In recent years a number of analysts have argued that open access explains why people have destroyed so many tropical forests so rapidly. Under conditions of open access loggers and colonists clear forested land rapidly out of a fear that others will extract valuable resources from these places before they will. This paper questions the magnitude of the ‘open access’ effect. Ethnographic data from the Ecuadorian Amazon suggest that, in the absence of formally constituted property rights, informal social controls limit access to the forests and indirectly limit rates of tropical deforestation. Comparisons with land clearing in the Brazilian Amazon suggest that informal controls only retard deforestation in relatively stable frontier settings. The paper concludes with a discussion of the policy implications of these findings.

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