Tag Archives: environment

Defining the Commons

River Gorge, by C. Krieghoff. Courtesy of Wikipedia

What exactly are “the commons”? Is water a common? Is the environment as a whole a common? Is education a common? And who exactly is in charge of governing these commons?

As the word suggests, the commons are resources which belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The springs, rivers and lakes whose waters we drink, the oceans in which we fish, the air we breath, the seeds we plant, and the cultures and traditions we share are all examples of commons.

However, the commons remains an elusive term, one which at times evades a precise definition. And this, sadly, is a pitfall. Without a clear definition and a coherent vocabulary with which to talk about the commons it becomes very difficult to protect them from instances of privatization, particularly when they must be defended through legislative means.

My aim here is to explore two different dimensions of the commons with hopes to provide firstly a coherent idea of what a commons actually consists of, and secondly to offer a political vocabulary with which to talk about them. By taking a look at the work of Nobel-laureate Elinor Ostrom, we will present a working definition of the commons and explore their empirical dimension. Secondly, I wish to present the recent and innovative work of Italian jurist Ugo Mattei, which examines the sociological and political dimension of the commons.

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy of Wikipedia

Elinor Ostrom’s seminal study Governing the Commons (1990) is premised on a refutation of Gareth Hardin’s basic assumption in his article The Tragedy of the Commons (1969). Hardin believed that individuals inevitably end up over-exploiting and degrading common resources. In his article, he presents an example of herders using a grazing field in common: without an external monitor the herders will increase the size of their herds unsustainably which will result in the over-grazing of the common field. Echoing a Hobbesian world-view, he states that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit – in a world that is limited”[1].

Policy-makers have since interpreted the Tragedy of the Commons as a paradigmatic example of individuals destroying their own resources, thereby causing environmental degradation. As a result, some policy-makers have argued that common resources must be put under the direct control of government agencies, while others have argued for their privatization making individual owners responsible for their own property[2].

Ostrom believes that both privatization and governmental control are policies based on generalizing and totalizing presumptions. Moreover, she refutes Hardin’s assumption that individuals are incapable of self-governing their resources. Contrarily, for Ostrom “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time”[3]. Individuals are not “trapped” in the tragedy of the commons paradigm, but are capable of creating their own institutions, rules and enforcement mechanisms which ensure the sustainable use of such resources.

By comparing case studies in which individuals were successful in overcoming the tragedy of the commons with cases in which they were not, Ostrom draws a set of variables and prerequisites which provide a general framework for self-governing and self-financed institutions. These include mutual monitoring, agreeing on rules written by the users of the common resource, establishing legitimate arbitrators, and instituting policies which incentivize collaboration and discourage free-riding[4].

Ostrom defines the subject of her book as common pool resources: resources which 1) produce a steady flow of resource units (benefits accruing from the resource), and 2) resources that are so large (an ocean for example) that excluding the individuals that use them unsustainably becomes almost impossible –hence her stress on the maximization of collaboration between users of common pool resources. The success of self-governing institutions, concludes Ostrom, proves that policies of privatization and government control are not the only alternatives open to us[5].

The second dimension of the commons I wish to talk about, can be found in the work of Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist deeply involved in the recent and successful efforts of preventing the privatization of public water in Italy. Mattei explores the historical, sociological and political development of the commons as well as their relationship with social movements and political contention in his book “Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto” (Common Goods: a Manifesto).

For Mattei, the commons are first and foremost contextual and contingent. By this he means that they acquire meaning the moment in which they are demanded for politically. For example, water has always existed as a natural resource, and yet it does not become “a commons” until individuals find that their access to it has been restricted by instances of privatization or bureaucratization. The commons “come into existence”, if you will, the moment they become relevant or even vital for a particular social end. Their political dimension is therefore shaped by the social context in which the demand for them has originated[6].

In addition, Mattei believes that a particular commons, say a forest, cannot be divorced from the cultural, social, economic or environmental context in which it exists. In such a way, it cannot be understood as an object separate from its surrounding territory, but rather as an integral part of complex human-ecological systems[7].

However, Mattei distinguishes the political demand for the defense of the commons from a demand for a right as understood by the political theory of classical liberalism. For example, human rights are transcendental rights which one possesses in virtue of being human. The demand for the commons, contrarily, is not claiming a right which exists separately from the individual claiming it. The demand for a common is not transcendental but relational: it is the object of struggle between communities attempting to defend them and structures of authority seeking to control them (be these property rights or state sovereignty)[8]. This type of demands are essentially dynamic relations of political contention.

And yet, Mattei asserts that the commons are absolutely central to the fulfillment of the rights pertaining to the classical liberal tradition. The human rights to food, water and education, for example, cannot be fulfilled unless these are recognized as common goods or common resources which we all, in virtue of being alive, owe to each other and have the responsibility to maintain for generations to come[9].

This very brief foray into the work of Elinor Ostrom and Ugo Mattei has served firstly to provide the empirical foundations for talking about the commons, and secondly to explore their sociological and political dimensions. Today, commons such as water, education, genetic heritage or culture are increasingly privatized in the name of a financial state of exception. Governments are forced to devolve and divest themselves of what were once seen as core responsibilities towards their citizens. As the State retreats we must ask ourselves who will protect our common resources from callous economic exploitation and environmental degradation. For now, the movement in defense of the commons is laying down the empirical, sociological and political groundwork for just this task.

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Bbliography

  • Mattei, Ugo. 2011. Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Hardin 1969, in Ostrom, 1990, p2

[2] Ostrom, 1990, p14

[3] Ostrom, 1990, p1

[4] Ostrom, 1990, p183

[5] Ostrom, 1990, p30

[6] Mattei, 2011, p53

[7] Mattei,2011, p, 62

[8] Mattei, 2011, p57

[9] Mattei, 2011, p59

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Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, Human Rights, liberalism, political theory, social movements

Food Sovereignty

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

A democratic claim for self-determination from the world’s largest peasant movement

Banana Stand in Riobamba, Ecuador. By Giulio Caperchi

One of the most important social movements of the past decades has without a doubt been La Via Campesina, a transnational peasant organization representing 200 million farmers from 70 different countries. It campaigns for issues linked to agricultural production such as sustainable food systems, access to natural resources, indigenous and women rights, and access to land (Desmarais 2007). Above all, however, it is the world’s most vehement supporter of the concept of food sovereignty. According to Via Campesina, “food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. It is a principle with which small agricultural producers worldwide attempt to reclaim their productive systems from the monopoly of transnational agribusiness.

Small scale farmers are increasingly disenfranchised by a handful of corporations which dominate virtually all aspects of the food cycle, from production to distribution. If we look at the inputs needed for agricultural production, only six corporations own more than 75 percent of the world’s pesticide market, and only four sell more than half of the world’s seeds. Furthermore, the distribution dimension of agriculture is equally monopolized. For example, only 4 companies process 90% of the global grain trade, and within the US only three companies process 70 percent of all beef (source).

The monopolization of agricultural production is not the only problem faced by small producers. The use of genetically engineered sterile seeds dubbed “terminator seeds”, force farmers to buy seeds from the same companies every single year. The same companies, Monsanto above all, have been accused of making their seeds genetically resistant to their own fertilizers and pesticides. The ecological disasters linked to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers is also a well documented fact: just to cite the example of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of  Mexico, where nitrogen discharge carried by the Mississippi has created a zero-oxygen area of 9,400 square miles which threatens the livelihoods of thousands of small fishermen and  the resilience of marine ecosystems.

Moreover, this status quo is maintained by powerful supranational institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by free trade agreements (FTA) between rich and poor countries. The WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) effectively removes much government oversight from agricultural trade and policy. As such, agribusiness is able to influence agricultural policy worldwide, frequently resulting in heavily subsidized agricultural products from rich countries being “dumped” at below market price on the markets of poor ones (Holt-Giménez 2008, Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The dumping of subsidized and genetically modified US corn into Mexico is a case in point, where Mexican farmers which have ancestrally grown corn for millennia are unable to compete with the flooding of cheap corn accruing from the North American FTA (Pollan 2006).

In this context, food sovereignty is employed as an umbrella concept attempting to reclaim the various domains which have traditionally been under the control of local peasants from the hegemony of corporatist agribusiness (Patel 2009). In fact, there are many different definitions of food sovereignty and a variety of issues which the term embraces. What all definitions share, however, is the fundamental claim that small farmers have the right to define and shape their own productive systems. It is, essentially, a democratic demand for self-determination and a cry for independence.

Perhaps the most important issue at the heart of food sovereignty is the right to subsistence farming. Industrial agriculture increasingly displaces diversified food systems for monocultures, to the point where entire agricultural sectors of countries are devoted to mono-production. If the price of what a country is mono-producing plummets, the livelihoods of the farmers producing it are jeopardized and so is their access to food. Food sovereignty demands that governments stop promoting agricultural policy dependent on monocultures and shift their resources towards the diversification of crops for resilient food systems which do not subordinate the livelihoods of farmers to the vagaries of the free market. As such, food sovereignty attempts to break the dependence of farmers on fluctuating and unpredictable markets thereby securing the basic right of subsistence (Petrini 2009).

Protecting biodiversity is another central issue of food sovereignty. In particular, the protection of seed varieties from the homogenizing effects of GM plant species has become a key struggle of movements such as Via Campesina. Of more importance still, agribusiness is patenting and privatizing the genetic codes of resistant plant varieties which are the product of centuries of patient intercropping by small famers. This amounts to an act of biopiracy. The privatization of the genetic patrimony of domesticated plant species robs farmers of what has been ancestrally a right of every producer: the right to exchange and use seeds freely (Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The concept of food sovereignty demands that local populations should not be forced to buy GM seeds and that they should retain control over what is rightfully theirs, namely, the natural resources and knowledge derived from their ancestral coexistence with local ecosystems (Petrini 2009).

Finally, food sovereignty is also a demand for the right to define what systems of knowledge are best suited for particular contexts. We may term this an epistemological sovereignty. The drives towards “progress” and “modernization”, coupled with the obsessive fixation with “growth” force small farmers worldwide to adopt agro-industrial practices at the expense of their traditional practices of production. This results in a loss of valuable knowledge of food systems which were once sustainable, ecologically sound and extremely resilient (Altieri & Toledo, 2011). Food sovereignty refutes the neoliberal paradigm of growth and its exaggerated faith in the virtues of free markets (Patel 2009). On the contrary, it supports the re-discovery of local knowledges which embrace diversification, biodiversity, sustainability and resilience to risks.

The concept of food sovereignty is therefore one which attempts to reclaim the right to define one’s own livelihood. Supranational institutions, multinationals and markets have erected a system in which small farmers have no say, no vote and no access to the higher levels of decision making. They are therefore dependent on unaccountable organizations for their livelihoods. In this light, food sovereignty exercises the fundamental democratic right of self-determination: the right to define, control and participate in the decisions influencing one’s life. It is a democratic claim which seeks to break the condition of dependence between small farmers on one hand, and market fluctuations and agribusiness on the other. Its central message, however, should not be misinterpreted as a demand for complete autonomy (political or economic), but as one demanding freedom from dependence and the right to exercise local self-determination.

For more comprehensive definitions of food sovereignty please consult the following links:

Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Declaration:

http://www.nyeleni.org/spip.php?article125

Manifesto on the Future of Food:

http://commissionecibo.arsia.toscana.it/UserFiles/File/Commiss%20Intern%20Futuro%20Cibo/cibo_ing.pdf

Bibliography

Altieri & Toledo, 2011. The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:3, 587-612

Desmairis, A.A. 2007 La Vía Campesina: La globalizzazione e il potere dei contadini. Jaca Book: Milano

Holt-Gimenez, E. 2008 From Food Systems to Food Sovereignty: urgent call to fix a broken system. Food First. Available online @ http://www.foodfirst.org/files/pdf/bgr%20spring%202008%20-Food%20Rebellions.pdf

Patel, R. 2009 Food Sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies, 36:3, 663-607

Petrini, C.  2009. Terra Madre: come non farci mangiare dal cibo. Giunti & Slow Food Editore: Milano

Pollan, M. 2006, The Omnivores Dilemma. Bloomsbury Publishing: London

Windfhur & Jonsén, 2005. Food Sovereignty: towards democracy in the food system. FIAN-International, ITDG Publishing. Available online @ http://www.ukabc.org/foodsovpaper.htm

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Development, Environmentalism, Indigenous, social movements