Subsistence Commons in the Global South

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David Bollier:

"There are many subsistence commons (not necessarily managed by indigenous peoples) that rely upon self-governed access and use of forests, fisheries, farmlands, coastal lands, bodies of water, wild game, and other natural resources. An estimated two billion people around the world depend on natural resource commons for their everyday (nonmarket) needs, according to the International Land Alliance. [1] But since these commons do not generally involve market activity and do not contribute to GDP, they are ignored by conventional economists as insufficiently interesting or as a deficiency to be remedied by “development.”

It is important to protect subsistence commons from enclosure as a way to preserve the collective wealth and autonomy of the communities involved; at the same time, it is important to try to improve their governance and functioning. This may require certain legal frameworks or selective, light-touch state support to help regularize self-governance; it may require new types of local dialogues and collaboration to get beyond entrenched corruption, patriarchy and adversarialism."


Subsistence commons in India based on farmland, forests, water and other natural resources have been formally recognized by Indian law as commons. This remarkable fact stems from a landmark ruling by the Indian Supreme Court in 2012 [2] that ruled against a real estate developer whose buildings had enclosed a village pond functioning as a commons. The political and legal repercussions of this ruling are still reverberating in India, but it is symbolically and perhaps substantively an important legal victory for commoners, whose “unowned” land and water have so often been regarded by conventional law as “wastelands.” The Indian commons advocacy group, the Foundation for Ecological Security (Jagdeesh Rao, director), is actively tracking the dozens of judgments and orders about the commons that have since emerged from Indian courts and state governments. (See its biomonthly e-publication, “The Case for the Commons.”) [3]

The Forests Act is one of the more significant legislative acts authorizing commons-based management of forests. The 1997 Act explicitly empowers village panchayats to act as commons-based stewards of forests, an authority that has not been faithfully respected by the government’s Forest Department. Still, many panchayats have mobilized to assert their authority to manage village forests as a more effective traditional method of conservation and stewardship. This has often resulting in conflicts between conventional bureaucratic authority and expertise against village-based participatory governance and local knowledge.

See Soma K P and Richa Audichya, “Our Ways of Knowing: Women Protect Common Forest Rights in Rajasthan,” in the forthcoming Patterns of Commoning (Off the Common Books, 2015).

Legal recognition for land used by subsistence commoners could help save tens of thousands of commons that people have relied upon for generations. These lands – an estimated 8.54 million hectares – are increasing being seized by investors as part of a massive land grab in the global South. Fortunately, there are some efforts to formally recognize customary rights to land use, which, if implemented, could help commoners resist the investor-oriented terms of national laws and international treaties. Liz Alden Wiley, a land reform expert and specialist based in Africa, and others are pushing for legal reforms that do not require property rights in land to be fungible, based on individual ownership, or formally registered in order for land to be recognized as real property – measures that have been adopted by some African and Latin America states.

Wiley has written: [4] “In light of the fact that most allocations to investors are in the form of renewable medium-term leases of up to 99 years, it may be expected that loss of common properties will remove these lands from meaningful access, use and livelihood benefit for at least one generation and potentially up to four generations.” This is a recipe for decades of famine, poverty, political turmoil and additional forms of fossil-fuel-intensive “development.”

For decades the timber industry in the US did great harm to forest ecosystems through the clear-cutting of forests, re-seeding with tree monocultures, and the building of roads – all with the sanction of the US Forest Service. The political and legal hostilities between environmentalists and the timber industry reached a peak in the Pacific Northwest of the US in 1991, when a federal court shut down timber operations in the entire region. In the aftermath, the US Forest Service improbably initiated a remarkable experiment in collaborative governance for the Siuslaw National Forest. As told by the film “Seeing the Forest,” [5] the government abandoned its standard bureaucratic processes, which were generally driven by congressional politics, industry lobbying and divisive public posturing, and instead convened a “watershed council” of the region’s stakeholders. Anyone who was interested could participate. The goal was to manage the forest through an informal process of open commoning, which included a strong advisory role in the allocation of funds, with the Forest Service hovering in the background as the final arbiter. It took many years, but the informal dialogues and pragmatic, consensus-based decisionmaking resulted in a significant restoration of the forest ecosystems and a radically different mindset toward forest stewardship. This history raises an urgent socio-legal challenge: How to adapt formal state law and regulation to authorize new sorts of locally empowered decisionmaking and commoning?

SRI is an agroecological system for improving the productivity of irrigated rice by changing the mix of plants, soil, water, and nutrients. While SRI is not a system of law, it is a self-organized social network of farmers in several dozen countries that has been tremendously empowering and productive. SRI collaborations in cyberspace have helped farmers boost rice yields by 20 to 100%; reduce the seed required by 90%; and reduce water usage by up to 50%. The project is notable for blending the use of online platforms with physical resource management – a trend exemplified by other “eco-digital commons.”

See Erika Styger, “The System of Rice Intensification and Its International Community of Practice,” in the forthcoming Patterns of Commoning (Off the Common Press, 2015).