Commons in flux, commons under threat


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Forest in Nepal. Photo by Ghintang (source: Flickr Creative Commons)

At the International Association for the Study of the Commons biennial conference in Hyderabad, reports on research in three continents paint a picture of change in forest commons, and of threats to community rights. Some of the case studies involve communities who were already using or managing forest commons but have been granted new formal rights to forests. Paradoxically, these new rights often work to undermine customary tenure and legitimize centralized control. CIFOR scientist Anne Larson cites ways in which the seemingly beneficial act of recognizing or formalizing rights in Latin America can threaten community rights. “In fact, recognition may lead to substantial conflict over resources and power, and competition to establish the legitimacy of alternative authorities. And the legal design of the process for choosing this entity may help or hinder its legitimacy.” The “authority” referred to here would be the community representative chosen, by whatever process, to hold land title or exercise control over resources in the name of the community. Unfortunately, this representative might also provide the government a point at which to exercise new control over communally held forest lands. Says Larson, such authorities operating in the name of the collective can “become the center of contention between these different layers of government. What better way to try to maintain control than to try to control that legal representative of the collective and the collective territory?” Sushil Saigal joins an evolving discourse with his presentation on India’s “wastelands,” the historical classification for uncultivated, commonly-managed lands. The regulation of these areas has had a profound impact on land management and forestry policies in the country. Saigal’s chronological “policy narrative” begins with colonial and post-independence approaches to the wastelands, and continues on to discuss the social forestry era, the rural development forestry era, and up to the present day. Saigal shows how government agendas, at one time or another, have been revised to accomplish widely differing goals such as settlement, agricultural development, poverty alleviation, watershed management, or afforestation. Most recently, policies have adapted to emerging biofuel industries and, of course, climate change and considerations of carbon sequestration. Through it all, resulting policy changes not only affected communal lands themselves, but our own ideas about the commons. Shifting government priorities with regard to forest commons in Nepal is also a topic discussed by Naya Paudel. The emerging forest-climate debate has prompted a reexamination of tenure security, as the idea of a global commons is expanded to included forests as carbon sinks. Again, a general policy trend can be traced, from the 1980s emphasis on basic needs to the current emphasis on ecosystem services. “Local communities are being forced, through REDD projects, a number of training programs, awareness campaigns, media campaigns, and government policy itself to change their management plans to prioritize carbon,” claims Paudel. Until recently, community forestry endowed communities near-autonomy in managing forest products and services. But now, the state claims ownership to carbon, at least that which lies underground. Paudel fears new policies favoring carbon sequestration will enable state authority to penetrate the local forest domain, delegitimizing other uses and excluding those who rely on the forest for wood, fodder or other resources critical to their livelihoods. “The key question is, how can community forestry as a local common and carbon as a global common be mediated to avoid a conflict where we can’t have both?” Finally, Emmanuel Marfo examines a threat to community rights from within. In Ghana, most of the power to allocate land resides in a complex system of chiefs, from local chiefs up through paramount chiefs. The Ghanaian constitution provides a formula for distributing forest revenue, with benefits presumed to target communities, but the law names chiefs and local government as beneficiaries without stipulating measures for downward accountability. This creates a situation where community benefits have essentially been privatized, and the law provides little remedy to protect the rights of customary users. “Whenever an individual has attempted to sue a chief for accountability they have failed in the courts, because the courts have taken judicial notice of customary law, that a chief cannot be sued by his subjects on the grounds of accountability.” Marfo envisions a reconstruction of the commons that would legislate downward accountability, but knows the task will be a difficult one.

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