Commons as a Transformation Paradigm

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* Article: The commons as a transformation paradigm. By Ruth Meinzen-Dick.

Contribution to the Berlin Commons Conference, November 1-2, 2010


Ruth Meinzen-Dick:

"I grew up on the commons. Although I may not look like it, I grew up in rural south India. Behind our house was the “kadu” (forest) where the shepherds would graze their animals, and women would collect firewood and medicinal plants. Beyond that was an irrigation tank that supplied water for crops, fish, and household needs, and recharged the groundwater. One of my greatest delights was when my father would take me through the tank, or to watch the shepherds bring their flocks back to the lambs at night.

I also remember what happened when new pumpset technology came in, and rich farmers were able to put in deeper wells, pump more of the groundwater, effectively “enclosing” and privatizing that common pool resource, and the drinking water wells that we all depended upon dried up, so that everyone had to keep paying to deepen our wells, in the “race to the bottom”.

Of course, at that time I didn’t know these were commons. I only came to appreciate the collective action that it takes to manage these resources when I went back to research the management of these irrigation tanks near my home village, for my master’s thesis. Since that time I have dedicated most of my work to looking at resources that are, in some way or another, shared resources: water, forests, pastures, even biodiversity.

Once you start looking at commons, you see them everywhere. That is part of what we have come together to celebrate and discuss in this gathering. The commons play a vital role in the livelihoods of billions of people. Over 1.6 billion people live in and actively use the 30% of the global land mass that is forest and close to 1 billion people the 40% land mass that is drylands. These areas, although often classified by national law as public lands, are in many places actively managed by their inhabitants, very often through common property arrangements. In addition to many forest and dryland areas, fisheries, pastures, irrigation systems, and the oceans are examples of commons.

Even private lands may have an element of commons, such as when farmland is used for grazing in the dry season, or in the Mekong region where flooded rice fields are used for collective fishing, supplying poor people with important sources of protein and maintaining the biodiversity of fish species.

Many natural resources are so-called common pool resources. Resources like large water bodies or rangelands are, by their physical nature, difficult to exclude other users, yet the use of the resource by one user decreases the supply available to others. Throughout history, in many societies, these have been treated as common property of some group, developing rules about who needs to contribute what, and who can draw what from that shared resource.

That is not to say that this is perfect. Common property has also been critiqued at least as far back as Aristotle, but Garrett Hardin’s article “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been a particularly influential critique of the commons—partly because of the catch title, and partly because the metaphor he used (of how a common grazing area would inevitably be overgrazed because each person gets the full benefit of adding an extra cow to the commons, but only gets a share of the cost in the depleted resource). The result has been a move to either privatize or nationalize the commons—taking it away from communities that depend on and know the resources intimately.

We have now had 40 years of research since Hardin’s time that demonstrates that his analogy is catchy, but incorrect. There are many cases of commons that have been managed sustainably over long periods of time—centuries, even a thousand years in some cases. The International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) and the Digital Library of the Commons have collected thousands of studies of commons, and last year Elinor Ostrom, our founding president won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on governing the commons.

She and others have clearly demonstrated that resource users around the world have defined rules and evolved norms for the regulation and conservation of shared resources. In short, Hardin got it wrong, because he ignored the potential for communication and human ingenuity to develop (and enforce) rules, and build trust, so that people would abide by them. Elinor Ostrom’s famous “design principles” and other studies identify some of the key aspects that contribute to effective commons management, where enough people contribute and overuse is constrained.

It is clear that there are no blueprints—effectively managing the commons requires adaptation to local conditions and active involvement by the users, not rigid rules that are set from outside. Resource overuse and degradation are not inevitable and are largely associated with open access situations where these rights and obligations are non-existent or have been weakened or eroded by various pressures such as privatization and individualization, state appropriation, population increase, commercialization, or migration, among others.

The tragedy of the commons is that it is so misunderstood, so undervalued.

The commons are of particular importance for securing the livelihoods of poorer or marginalized groups in society, including women and the landless. Although the value generated by the use and sale of diverse products (e.g. fuelwood, fodder, fruits, and medicines) from the commons is often not quantified, studies that have estimated their value show that they are very substantial. In 1996 in India, community forests contribute up to 29 per cent of the income of poorer households, adding up to US $5 billion a year. This is more than twice the amount of foreign direct investment or of official development assistance in India at the time. And from India to Zimbabwe, we find that the poorest households derive a significant % of their income from the commons, which are especially important in bad years as a safety net. Women in particular are often primary gatherers of products like water, firewood, or wild plants from the commons.

Then there are the ecological benefits of the commons: regulating water flows, maintaining biodiversity, and sequestering carbon. These benefit not only the people who live on or near the commons, but downstream city dwellers, and all of us, no matter how far away we live. The interesting thing here is that attempts to take the “commoners” out of these commons have usually failed. People who live with these resources have special knowledge of their management, and can lead to more resilient management of the resources than if they are pushed out.

Bu the commons also fulfill social, religious, cultural and recreational functions. My “doctorfather” Walt Coward studied many irrigation systems. He found that building and holding property together in the form of farmer-managed irrigation systems formed the “social glue” in these communities, that facilitated cooperation in other areas, as well. A recent study from Samburu pastoral communities in Kenya (by Grimm and Lesorogol) shows the same principle from the other side: They compared a community with a group ranch with one where the collective holding had been dissolved and people held individual title to their land. The odds of cooperating in communal farm labor are 93.0% lower for households with deeds compared to those without. This doesn’t just affect farm labor, but a whole range of other collective action for mutual benefit. The loss of this social cohesion was not weighed when the decision to privatize the group ranch was made.

But there may still be a question of whether the commons is just a relict of the rural past, or still has relevance today. I would argue that the commons are as relevant as ever, and may be even more needed to address the problems of today. Shared resources of biodiversity are being discussed in Japan, carbon and climate in Copenhagen and Cancun. The oceans are being over-polluted and overfished. Cities and suburbs need parks, sidewalks and trails to allow people to walk, exercise, stay healthy. And we need the social interaction as well as the physical goods that this creates.

The question is, can we take these principles from local commons to higher levels?

Over 10 years ago, Ostrom and others wrote about this, pointing out that these larger national, regional, and global challenges are harder to address through the commons because of

• Scaling up problems • Cultural diversity challenges • Complications of interlinked resources • Accelerating rates of change.

But there are certain principles that do apply:

• Need for people to recognize the salience—importance—of the commons, to recognize that they depend upon it, need it • Not one monolithic management unit, but nested enterprises and polycentric governance (which we’ll be discussing later) • Allowing people who depend on the resource scope to make decisions

I would add the need to tap into ideology as a motivation, that goes beyond narrow self-interest. Unfortunately, Garrett Hardin is still being taught in an uncritical fashion, as “truth” rather than “myth”. Ostrom noted that some universities in the US, the average student will have Hardin’s article assigned 3 times.

I’ll say that I became hooked on IASC meetings at the second one I attended, when Douglass North, who had just won the Nobel Prize in Economics, said “rational self-maximizing behavior—we all know that’s nonsense, don’t we?” There are things that motivate people to work for collective interests beyond themselves—we just need to understand how to tap into it (but also not assume that it will happen automatically).

And there are certain new developments that are promising for the commons:

• Technologies that allow us to monitor the resource • Technologies (ICTs) that allow us to communicate and “get to know” people at a distance, even when you may never meet in person, to develop bonds and trust Communities don’t have to do it alone. Governments can play a role in fostering this cooperation. Partly by recognizing the rights of communities to govern resources, to make decisions, and to benefit from the investments that they make together.

Let me give you an encouraging example of how the commons have been strengthened in England and how this provides lessons for other countries. The English commons are synonymous with “enclosure”—the movement in history where landlords evicted villagers from the common lands to convert them for private use. But in recent years, both urban and rural people have recognized the importance of the village commons—not only for grazing lands, but also for walking, biodiversity, natural beauty, and cultural heritage. The 2006 UK Commons Act strengthens the rights of commoners, and provides an example to other countries of how different interest groups can come together to protect the commons. Rather than being only a relic of the past, the commons are recognized as crucial for the future.

The commons connects us across generations. I began by telling you about my father introducing me to the commons. Let me close with the next generation. I have been fortunate enough to take my children to the same tanks and kadu in India where I grew up, and I took my daughter to the last IASC conference, where she got to learn from Elinor Ostrom and other great scholars and activists working on the commons. Then when she started at the University last year, her microeconomics professor was teaching them about the “tragedy of the commons”. My daughter replied that the tragedy of the commons was not inevitable. The professor said “I think most economists would disagree with you.” My daughter said “the Nobel committee would agree with me. They awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom for her work on the commons.” At which point, the professor corrected himself, saying “I should have said, the open access commons”.

Many of the things I’ve talked about here are complicated, so let me propose one simple thing today: that we move to correct university curricula, so that the “tragedy of the commons” is replaced with a “strategy for the commons”, and that we tap into the optimism of youth, combined with knowledge of the possibilities of collective action to trump cynicism and narrow self-interest, in a really transformational paradigm of the commons.


For further reading:

Beck, T., and C. Nesmith. 2001. Building on Poor People’s Capacities: The Case of Common Property Resources in India and West Africa. World Development 29 (1): 119–133.

Cavendish, W. 2000. Empirical Regularities in the Poverty- Environment Relationship of Rural Households: Evidence from Zimbabwe. World Development 28 (11): 1979–2003.

Meinzen-Dick, R.S., E. Mwangi, and S. Dohrn. 2006. Securing the commons. CAPRi Policy Brief 4. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.

International Association for the Study of the Commons (

Digital Library of the Commons (