Protecting the commons
WellBeing|WellBeing #196
“The commons” are the natural and cultural resources, ranging from land to knowledge, that should be accessible to all members of society. Under intense social evolutionary pressure, however, we need to be vigilant that these commons are protected and secured for the good of all.
MARTIN OLIVER
What comes to mind when you hear the word “common”? Is it a community of Wombles or perhaps a bucolic English village green? Or is it a traditional way of sharing or allocating resources that predates the modern market economy? Despite rarely receiving attention in the media and academia, the commons is important in building mutually beneficial rather than hierarchical social structures. The origin of the noun “common” dates to around 1300 CE and means a fellowship or brotherhood.

Western cultures have been moulded into seeing the world through a lens of private ownership, and this has certainly been good for national economies. However, when access to some resources is shared rather than privately controlled, society as a whole tends to benefit, and this avoids inefficient use of resources and space.

The commons takes in a diverse range of environments, including urban parks, plazas and roads. In nature, it extends to rivers, beaches and oceans, especially areas outside of national territorial waters. Clean air, clean water, libraries and technology can be considered commons too.

Collectively managed land

In many countries, common land is used as means of subsistence, and sometimes also for earning an income. Frequently this involves community forestry. Such jointly managed forests exist in Nepal, Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil and India, among other countries. Two major goals of community forests are to protect forests and to relieve poverty among nearby communities. They are often used for firewood, animal fodder, sustainable logging, nuts and mushrooms. Rather than being a legacy from the past, in recent decades they have been evolving and developing, especially in Nepal, where government control over the forests was decentralised in the 1990s. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2016 that nearly a third of the world’s forests were managed under a kind of community-based arrangement.

Indigenous groups are important examples of functioning commons-oriented societies that typically use a system of collective land ownership. The proportion of similarly run “customary” land is particularly high across the South Pacific region, reaching 97 per cent in Papua New Guinea. The land-governance network International Land Coalition estimates that 2.5 billion people manage and rely on over 50 per cent of the world’s land, but only 20 per cent of this is secured, leading to a risk of “land grabs” in the other 30 per cent.

A community land trust (CLT) is a type of collective land ownership structure that helpfully pushes down the cost of building or buying a new home. Under the traditional CLT model, the owner pays for the house, while the CLT administration retains ownership of the land on which it stands. This type of legal structure is common in the UK, and in the United States where it has been successfully used to regenerate areas of urban blight, among other purposes. Rather than handing development of an area to developers and the logic of the market, a CLT enables the community to steer the development of an area in a direction that it collectively decides.

Collective ownership has been utilised in some unconventional circumstances. Fordhall Organic Farm in the British county of Shropshire had been tenanted, but not owned, by the same family for centuries. In 2006, when its future was threatened by industrial development, a pair of siblings launched an urgent fundraising drive. This resulted in contributions from 8000 member-owners, and the farm was saved.

Enclosing the commons

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