Q&A: Who owns the rights to the world’s common resources?

CIFOR scientist, Andrew Wardell, explains what the "commons" is and the challenges in managing common resources.

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KITAFUJI, Japan (3 June, 2013)_The rights and access of indigenous peoples and communities to forest resources are under increasing threat from large land acquisitions and other pressures associated with global trade and investment.

In the lead-up to the 14th Global Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC), CIFOR scientist Andrew Wardell discusses some of the challenges in managing the world’s commons resources.

This is an edited transcript.

Q: What exactly is meant by the term the “commons”?

A: The “commons” normally refers to people who have access rights and rights to use natural or “common” resources; these can be anything from forests and oceans to grazing areas. In a more contemporary context, another example of a commons is something like Wikipedia; it is an “information commons” where if you have access to the Internet and can afford to do so, you will have access to this common resource.

Historically, it is very much associated with the Enclosures Acts in England where, between 1750 and 1860, over 5000 Enclosures Acts were passed, largely restricting the access of the common people to fish, collect hay and cultivate land owned by the lord of the manor. But these problems are still relevant today. In many parts of the world, common resources are being threatened and the total area of common land is in decline due to the growing pressures associated with global trade and investment.

The commons must be distinguished from privately owned property, where individual rights are prioritized. There are now more efforts to try and recognize and protect the rights of commoners. For example, you may have seen the recent landmark Constitutional Court decision that Indonesia’s adat, or customary, lands should not be classified as state forests. But there is a long way to go from a simple Constitutional Court decision to actually implementing something that protects the rights of customary users on the ground.

Q: What are some of challenges surrounding the common management of resources?

A: The issue of the commons is very much related to issues around access to land rights or land tenure—what many scholars refer to as a “wicked problem”. These are problems that do not disappear, partly because they are often contested areas, where different rights and different claims are being made at different times—they are part of an ongoing cycle from generation to generation.

The challenge at the moment is trying to protect the rights of commoners given the growing influence of external/domestic actors and investments due to the increase in the globalization of trade and investment. For example, the large-scale acquisition of land and property for biofuels and agricultural plantations in countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is putting pressure on common resources and forcing many people off their traditional lands.

The challenge at the moment is trying to protect the rights of commoners given the increase in the globalization of trade and investment. David A. LaSpina

The current challenge is trying to protect the rights of commoners given the increase in the globalization of trade and investment. David A. LaSpina

The growing commodification of nature (e.g. through Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation schemes (REDD) and Payments for Environmental Services (PES)) and the increase in “land grabbing” associated with these are also potential threats, particularly in terms of securing the long-term rights of commoners to common resources. Yet, despite these challenges, I think we are seeing a growing recognition of the importance of commons and commoners.

Q: What type of research is CIFOR doing to support the effective management of these resources?

A: CIFOR’s research has thrown up a number of interesting findings regarding the processes through which land is acquired, both in terms of securing the rights of commoners to common property and resources, but also the growing trends of external investors. We have started a new project with the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) in Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. The research will look at the legal frameworks which exist in these countries to promote investments in the forestry, agriculture, fishery and mining sectors and then examine to what extent these governments are actually protecting the interests of local communities and/or promoting the interests of external investors. For example, we will look at the extent to which these countries are meeting international voluntary social and environmental safeguards (such as the European Union’s sustainability scheme for biofuels) and if this is being translated into national legislation in their own parliaments.

It is also building on some of CIFOR’s earlier bioenergy work and our China and Africa project, which has thrown up a number of concerns about the extent to which foreign investors are acquiring large areas of land and ignoring national legislation. An example is in Ghana where we found that some Scandinavian investors had acquired almost half a million hectares of land simply by dealing with community chiefs. This is one example of how CIFOR’s research is providing new knowledge on the growing “green grabbing” phenomenon.

Q: Does looking at the way that forestry interacts with other sectors offer a possible solution?

A: Yes, we are supporting this move towards a broader landscape approach and taking forestry out of its own little “ghetto” to ensure that we are looking at many of the real drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, most of which are extra-sectoral.

Q: Looking ahead, what changes do you expect to see?

A: I suspect that in 20 years from now, we will be dealing with very similar issues. As I mentioned earlier, this is a complex problem, particularly given the recent value attached to forests and the recent fascination with REDD+ and the forest carbon potential. This in itself has added to the complexity and contests surrounding this new value of forests, so I think that it is a never-ending frontier. In the future, we will face many of the same challenges but hopefully some of our research will have contributed to resolving some of these issues in specific contexts where the rights of commons can be better safeguarded, but I don’t think the issues will have disappeared

Q: Is REDD+ likely to help or hinder the progress made in securing these rights?

A: I think REDD+ has simply opened another layer of contestation while many of the old contests have not disappeared. I think we have some good examples in Indonesia, where in some cases, in both Central and West Kalimantan, sometimes there are between three and four different claims to the same piece of land, of which REDD+ is the most recent. It has not resolved the outstanding conflicts; the contest has just become more complex.

Andrew Wardell is the Director of CIFOR’s Forests and Governance research portfolio. Contact him at

CIFOR will be participating in the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) conference in Japan on 3–7 June 2013. Visit CIFOR’s events page for more information.

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