Livestock for some, ownership debates for all: A review of Who Owns the Stock? Collective and Multiple Property Rights in Animals

Reviewed in this essay: Who Owns the Stock? Collective and Multiple Property Rights in Animals, Khazanov, Anatoly and Günther Schlee, eds., Berghahn Books, 2012.

This volume suggests that, in the face of the rapid diffusion of the notion of private property across the globe, there remain three main domains of objects subject to more complicated arrangements: “land,” “large domestic animals,” and, “industrial property and ‘financial products.’” And as its editors point out, while land rights and financial instruments have been longstanding topics of academic and popular writing, that second domain remains ill-explored; this despite the intriguing coincidence of language applied to the property of both industrial capitalists and cattle-herders: “pecuniary (Lat.: pecus – ‘cattle’), capital (Lat.: caput – ‘head’ [of cattle]), and the ‘stock’ exchange”.

Sami reindeer herder in Sweden, photo by Mats Andersson.
Sami reindeer herder in Sweden, photo by Mats Andersson.

Drawing upon detailed ethnography of pastoralist societies of the tundra, taiga, and steppe of Eurasia, as well as the African continent, the essays in Who Owns the Stock? consider how modernization and globalization have influenced the ways such societies consider property rights in large domestic ungulates. For instance, Patty A. Gray’s opening essay treats the confusion of reindeer ownership that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The resulting transition of “a complex system of fuzzy, multiple property” into one “streamlined into a single, unambiguous strand” has led herders into the unfortunate position of being unable to claim ownership over deer they “should have,” or even “remember how many” they should have. Disentangling the messy histories of this transition, Gray shows how the end of the communist period led to reindeer herders’ alienation not only from “their property—their wealth on the hoof—but also their cultural legacy.”

Other pieces in the collection look at more direct processes of the individualizing and marketizing of formerly collective property. Michaela Pelican considers, for instance, how transitions from milk to meat production among agro-pastoralists of north-western Cameroon, based in part on perceptions of milk marketing as inconvenient, have led to the diminution of women’s usage rights to milk and their corresponding reliance on other income sources that they can “own” fully. Meanwhile, Anatoly M. Khazanov argues that, in Kazakhstan, government stakes in “large, private, market-oriented enterprises” have led to the ruin of “extensive and mobile pastoralism in a region where it had thrived for at least three thousand years.”

Although some of the essays at times seem to mobilize, in passing, a modern world/pastoralist culture distinction that could give the critical reader pause, on the whole this volume offers a rich and insightful look into the lives of people whose notions of property can complicate overly simplistic assertions of the naturalness or inevitability of private property regimes that often serve the interests of the globally powerful. At the same time, it challenges perspectives that would deny the growing import and relevance of access to markets and to just allocation of property for individuals across cultures and places. In this regard, I wholeheartedly recommend it to both specialist and general readers with an interest in the politics, economics and ecologies of property, private and otherwise.