Global commons and their communities

What is the role of community-based organisations (CBOs) in protecting and managing commons, and how do they relate to non-governmental organisations (NGOs)?  At the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons in Japan, I chaired a session called ‘Campaigns for the commons: what can community-based organisations accomplish?’  Three papers were presented on CBOs and commons, from India, Uganda, and Senegal and Burkina Faso. 

In this context, ‘commons’ mean ‘shared resource’; the land does not have the legal protection or definition of our commons in England and Wales.

Pratiti Priyadarshini and Kiran Kumari from the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), an NGO in India, spoke of their work with communities in Rajasthan.  They explained the importance of commons for the survival of the rural population.

Kiran Kumari and Pratiti Priyadarshini

Kiran Kumari and Pratiti Priyadarshini

The commons cover between 49 and 84 million hectares, or between 15 and 25 per cent of the country.  More than 84 per cent of the rural poor depend on the commons for fuel, fodder and food.  Commons act as a safety net and provide the base for agriculture and livestock production systems.

But over the last 30 years, commons have declined by 31 to 55 per cent.  Commons and community ownership don’t feature in the official vocabulary of land use, and there is a trend towards decentralisation of powers to the lower tiers of governance.  FES has been campaigning for commons to be recognised in public policy. 

web oxen

FES inspires civil society, practitioners, experts and planners to collaborate; it gathers evidence of the value of commons and promotes common spaces, collective action, community ownership and urban spaces, by engaging the media, and encouraging the state to recognise the commons and to map these places.  FES works with the government to formulate policy and recognise commons in the five-year plan. 

There have been field visits from government officials and the minister to the project area.  A state-level committee was constituted in October 2010 to develop policies for the identification, management and development of common land; a draft Rajastan Common Land Policy has been prepared and is to be presented to the cabinet for approval.  Operational guidelines for grazing land have been developed and a memorandum of understanding signed between the government and FES to improve restoration and governance of the commons and dependent livelihoods.

Deccani sheep on an Indian common

Deccani sheep on common land near Hyderabad, India

The aim is to devolve the management and governance of commons to the lowest tier, to enable community institutions to assert their claims and develop their own rules and regulations for governance, with appropriate tenure arrangements, and restrict the annexation of commons for other purposes, with annual plans for the commons drawn from long-term action plans grounded in ecological restoration.

Much has been achieved, there is a broad definition of common land as land in common use; commons and grazing land are vested with the panchayat (village council); there is provision for maintaining a common-land register, and a special focus on the rights of customary users and pastoralist communities.  There are enabling orders by the state government highlighting the importance of commons and promoting public investment in them.

FES has held workshops to encourage the decentralisation of commons in Rajastan, attended by village communities, government officials and non-governmental organisations.  It has also organised media and legal workshops, and set up commons stalls at local and global fairs, with songs, puppet-shows and street plays about the commons.

Annually around 7,300 million US dollars are invested under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2006, mainly on public and common lands, without matching investment in institutional capacity.  If this legislation was linked to a common land bill, with people having rights to employment and rights to resources, the funds could be put to better use, securing durable assets which both protected the resource and those living on it.

FES is an effective NGO and it sees empowerment of, and collective action by, CBOs as the means of achieving a better deal for the commons.  There appears to be a symbiotic relationship between the NGO and the CBOs, and FES is clearly making good progress.

Mount Elgon
Stonewall Kato spoke about the influence of CBOs on the ecosystem of Mount Elgon in Uganda.

The Mount Elgon National Park is a fragile, highly degraded ecosystem; the mountain top is forest and former community land.  In the 1970s to 90s there was a breakdown of government administration due to civil strife.  The forests were felled, causing landslides. 

The communities on the mountain formed 300 environmental organisations.  Stonewall studied these between 2009 and 2010, examining how their characteristics, opportunities and challenges influence their roles in the management of the resources.  He made a distinction between CBOs (grassroots, normally membership organisations serving a specific population in a narrow geographic area, people who have joined together to further their own interests) and NGOs which are local, national or international intermediary organisations, formed to serve others. 

Stonewall Kato

Stonewall Kato

On Mount Elgon he found that areas with functional CBOs were more likely to participate in the management of forests, water and soil than areas without CBOs.  However, the CBO’s success depends on its characteristics such as membership composition and strength, and how it seizes opportunities and addresses challenges.  The CBOs have not fully achieved their goals because of poor internal organisation and operational inadequacies. 

Funding is crucial, and most CBOs around Mount Elgon obtained their funding indirectly from government and membership subscriptions.  There was a risk of over-dependence on donor support so that CBOs’ activities ceased when the donor support ended.  Stonewall identified ‘founders’ syndrome’ as a problem, which breeds self-interest and discourages new members from playing a part.  Lack of training and government interference and procrastination also posed challenges.

Stonewall concluded that the CBOs’ longevity, coverage and strength influence their role in forest, water and soil management.  It was important that they kept good records of the resource use, crop harvests and work carried out, and undertook monitoring and evaluation.  He said that CBOs’ adherence to democratic governance is widely believed to bring about legitimacy, recognition and acceptance of the CBOs by the local communities in the areas where they operate, with better outcomes.

He recommends that government should put in place a special CBO advisory body to oversee the community management of resources; that CBOs should seize the goodwill of the local community to manage these resources and that CBOs should establish revenue-generating enterprises and sustainable funding for the management of forest, water and soil.

Who had the idea to become commoners? 
This was the title of the presentation by Cecilia Navarra and Elena Vallino from Belgium and Italy respectively.  They have been studying village organisations in Senegal and Burkina Faso and presented their preliminary findings.  They too made a distinction between the village organisation (CBO) and NGO and had investigated whether the starting motivations gave rise to different kinds of village organisation.

The establishment of the organisation might be a local initiative, triggered by dissatisfaction about some necessity, or a social movement which becomes organised because of the possibility of obtaining resources from external sources.

Elena Vallino (middle) and Cecilia Navarra (right) with me (left)

Elena Vallino (middle) and Cecilia Navarra (right) with me (left)

The researchers’ preliminary conclusions are that donor sponsorship is relevant, and the origin of the funding has an impact on the path followed by the CBO.  The number of members of the CBO is positively correlated with a partnership with an NGO, provided the NGO came in because it was contacted by the CBO—the correlation is negative if the NGO came in uninvited.

Sucked in
Having heard these thought-provoking presentations, I asked all the speakers to what extent they found that the CBOs were muzzled by the involvement of government.  In the UK, campaigning groups risk getting sucked in to government and thus losing their independence.

Kiran and Pratiti said that in India it was essential to work with government, they could not risk falling out with it.  Stonewall averred that there was a danger that the CBOs’ effectiveness was reduced when they got involved with government.  Cecilia and Elena replied that it was too early in their research to be able to say.

So our 90-minute session ended with a large amount of fascinating information on the table.  It made me think about the distinction between CBOs and NGOs which is perhaps more marked in these countries than in the UK.  Here, a residents’ group is clearly a CBO and a national body like the Open Spaces Society is clearly an NGO, but what about a county organisation like Surrey CPRE or the Sussex Wildlife Trust?  I don’t think it’s obvious.

It also left me wondering about campaigning techniques in the four countries we learned about.  For environmental campaigners in the UK, independence from government is essential—but, it seems, this is not necessarily so worldwide.


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in common land, International Association for the Study of the Commons, Japan and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Global commons and their communities

  1. Kato Stonewall says:

    Kate, thank you for the wonderful job on promoting CBO’s efforts in management of the commons. Please keep it up.

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