in Trentino starting in the eleventh century. At about the same time a new political institution, the Principality of Trento, was created. These contingencies opened up the conditions for the institutional option of setting up charters.79 Yet, the transition to a charter could have been prevented by the large population of a community, considering that the creation of a charter is a costly public good (Implication 4). The empirical results suggest that the long-run impact of this factor was small. More precisely, Implication 2 has a stronger effect than Implication 4. We also tested for three models of diffusion of the charters from other communities within the region. There is an inverse-U time trend in charter adoption (Figure 2) that seem unrelated to the decisions of the immediate neighbors. A charter was adopted based on efficiency consideration of the individual community and not as a reaction to the competition with others.

Appendix: Notes on Data Sources COMMUNITY CHARTERS (Carte di Regola) Unpublished sources: The original manuscripts are kept at several archives: Biblioteca Comunale di Trento, Archivio di Stato di Trento, Archivio della Curia Arcivescovile di Trento, Biblioteca Civica di Rovereto, Ferdinandeum Museum of Innsbruck, Archivio di Castel Bragher (Coredo), and in the Archivi Municipali of Coredo, Mezzolombardo, and others. Casetti (Guida) provides a basic guide to the Trentino archives.

Published sources: About 190 of these charters where published in Giacomoni (Carte di regola). Many other publications have published just one charter. An exhaustive list of such articles and books for the years before 1988 is given in Nequirito (1988) while for the years after 1988 a list can be provided upon request.

Dataset: We have collected information for 356 charters from both published and unpublished sources. Of them, the text was found for 265 charters but only the news of their existence is available for 91 charters. They refer to 224 different geographical units, although there are instances of a charter referring to a group of villages and villages within the group having a distinct charter. The present study focuses only on the Greif, Institutions; and Rosenthal, Fruits.

Casari first adoption of a charter by a community. Some charters are newer versions of a first draft.

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Year 1780, Unpublished: A collection of manuscripted books recording property rights on land can be found in the Archivio di Stato di Trento under Serie Catasti Teresiani. It comprises one or more books for each village (comune catastale) and describes in a systematic manner all parcels of land in the region and records the owner.

A detailed data analysis of the books for the village of Levico was done in Goio (“Ambiente”). An analogous analysis for the village of Predazzo was done in Varesco (“Ambiente”).

Year 1897, Published: Consiglio provinciale d’agricoltura pel Tirolo (“Tabelle”).

The original sources of the data are land registers. Land registers are not the Catasti Teresiani. A new survey was carried out in the mid nineteenth century with new criteria and in addition to the books, maps were drawn up (Mappe Napoleoniche). The 1897 land register partition of the region is taken as reference for the community charter analysis. The region is divided into 395 geographical units which, with a handful of exceptions, is always a finer partition than the community areas of the charters. The regional statistics brought from this source consider an area of 6,356.33 square km;

that is, 2.4 percent greater than the current area of the province of Trento.

Dataset: For each of the 395 geographical units (comune catastale), the data set reports village surface devoted in 1897 to plowland, meadow, fruit garden, vineyard, grazing land, alp, forest, lake or pond, wasteland, houses, and total surface in hectares (10,000 squared meters).


The 1810 village level data used in the regression are based on the data reported in Andreatta and Pace (Trentino). In the instances where a finer partition was necessary, the 1810 figure was divided proportionally to the 1897 figures, which are published in Consiglio provinciale d’agricoltura pel Tirolo (“Tabelle”).

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Partitioning of the region: based on the 1810 administrative division of Trentino described in Andreatta and Pace (Trentino).

Physical bordering: reconstructed using land register data and GIS maps from the Ufficio Catastale of Fondo (Trento).

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Libretti d’Amministrazione [della Comunità di Mezzolombardo], series of booklets of the years 1589, 1652–1699, 1718–1797, manuscripts, Archivio Comunale di Mezzolombardo, province of Trento, Italy Libro de’ Conti dei Regolani della Honoranda Comunità di Coredo, series of booklets from 1635–36 to 1698–1699, manuscript, Archivio Comunale di Coredo, province of Trento, Italy


Emergence 223 Delugan and Visani (“Corpi”), Valenti (“Notizie”), Papaleoni (“Le più antiche carte” and “I ‘Divisi’”), and Dossi (Le pergamene and Un antico ruolo) describe aspects of the property rights structure on the land.


Monteleone, “L’economia agraria”; Capuzzo, “Carte di regola”; and Grossi, “Assolutismo giuridico.”

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Casari, Marco, and Charles R. Plott. “Decentralized Management of Common Property Resources: Experiments with a Centuries-Old Institution. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 51, no. 2 (2003): 217–47.

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