Commons under threat worldwide

The pleasure of an international gathering about commons is to discover that our English and Welsh commons are just a small (though vital) part of a very big picture.  Commons are global—land, water, air, knowledge—and boundless.  But the common denominator is a shared resource—and these are under threat everywhere.  That’s why commons need champions, and that’s why I argue repeatedly and shamelessly that the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) must embrace campaigners and practitioners as well as scholars.

I spoke about this on the first day of the IASC’s European conference in Umeå, Sweden (see here); the Elinor Ostrom Award generously funded my attendance.  Over the next four days I met scholars and practitioners who were based in Europe and working all over the world who told me what they are doing.  In the short time available I gathered only snippets of information, but they enabled me to see how necessary it is that academics cooperate with campaigners to achieve a better deal for commons in the widest sense.

Sami Krister Stoor

Sami Krister Stoor

I went to the pre-conference workshop, a fascinating discussion about the Sami people (of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia), whose indigenous rights to graze reindeer clash with other land uses such as forest management, mining, energy generation and hunting.  It seems that the current governance and management systems are inadequate to resolve these conflicts.  The Sami parliament is not yet sufficiently recognised and respected: could greater collective action be an answer?

We heard a Sami, Professor Krister Stoor from Umeå University, with his band Stuoris & Bálddonas, demonstrating the traditional joiking. This is not singing, but rather an atmospheric musical interpretation of elements such as a river or forest.  It certainly evokes the wild Swedish landscape.

Central Asia
Ahmad Hamidov, a PhD student at Humboldt University in Berlin, told me of his work in his native Uzbekistan where he is reviewing the institutions for water management, and in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan where he is studying pasture management.

Herders' house in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan

Herder’s house in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the management of common pool resources (CPRs) in Central Asia, such as irrigation systems and pasture, have undergone substantial reforms.  As a result, new institutions and governance structures have been created, with little regard for local knowledge and experience.  Ahmad’s research shows the need for policies to be adapted to local conditions to have sustainable results.  His project has three phases: to identify the current institutional set-up and rules for CPR management; to develop sustainable institutions, and to bring communities and government together to effect the change.

This project demonstrates the need for communities to form effective pressure groups to lobby government and is an excellent example of the connection between research and collective action.

Minority groups in Thailand
Professor Inse Theesfeld, an agricultural economist at Martin Luther University in Germany, is working on the role of culture in rural Thailand in involving minority groups in political decision making.

Says Inse, if you want to make use of local knowledge, you must give space to villagers’ participation.  These processes are mostly designed by majority, urban and modern population groups, not the rural minority.

In the last two decades in Thailand there has been a push for local administration with the establishment of the Tambon Administrative Organisation (TAO).  Each TAO consists of about 16 villages.

Apart from electing local representatives, the main involvement of villages is in the local development plan.  In Thailand, people generally fear argument and are unwilling to express their views.  So they rarely object and tend to follow the dominant view.  The IT revolution has now reached Thailand and is having a good effect on participation since it enables people to respond anonymously and reduces the effect of imbalance in power.

Community structures in Mozambique
The problem of indigenous communities not being heard was also highlighted by Kajsa Johansson from the school of social sciences at Sweden’s Linnaeus University.  She is studying community structures in the governance of land and forestry in Mozambique, a country which has close links with Sweden.  Her blog is here (you will no doubt need the ‘translate’ button).

Ribaue, Mozambique, from Kajsa Johansson's blog

Ribaue, Mozambique, from Kajsa Johansson’s blog

In 1997 Mozambique approved a new law which allowed land (which formerly belonged to the state) to be sold, mostly for large-scale forestry.  The law recognises community land-title through occupation and sets high standards for local participation in consultation about the land’s use.  In theory the community can say no, but in practice it is not being consulted; the developers are negotiating with leaders who do not represent local people.  Mozambique is a targeted country for land-based investment and there is increasing pressure on land.

About 70 per cent of Mozambican population depends on agriculture for its livelihood so access to natural resources is vital.  There is a conflict between the generations: the younger people see opportunities of paid work, with updated methods of cultivation.  The farmers’ union is getting stronger, but developers are taking advantage of the weakness of the population.

The new law should be a really strong instrument to protect community rights, rather than allowing their erosion.  The communities could do with being organised into a campaigning force with the confidence to speak out.

Madagascar’s land-tenure
Similar land takeover is occurring in Madagascar.  Johanna Friederike Goetter, from the Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany, is studying the land-tenure system of the Tanalana people in semi-arid south west Madagascar.  Traditionally private-property rights were assigned only to agricultural fields and the people enjoyed open access to pasture areas.  In the last decades, the stocks of the important common-pool fodder-tree Euphorbia stenoclada have been degraded due to mismanagement and the demands of a growing population.  The difficulty in finding enough fodder for their herds has triggered step-by-step privatisation of Euphorbia by livestock owners.

Euphorbia stenoclada, wikipedia images

Euphorbia stenoclada, wikipedia images

First they claimed temporary private-property rights on land around semi-mobile livestock pens.  Then they marked or fenced up to several hectares of community land.  This was either unnoticed or accepted by the local users.  The growing market for fruit from the Euphorbia trees offers high income to those who can claim private land-parcels.

In the last five years many communities have agreed on the legalisation of private rights on Euphorbia, with limits on the size of private stocks per person.  However, the fencing has continued.  While the traditional Tanalana society fostered social norms and rules, today it suffers from growing non-cooperation and lack of collective action.  Furthermore, the ongoing transition of the Tanalana society towards the market and individual benefit is shaping the discussion about access to the Euphorbia.  Some continue to argue for common stocks, but others want individuals to benefit.  There is scope here for collective action to uphold the rights of the community.

Fungi in Finland
Carmen Pekkarinen (twitter @liveinfinland, and read her blog) from Athabasca University, Alberta, is living and working in Finland.  She has studied the Finns’ berry and mushroom-picking habits.  Sixteen people took part in the research and reported that they regularly gather mushrooms and berries for their personal use and as a hobby.  They lamented the severing of ties to the land by society; their own gathering activities reinforced their relationship to the land.  In spite of the urban nature of Finnish society, the people still have a strong connection to the land through the summer-cottage culture and the growth in the consumption of wild and local foods.


The Swedish forest floor

The Swedish forest floor

Unidentified fungus

Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria: poisonous!








The Colombian coffee bean
I also had a conversation with Fernanda Quinones-Ruiz from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.  Geographical Indications (GIs) are a form of intellectual property right, traditionally found in southern EU countries, which allow certain organised producers to defend their food products’ reputation while highlighting their geographical origin and value to consumers.  According to EU law, GIs are not tradable and are not accessible for producers outside the region of origin.  Thus GIs can be considered as a commons, meaning that local producers hold a shared, non-tradable right.  Fernanda says there need to be rules to prevent abuse of GIs by flooding the market with GI products to the detriment of other producers.

Colombia logoCafé de Colombia was the first non-European food product granted a registered GI—a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).  This is a great step forward, achieved by determined collective action, but still local growers have little control over their brand in the global market and need to develop a campaign to protect it.

There are so many different commons—and so many under threat.  I am excited to be working with the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) at Gloucester University, the University of Mexico, Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRI) and the IASC to develop a short, distance-learning course on campaigning for the commons.

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 campaigns, common land, commons, International Association for the Study of the Commons, Sweden and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Commons under threat worldwide

  1. Spot on piece of work!! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s