Governing our “greater good” in challenging times

17th IASC Global Conference : Chair, Anne Larson, on a commons approach…
Photo: Marlon del Aguila Guerrero/CIFOR

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Lima, Peru- Lima’s Pontificia Universidad Católica, opened its doors today as hosts of the 17th International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) Global Conference 2019. Throughout this week, over 400 multi-disciplinary researchers, practitioners, and policymakers working to improve governance, advance understanding, will come together to propose sustainable solutions for the commons.

But what are the commons?

The concept brings together two intrinsic working values: shared resources and collective management.

Both values ring essential for the sciences of forests and environment. Our planet and the climate is our ‘commons,’ to address the issues it, and therefore ‘we’ face, requires global transformative change. This would need to come from some kind of collective action for the common good.

To find out more, Forests News spoke to Anne Larson, Principal Scientist and Team Leader of the Equity, Gender, Justice & Tenure team at Center for International Forestry Research, and chair member of the 17th IASC Global Conference this week.

The IASC 2019 CIFOR delegation will present a variety of topics on the governance of the commons, ranging from collective tenure experiences and reforms, the role of multi-stakeholder forums in land-use decision-making, investment pathways and impacts following devolution of natural resource rights, and more.


Q: How would you define “the commons”?

A:The meaning has changed, and expanded, over time. Sometimes it refers specifically to common property, or an area owned, shared and managed by a group of people. It also refers to the collective management of resources, such as forests, pasture, fisheries or water. I like the definition on the IASC web site, actually, which explains how the term has emerged, without getting too technical. Impossible not to mention American economist Elinor Ostrom, of course, who won the Nobel Prize for her work on this.

Today the term is used to refer to other kinds of commons, like knowledge commons (such as Wikipedia) and urban commons (public spaces that citizens have organized to claim for shared use, such as community gardens). Even the global climate is a kind of commons. There has been new interest in “commons” in part as a reaction to individualism, particularly as young people around the world push for more collective approaches and collective solutions that focus on the “greater good” over individual interests.


Q: What are some other examples of commons?

A: I’ve already mentioned some types of commons, but more specifically around our work at CIFOR we are usually looking at natural resource commons. In the strictest sense of the term, forests, for example, are often owned, held and/or managed by groups of people. Indigenous people in particular are likely to have rights, even title, to forests and forestlands as a collective. Within their geographical area, indigenous communities may distribute certain areas for individual or family use, which would be similar to private lands, but forests (and pasture) are often managed as a commons. That is, the community develops formal or informal norms and rules to govern the use of the forest, such as for the extraction of non-timber forest products or for logging. The rules usually vary (and are sometimes subject to national law as well) for products extracted for sale versus domestic use. There may be different rules for the use of sacred areas, for hunting or for resources that are scarce. The entire area held by the collective is usually referred to as communal land, whereas the areas managed for common use would be the commons.

In more general terms, the idea of commons also refers more broadly to collective action and collective action problems. If we think of the kinds of changes that need to happen regarding the management of the planet as a whole, given the threat of global warming and massive loss of biodiversity, then these collective management issues are relevant to how we manage specific landscapes, as well as the cumulative impact of these and other decisions on planet Earth.


Q: How to effectively govern the commons has been a long debate in academia… what are the challenges for governing the commons?

A: The fundamental challenge in any commons is the potential for contradictions between the individual and the collective benefits. Hardin’s infamous article on the “Tragedy of the Commons” argued that a group of individuals, acting in their own self-interest, would always overuse and deplete a shared resource. Hardin’s examples have since been taken to refer to “open access” resources rather than a commons, which, again, is held by a group, members of a community that cooperate, that build some kind of governance institutions, to manage the resources and prevent depletion or collapse.

Hence this question of governance is central to a successful commons, and how difficult it is to build effective and resilient institutions depends on a number of factors, both internal and external to the group. In the more “traditional” commons literature, the emphasis has been placed on the internal governance conditions, or the emergence of collective institutions (understood as rules) for the improved management of common property resources .

Other scholars, such as those with a political ecology approach, place more emphasis on the external conditions, and their interplay with the internal ones. For example, in an article Iliana Monterroso and I wrote in 2013, we argued that the forest commons we were studying in Central America called for greater attention to history and politics. The commons themselves – meaning the rights that local communities had won to own or use these areas – were the result of local, national and in some cases international struggles. And the communities there are still to this day facing ongoing challenges from those who would reverse their land and resource rights and/or exploit them to their own advantage.

So the challenges are multiple: different interests within the collective, different threats to the collective from outside interests in the resource, poverty levels, livelihoods options, the quality of the resource itself, and so on.


Q: And the potential/positive implications?

A: Good governance that entails managing resources for the collective good, which also implies future members of that collective, is a defining feature of sustainability. Collective management of resources can also bring broader benefits to a larger group of people than, say, resources managed by an individual or a company. Take the community forestry concessions in Peten, Guatemala, for example. Community concessions work side by side with private concessions. Nine active community concessions have deforestation rates of almost zero, and much lower than in the core and buffer zones of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve; at the same time, the concessions have provided jobs, income and human and social capital improvements for the communities involved, bringing many families out of poverty.

So, what are the alternatives? One is private property instead of common property. Historically this was the usual argument: that private property and the hidden hand of the market would somehow magically adjust the laws of supply and demand, and both people and natural resources would be better off. I like to think that at this point we are winning over this argument. Even the World Bank came around over the last 20 years to recognizing the importance of common property. Besides, not everything can be privatized even if we wanted to, like the climate.

The other alternative, to prevent collapse, is regulation – that is, regulation external to the collective. And certainly regulation has its place. But a lot of evidence, from Ostrom and others, suggests that people are more likely to follow rules – to take ownership of these decisions – when they play a role in making them. Regulation requires an authority with sufficient capacity and legitimacy for enforcement. Of course what is needed in any particular case depends on the specific context, as well as the scale.


Q: In our times, with political turbulence, climate change, economic challenges pressing on the world’s natural and social capital, what’s the relevance of the commons approach?

A: I think that when we look at the really big problems, like climate change, like biodiversity declines, remembering that the planet itself is a commons reminds us that we are all in this together. Business and industry continue to pursue investments that drive global warming, habitat loss, water pollution and degradation of all kinds without having to pay any of these costs – this has to change. We need a global transformation in the way we live on the planet, and that is only going to come from some kind of collective action, working together for change, for the common good. Working together also reminds us that community and connection is what gives our lives meaning.


Q: How is your work linked to research on governance of the commons?

A: I have two main research projects that are linked in some way to these questions of commons governance, and the results of both will be presented during the upcoming IASC 2019 conference. One is a study of collective forest tenure reforms (recognition/ formalization of rights) in Peru, Indonesia and Uganda. Some of the reforms we studied are in indigenous communities, especially in Peru, as well as in other customary communities (clans in Uganda) and with other types of collectives (such as social forestry in Indonesia and community forestry regimes in Uganda). We studied the history of reforms, implementation by government agencies and outcomes for community men and women, particularly with regard to tenure security. All of these reforms involve managing forests and forest lands. One of the findings we will talk about at the conference is the importance of addressing food security and livelihoods concerns, in addition to forest conservation.

The other project is about multi-level governance, and particularly multi-stakeholder approaches to the governance of particular landscapes in subnational jurisdictions (provinces, states or regions). These spaces are not what we would normally think of as commons, but at the scale studied, they are in effect shared spaces where actors have come together to improve land and resource governance. The 14 cases in our study are from Brazil, Peru, Indonesia and Ethiopia. We are looking at multi-stakeholder forums (MSFs) set up to share information or make decisions about these landscapes, analyzing the MSFs’ effectiveness (whether they meet their goals) and equity (how power differences among actors, inside and outside the forum, are managed).


Q: This year IASC’s global conference in Lima will focus on challenges and innovation for governing the commons… could you exemplify one challenge/innovation from what you seen in your work?

A: The challenges are dozens. In Peru for example, the land titling process is still too long and complicated, even though some procedures have been simplified in the last year or so. We produced a step by step guide to try to support communities, NGOs and government officials involved in the process. We found that after getting land titles, the vast majority of men and women in indigenous communities feel their land rights are secure, but the difference between men and women is statistically significant, with about 10% fewer women feeling secure. One important innovation for women is the effort to ensure women are accepted as full members in community statutes: for example in one community we studied, the women won the right to a plot of land even if they are not married. Another challenge that came up in Peru and elsewhere is the disconnect between reforms and tenure security, and sometimes forest conservation priorities, on the one hand, and livelihoods improvements on the other.  After all, if community members cannot at least guarantee food security for their families, their children are likely to leave, and the governance of their territories, as well as their self-determination, will be undermined.

With regard to the study of multi-stakeholder forums, what is interesting is that these forums themselves are seen as an innovation. They represent an attempt to operationalize the collective action I mentioned earlier – working together to bring about change. What we are trying to do in our research is to assure that we are learning from these experiments, and not just seeing them as some kind of panacea. This means learning from the past – we have some 30 years of experience in participatory processes – and from the forums themselves that are in process today.



CIFOR at IASC 2019 is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).


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