Commons, a Model for Managing Natural Resources


Introduction to Passerelle n°6 : Commons, a Model for the Future

, by PETITJEAN Olivier

Over the course of history, societies have developed specific ways to manage natural resources collectively, so as to ensure their prosperity and continuity. This most often took place on a local scale. These are the “commons”. In some cases, resources were managed as commons because of their relative scarcity, as a way to prevent any conflict that might result from competition to access it. Often, opting to manage a resource as a commons was just seen as the best way to derive the most benefits from the resource for the most people, while making sure that there would still be enough for future generations – thus, a way to make sure that the communities in question would be able to perpetuate and renew themselves over time.

These collective forms of resource management have survived (including in “developed” countries), changing over time, up until the present day. They have survived despite dominant development models (from big business capitalism to state capitalism) attempting to destroy them, or at least marginalise them, seeing them as archaic remnants from the past. But in reality, commons are far from inefficient or ineffective when it comes to managing and protecting natural resources – It should be obvious that only a social and ecological short-sighted conception of wealth and development would designate them “inefficient”.

This collection aims to demonstrate, by way of concrete examples and analysis which have been put together by activist networks and civil society organisations, that the commons are a key aspect to the way forward when it comes to addressing the manifold social and environmental crises in many parts of the world today. They also represent the way forward in how we deal with global challenges such as climate change. As opposed to many of the “solutions” currently promoted by governments, big corporations and international institutions, the commons have proved much more reliable and effective in protecting the integrity of the natural world while fostering sustainability, democracy and social justice.

Over the last two decades, the model of the commons has also gained new importance in the fields of knowledge, culture, IT, communication and health, in the context of a considerable development in intellectual property rights, to the profit of a handful of large transnational corporations.

There are in fact many connections between the two kinds of commons: material and natural commons on the one hand, and cultural immaterial commons on the other. First of all, there is inevitably a degree of mutual inspiration and cross-fertilisation between various models and solutions for the creation and management of commons. Furthermore, the natural world itself is more and more the subject of intellectual property rights, with the artificialisation and privatisation of seeds, biopiracy, and patents of living organisms. It is simply impossible to separate the material aspect of biodiversity (plants and animals, and their environment) from its immaterial aspect (the traditional knowledge and practices of the communities which have been their guardians over centuries). Conversely, intellectual property also becomes a pathway to the privatisation of commons such as water and the climate when their management becomes more and more dependent on proprietary technological innovations (clean tech, water treatment and desalination, etc.). Lastly, sharing the management of a natural commons is not about dividing it up like a cake, but about multiplying it, just as it is in the field of knowledge and culture: communities maintain natural resources, ensure their renewal for future generations and shared use makes the resource available for more uses and more users.

We are constantly warned of the numerous crises which threaten us and our planet – the climate crisis, the energy crisis, the food crisis, the water crisis, the fisheries crisis, etc. We are told that all natural resources are becoming scarcer. The question of whether this scarcity is related to a particular development model is not often raised. It appears we are supposed to believe that the scale of the problem is such that the only recourse is greater and greater dependence on what has created these crises in the first place: the dispossession of local communities, the expansion of commodification, a blind faith in technological fixes, the reins of power held by a handful of major political, scientific and economic players – in other words, further enclosures and privatisation of the commons.

This process is already underway. Commons have declined steadily across the world over the course of the twentieth century, but their decline has accelerated in the last decade. In the name of “rational” management of fisheries, water, agricultural land and the atmosphere, new expropriations have taken place throughout the world. Primary forests are confiscated, under the pretence of fighting deforestation, and quickly replaced by tree plantations, while their traditional communities are sent to live somewhere else. Farmers are encouraged to adopt “improved” genetically modified or hybrid seeds, along with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Water and agricultural land are appropriated by large corporations, for their alleged superior “performance”. Yet their “superiority” stems from the fact that they don’t pay to renew natural resources and they intensively use fossil carbon in different forms (fertilisers, transport, etc.).

Many players see the Rio +20 Conference as just an opportunity for the international community to give formal approval to this privatisation push, under the pretence of a new, “green economy”. The promotion of financial tools and market-based solutions for managing natural resources comes down to facilitating an expansion of private property and the associated legal protection, in order to wear down the communities’ resistance to the commodification of their livelihoods. It is for this reason that we considered it valuable to prepare a new edition of this collection (an initial version was published two years ago in French.) Since then, many more civil society organisations and social movements have taken up the cause of the commons, and more and more bridges are being built between seemingly remote issues and struggles, from seeds to free software.

Of course, the commons are not about looking backwards. The world has become so interdependent in so many ways that it is no longer enough to address problems solely on a local scale. The commons of tomorrow will in some cases involve protecting the heritage of the past, in some cases re-discovering, reforming and updating this heritage, and in some cases building new commons altogether. As illustrated by these case studies, it will in many instances involve communities from the global North (re)learning, through exchanges with communities from the global South, values and practices they may have lost sight of. Moving forward will require not only strengthening exchanges between communities, social movements and civil society groups which are invested in natural or cultural commons, but also an official recognition of their capacity for self-organisation and social innovation, as well as the invention of public policies in harmony with these commons and favourable to their development.

Equally important, new ways to manage the interconnection between the global and the local scale will need to be devised in order to tackle global challenges such as global warming. Commons which are critically important for the planet as a whole should be managed in a way that benefits both the international community and local communities. The successive climate change summits of the past few years have demonstrated a widespread awareness that there are now “global commons” – but they have also demonstrated the current inter-government cooperation model is unable to manage this commons. Rio+20 should be a milestone towards a greater integration and recognition of the paradigm of the commons in the international system – and not towards the final appropriation of the planet’s natural commons by a handful of transnational corporations.