Common concerns

As the commons come under increasing assault, academics, practitioners and policymakers come together to devise ways to protect shared resources

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Tuesday 15 February 2011

Common concerns

imageOn a cold January night in Hyderabad, a fortnight ago, Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, was led to an open-air dinner by folk drummers and body-painted tiger dancers as an appreciative audience of international academics and grassroots workers cheered and milled around him. Ramesh had become the toast of the evening after he asked the world’s top scholars working on issues related to the commons to help shape his ministry’s thinking.

It was a gesture that could be construed as bold, or politic, as around 600 delegates to the biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) got down to work, sharing experiences on saving (or losing the commons) and discussing new theoretical frameworks to understand the dynamics of the commons.

The big draw at the five-day event that ended on January 15 was, of course, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, whose unflagging energy galvanised the plenary sessions and panel discussions. But it was the presence of dynamic policymakers that helped elevate the event to a more pragmatic level. Ramesh’s invitation along with a more earnest appeal from Herman Rosa Chavez, El Salvador Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, to the knowledge community to treat his country as a laboratory for their work, set the tone for IASC 2011.

Two things have happened to the commons of late. The assaults on common pool resources (CPRs), both by state and the private sector, have become intense on account of “development imperatives”. Conflict over the appropriation of common resources, particularly those belonging to indigenous communities, has become more frequent, leading to violent confrontation at times. India and Peru are just two examples of this trend. India, in fact, has earned notoriety for the appropriation of the commons by the government by a simple ruse: declaring them wastelands and then handing them over to private enterprise.

Simultaneously, and in seeming contradiction, the study of the commons has gained in stature and impact globally. The most significant has been the Nobel Prize for Economics that was awarded in 2009 to American academic Ostrom for her work on economic governance related to common property.

Ostrom, who shared the prize with fellow American William E Dickinson, was honoured for her work that demonstrated how common property can be successfully managed by user associations. The Nobel committee noted that Ostrom “has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatised. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterises the rules that promote successful outcomes”.

As such, IASC devoted much of its time to retailing success stories from across the world, starting with Ostrom herself, at the high-profile inaugural event. In a study of 226 sophisticated irrigation systems designed by engineers and run by the government and primitive systems constructed and managed by farmers, Ostrom reported that “only 42 per cent of the government irrigation systems were high-performing, even with fancy engineering,” whereas 75 per cent of farmer-run irrigation projects were working well.

But given the challenge thrown by Ramesh and Chavez, IASC was under pressure to prove that its work could influence policy and have an impact on livelihoods. Outgoing IASC president Ruth Meinzen-Dick said that although it was difficult for development policy research institutes, much less a network alliance like IASC, to draw a linear path from research to policy to impact, the association could claim some success in this regard. One such was in Mongolia which in 2009 moved away from a heavy and ineffectual government regulation to a decentralised system of managing its vast pastoral lands. “IASC member played a role in fostering this change,” she said. Another was the earmarking of one million hectares in Niger for the nomadic community.

imageThe fundamental lesson that Ostrom repeatedly dinned into the conference was that there are no panaceas. Her other dictum was that the institutional mono-culture in governance of CPRs had to be replaced by a plurality of approaches or polycentric solutions. Rapping both policymakers and practitioners who tend to have rigid approaches to governing the commons, the prize-winning economist advised: “We should think of all our policies as experiments. We should be learning at all levels instead of thinking something as the policy.”

Speakers at different sessions underlined the importance of this lesson. Hijaba Ykhanbai, director of JASIL, an environmental and development association based in Ulaanbaatar, pointed that a multi-institutional holistic programme worked best with “a bottom-up approach for co-management” of Mongolia’s pasture and forest resources. Another variation was offered by Leticia Merino Perez, incoming IASC president and professor of Institute of Social Investigation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Although forests are mainly owned by local communities, degradation in the Oaxaca region had been severe between 1970 and 1990. Her findings: “Communities with a relatively developed forest economy tend to be those with solid local governance, social capital and incentives to protect the forest because they have the knowledge and technical capacity to do so.”

But for India, which has its own success stories, the real concern is the fast vanishing commons. The alienation of village communities from their commons has been accelerating over the years. A study by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment reveals that CPRs are being degraded at an alarming rate and thus depriving rural communities of their CPR which contributes substantially to their livelihoods.

In 1900, CPRs comprised accounts for as much as 44.38 per cent of India’s geographical area is now a mere 15 per cent—and is being depleted at almost two per cent annually. It did not help that Ramesh told the conference that India’s growth imperatives would result in trade-offs while balancing GDP growth rates of nine to 10 per cent with environmental concerns. But what was disquieting was his declaration that these tough choices would be made not on scientific or technical evaluations but on political considerations.

That did take away the sheen from the fact that the Hyderabad biennial of IASC was the first to be held in South Asia—and the first to be hosted by a practitioner organisation, the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES). However, the experience of FES on the management and governance of common property land resources—it works in over 1,800 villages in six states and reaches out to a million people— indicates that all is not lost on the commons front.

In fact the bitterest, and so far successful, battles over land alienation such as the struggle of the Dongria Kondh tribal people against the mining of their hills are against the appropriation of CPRs by both state and commercial interests.

Besides, Jagdeesh Rao Puppala, FES executive director, promised that IASC 2011 would trigger processes that would gain recognition for the commons and improve their governance by feeding into the preparation process for the 12th Five Year Plan which starts in 2012. To help influence policy, the conference secretariat has kicked off the Commons Initiative, an attempt to build strategic alliances between practitioners and their networks, policymakers and scholars. The idea is to launch a long-term campaign to promote the commons.

This might mark the beginning of a new chapter in the struggle to preserve India’s commons but Ashish Kothari, founder of well-known Delhi environmental group Kalpavriksh, was not sanguine about such prospects. He predicted “collapse and degradation of the commons for some time to come, and many false starts”. Only radical ecological democracy would ensure people’s rights to the commons.


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