Commons and their Governance

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  • Documentation, workshop: The commons and their governance as paradigm for the 21st century.

Moderation: Gertraud Faltermeier (sector “Agriculture and Food”, GTZ) and Dr. Stephan Krall (sector programme “Sustainable Management of Resources in Agriculture”, GTZ)

  • Silke Helfrich (consultant)
  • Dr. Andreas Springer-Heinze (sector “Agricultural Trade and Standards”, GTZ)
  • Jutta Schmitz (sector programme “Sustainable Management of Resources in Agriculture”)

Workshop Report


Silke Helfrich gave an overview about the modern commons debate:

Self-organization is a key in the commons, but self-organization is practically nonexistent in conventional economic theory. A commons is a shared understanding of how to use something which does not belong to one only person; a complex system of social agreements concerning a resource system. It consists of three basic building blocks: The common pool resources, the communities and the rules and norms. Whereas common pool resources (CPR) are goods that are not owned by a single person (land, forest and public spaces you have the right to enter). Property rights define how to allow people using common pool resources (access and usage rights). The notion of the commons is linked to communities, “there is no commons without commoning” (Linebaugh).

The common pool resources land, water and forests are rivalrous. Rivalrous CPRs diminish the opportunities of third persons to use the same resource. It is easier to deal with the collective access and management to non-rivalrous resources, but: Does that mean that governing of the commons does not work for agricultural communities? In Hardin’s argumentation people are considered as sheer “homo oeconomicus”, which are working for their own benefits. The example of sheep pastures serves as a metaphor for the so called “tragedy”: Hardin pictures a pasture “open to all”. Thus overgrazing of unmanaged sheep pastures are seen as the inevitable consequence. Hardin concludes, there would only be two ways to avoid the “tragedy”: strong rules through “public property” (governmental) and “private property”; both external authorities as control units. But natural commons systems are not simply “open access”. They are not unmanaged like no men’s land.

Even though, enclosure of the commons has been considered as the only possible instrument to avoid the so called “tragedy of the commons” which in fact is a tragedy of no men’s land.; what we are facing currently is a modern process of “enclosure of the commons” by economic power, by law or technology (e.g. simple fences but also complex technologies like Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT)).

Property regimes matter. But it is important to note, that the difference between private property and common/collective property is only gradual. (one person exludes other persons or a group of people exclude others). While the difference between assigned property rights (to one or more persons) and open access is a principle one. A model of how to analyze the management of complex collective resource systems is designed by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom. At least six core elements have to be considered – in sum 38 variables to analyze those six core elements.

Jutta Schmitz presented Ostrom’s principles of governing the commons using the example of irrigation systems in Bolivia.

Characteristic irrigation systems in Bolivia are constructed as channels that can be opened and closed to flood fields, built by the community.

Ostrom’s design principles for robust common pool resources adopted in Bolivia are:

  • Clearly defined boundaries.
  • Congruence between appropriation/provision rules and local conditions.
  • Collective choice arrangements where most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying those rules.
  • Monitors are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators. (as an example: The principle of rotating tasks in Punata: Members of different age groups have to take on different tasks in the irrigation system. This age-dependent rotation means that in the course of time everyone is familiarized with all the main tasks. Thus, the danger for being manipulated by one or a few members who have pooled knowledge and experience can be avoided.)
  • Graduated sanctions.
  • Conflict-resolution mechanisms.
  • Minimal recognition of rights to organize. (Water user associations and irrigation communities in Bolivia have far reaching autonomous authority with respect to water management in irrigation.)

Conclusion: There are many examples of successful governance of small CPRs in irrigation that are in line with Ostrom’s design principles and that are based on primary group collective action. The governance of CPRs that are of larger scale and subject to non-local influences is highly complex and requires a mix of governance regimes and mechanisms. Increasing resource scarcity as well as environmental and climate changes will require adaptive and polycentric governance of CPRs.

Andreas Springer-Heinze, presented commons in the field of economic development,

e.g. information, the use of infrastructure as well as the use of rules. A higher state of development means more institutions but there has also been observed a development towards non-rivalrous, created commons. The question about the homo oeconomicus was presented: There is exploitative and altruistic behavior. Both are caused by self-interest as personal motivation. But short-term self-interest has to be replaced by long-term farsighted self-interest. It has to be laid open the economic benefit individuals would have by using a particular resource in a sustainable way instead of overusing it. The development of markets and the transfer of goods are in many cases hindered by coordination problems, e.g. concerning a lack of trust.  


Quota regulations need to implicate a guarantee against monopolies. Mechanisms like quota regulations are used by Regionalwert AG or to regulate fishery. Fisheries use a transferrable quota in order to create markets. For example Australia and New Zealand use individual, transferable rights of use, distributed by the government. Those who do not use their rights can sell or auction them. In principle such mechanisms are compatible with a commons approach if there is a guaranty, that those who have the most spending capacity and can pay higher prices don’t “collect” (monopolize) such usage rights. It was discussed if a commons based approached would be transferable to agriculture. The selling of land use rights does not guarantee the sustainability of the use. It was discussed if straightly defined (private) land titles can help to cope with rising pressure on resources. Modern commons theory empirically falsified this assumption.

The question is not about private or common property – there are no one fits all solutions. Commons have to be seen beyond the dichotomy of private property rights versus common property rights. The property regime does not predetermine if resource management will be sustainable or not. It is rather a question of the design principles that are developed by Ostrom. Critical voices emphasize complexity and expenditure of governing the commons. Governing the commons is complex, but according to Ostrom, it is the only way and non evitable price that has to be paid to guaranty sustainable management of common resources. Regulation and the necessity of sanctioning systems are also part of Ostrom’s principles of governing the commons and there is no “one fits all” solution.

The concept of polycentric governance can help to cope with complexity in governing the global commons. Concerning climate change, tradable rights have to be combined with the total sum of emissions. The real challenge concerning the atmospheric commons is that we have to convert an open access regime (i.e. The atmosphere as no men’s land) into a collective governance structure in order to convert the atmosphere into a real global commons. Climate change does not affect people equally. Some parts of the world also benefit lightly but especially the poor areas, e.g. African Sahel, will suffer most. China’s incentive for cooperation is low, because it is less affected. The failure of implementing an appropriate climate governance regime is closely related to market and government failure.

More information about governing the commons