‘Southasia’s commons are weakening’

Common property resource (CPR) management has long been a significant arrangement in many parts of rural Southasia, playing an important economic and environmental role at the grassroots. The importance of research on this subject recently received recognition through the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics conferred on Elinor Ostrom for her work on CPRs (see box: Rucha Ghate on Elinor Ostrom). N S Jodha, who worked until recently at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, and ex-President of the International Association for Study of Commons, is one of the pioneers in this field, having devoted over 30 years of work to the subject. He spoke to Himal about the importance of CPRs in rural Southasia, the gradual decline that they have been experiencing and the need to rehabilitate them, as well as the role of the state, the market and the communities themselves in the process.

What kindled your interest in rural common property resources (CPRs)?

My childhood years were a kind of preparation for this evolving interest, though of course there was no conscious process at the time. My home village is in the desert region of Nagaur district in Rajasthan, where CPRs are a vital survival resource for communities. Seeing how the community relied on the commons in lean years was a kind of preparation to help me understand CPR issues more easily.

After completing my MA in economics in 1964, I worked for some years at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur. Over the course of working in arid, marginal areas, the importance of CPRs gradually became evident. Of course, they were not known as the 'commons' at the time. In the 1970s, I worked for some time at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, and then for a few years at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Africa. In 1980, there was a massive drought in East Africa, but people were able to survive because of the commons, which helped crystallise some of my thinking. Returning to ICRISAT, between 1982 and 1985, I led a Ford Foundation-supported study on CPRs covering 90 villages in arid and semi-arid zones in 12 districts of six states in south and west India. Through this study, we were able to show that CPRs continue to be a significant component of the land resource base of rural communities.

Could you describe the characteristics of common property in rural Southasia?
Rural common property can be broadly defined as natural resources in which a group of people share equal rights of usage. Membership is typically conferred by being part of some other group, such as a village or tribe. In the Southasian context, common property can apply to a wide variety of resources: village woodlands, pastures, uncultivable ('waste') lands, irrigation tanks, watershed drainage, waterflows and their banks, and fisheries, among others. CPRs are vital for income and employment generation through off-season activities, for drought-period sustenance, additional cropping, handicrafts and petty trading. There are also larger social and ecological gains, such as resource conservation, space for rich biodiversity, drainage stability and groundwater recharge, sustainability of diversified farming systems, low-cost sustenance support to poor households and renewable resource supplies.

We must appreciate the diversity of CPRs. If we look at rural Southasia, apart from the better known community forestry user groups and joint forest management initiatives in India, CPRs range from the self-initiated, customary forest user groups in different parts of Nepal (for instance, in Pythuan district), and the community-planned and -managed irrigation systems in the mid-hills of Nepal; the collective sokshing system in Bhutan, where forests with broadleaf trees are protected and promoted to provide litter as a key source of organic manure for increased crop productivity; community-managed forests in Dir-Kohistan in Pakistan; combinations of CPR and PPR (private property resources)-based natural resource use and management covering the haors in Bangladesh, which are bowl-shaped low-lying land that usually go under water during the monsoon; CPR management regimes characterised by stake-net fishery and small irrigation in Negombo Lagoon in Sri Lanka; and the village tanks in south India. I could go on and on …

What are the implications of this diversity?
It means that one cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach to rehabilitating these CPRs. One has to understand their role within the overall farming system and community life, and understand the political and socio-economic factors that have influenced the evolution of CPR management systems. CPRs are not static, they go through phases of decline and rejuvenation, and the system of management similarly evolves.

One also has to take a holistic approach – not study the CPRs piecemeal, separated from other parts of the farming system, given that they have evolved as part of the overall system. This is something that our research institutions have difficulty comprehending. For instance, in the 1980s, ICRISAT initially refused to support my research on CPRs, arguing that they are a crop research institute. Similarly, the approach was piecemeal when I moved to ICIMOD in 1987, though things are much better now. When I started at ICIMOD, I realised another implication of diversity. Mountain areas have specific characteristics: Inaccessibility, fragility, marginality and wide diversity. All research on agricultural systems, including CPRs, had hitherto been dominated by plains-areas perspectives. We had to develop a mountain perspective.

What is the condition of the commons of Southasia and what are the main threats they face?
Despite their valuable economic, social and environmental contributions in most parts of Southasia, CPRs show a decline in terms of the extent, quantity and quality of their products, as well as their biophysical health. The community-level supply, diversity and dependability of products has declined, and the area covered by CPRs has also decreased due to the transfer of community-held lands to other uses. Reduced area accompanied by increased population pressures (both human and livestock) on these resources has led to over-extraction and degradation. Typically, this is due to the changed approach of rural communities themselves towards CPRs. Public policies and legal provisions curtailing the ownership and usage rights of the communities over these resources have further reduced traditional obligations and usage practices directed to conservation – and, within limits, the usage of these resources by communities. Finally, the tendency towards over-exploitation of CPRs has been accentuated by the gradual displacement of the community's collective concern for CPRs by the individual members' propensity to maximise private gains through over-exploitation or by grabbing the commons as private property.

The agencies of the state, market and communities themselves have contributed to such trends, of which the state is perhaps the most significant offender. In the past, historically evolved customary arrangements for use and management of natural resources of rural communities remained largely outside the formal, legal framework. However, during the colonial and immediate post-colonial periods, in most countries of the region the state's revenue collection became relatively more organised, extending its legal provisions to the natural resources used by the rural people. The first step involved various forms of nationalisation of different CPRs, particularly forest and water resources.

But hasn't there been a trend towards returning control to the communities?
Having realised the ineffectiveness of state control, most countries have revised legal provisions towards a gradual harmonisation of customary arrangements and legislation affecting the access, ownership and usage rights of communities over CPRs. Despite such attempts at 'harmonisation', however, the state remains overwhelmingly the powerful entity. It retains the ability to change the terms and conditions of harmonisation, thus rendering the community into mere users rather than owners of CPRs.

Then, having failed to get surplus land for the landless through effective implementation of land-ceiling laws, governments have instead encroached into CPR lands. Field studies have shown, however, that the bulk of the land acquired through curtailing CPR areas actually went to those who already possessed enough land. More importantly, the official regularisation of illegal encroachments on CPR areas has encouraged community members to grab CPR lands.

A related problem is the attempt to generate financial revenues from CPRs, such as in community forestry. Under the name of 'harmonisation', revenue-sharing arrangements are incorporated, through which the government can enhance its own share by cutting the community share. Indeed, this was tried in Nepal recently, raising state share in community-forestry revenues, though this was invalidated following protests and an appeal to the Supreme Court.

What about the trend towards privatisation of resources, and the thrust towards economic development?
The new mantra of public-private partnerships, economic globalisation and a variety of welfare and development initiatives has led to the introduction of several provisions adversely affecting CPRs throughout Southasia. For example, governments have opened up CPRs for mining, or for the establishment of specific industries. From another direction, bringing many CPR areas under 'protected area' regimes – biodiversity conservation areas, for instance, wildlife sanctuaries, special tourist zones and public parks – has hurt the interests of local communities.

Finally, two factors have colluded to induce governments to disfavour CPRs: Rising indifference and neglect of CPRs by the communities themselves, and pressures from the private sector. The former, in addition to public interventions and an enhanced role of market forces, is the result of rapid economic, social and political differentiations within rural communities in recent decades. Apart from the increased population pressure on land, accentuating the land-hunger, public policies have enhanced both legal and illegal opportunities for privatising CPRs. This was further complemented by rising values in land markets throughout the region, even for relatively marginal lands, which were earlier left as CPRs.

As a result of economic development, availability of new technologies and public subsidies, market considerations have become an integral part of farmers' decision-making processes. This has led to economic differentiation on class lines within the traditional CPR user communities and weakened collective approaches to natural-resources management and risk-sharing arrangements.

How can one work towards recovering and rehabilitating the commons?
The most important point is to consider who needs CPRs. We must listen to the farmers and local communities. If well-designed, CPRs can serve as a compromise able to resolve many of the conflicting perspectives. However, while attempting revisions in CPR situations, there are a few other key requirements. The first is to recognise the diversity of CPRs. Second, based on the understanding of these diversities, one has to identify how the three agencies – communities, markets and the state – act and what guides their actions. These two steps can help in the identification of areas of potential convergence.

Economic-development programmes can be facilitated by low-cost options generated by CPRs. Conservation and productivity of natural resources, suffering due to forest officials' obsession with revenue generation, can be overcome by giving people the power to manage natural resources. The ignorance of private corporations and their and insensitivity to natural-resource depletion could be reduced by involving local CPR users and their traditional knowledge systems wherever private industry has been given access to the commons. The key requirement for realistically designing and effectively operationalising such programmes is the mutual trust between the involved agencies and communities.

Could you give some concrete examples?
Partnership-based initiatives for CPR-linked natural resource management have been attempted in different parts of Southasia. The most prominent, researched and debated example of CPRs is community forestry, particularly in Nepal and India. Here we find good examples of the successes as well as the problems. To some extent, community-forestry programmes incorporate the concerns of the key players – state, markets and communities. There have been positive changes in the relationships between local communities and forest officials, while location-specific studies have shown that the conditions of forests have generally improved under the community forestry programmes, with increased income for community members. But concerns remain. In several places, particularly in India, joint forestry management has resulted in inter- and intra-community conflicts emanating from inequitable distribution of costs and benefits between sub-groups (caste, class, gender), elites (those controlling the forest-protection committees) and Adivasi groups within the communities..

And in areas other than forestry management?
Between 199t and 2003, I revisited some of the villages from my 1982-84 study in six states of India, and found some amazing success stories. A small rivulet running through some villages of Raisen district in Madhya Pradesh was used as a source of drinking water for animals, and casual fishing by tribals and poor households. This was developed as a livelihood option by different community groups. Fishing has been developed as a profitable enterprise; parts of rivulet banks have become locations for seasonal fruit and vegetable production; and the more intensively managed parts of the banks are used for off-season production of crop seeds. This approach of focusing on specific CPR units, and developing them around the needs of the community, rather than looking at the CPR area in its entirety has paid off.

In the Tejpura watershed of Jhansi district of Madhya Pradesh, collective efforts on water harvesting, percolation facilities and protection/conservation of vast landscape and water points led to the re-emergence of plant species not seen for three decades. Availability of water in wells also increased to 9-12 months a year as compared to 1-4 months in the past. This ecological revival and economic transformation led to small group initiatives focused on specific units of CPRs and specific products of CPRs, such as high-value crops.

Are there any general principles that one can devise for the success of CPR management initiatives?
As I said earlier, CPRs are very diverse and it is difficult to generalise. In light of increased socio-economic differentiation in communities and the rapid disintegration of the community's collective stake in the commons, identification and organisation of user groups around specific CPR units works better in mobilising people. Also, links with government agencies at the technical programme level, like in Joint Forest Management, are more helpful than administrative links.

It is also important to understand, respect and use local perspectives and traditional knowledge systems. Governments need to shift from the 'resource-centred', production-flow-oriented focus to a people-centred one. Given the importance of the commons to the poor, the goal of poverty alleviation must be given primacy and explicit focus. The government also needs to make revisions based on people's concerns in state-approved group formations for CPR management. Above all, we must work towards reviving the community stake in CPRs through effective institutional arrangements; equitable partnerships between state, community and relevant market agencies; as well as ensuring that the profits from the CPRs are shared equitably within the community.

What future do you see for CPRs?
Frankly, I am pessimistic. The forces ranged against CPRs are too many and too powerful. Despite recognition of their economic and environmental contributions, the role of CPRs in maintaining and building 'social capital' and in providing sustenance to the rural poor has been decreasing in recent decades. Ironically, whereas concern for CPRs is on the increase in terms of research and advocacy, the situation is almost the opposite when it comes to policymaking and work on the ground. The communities of Southasia are losing their common property resources even as we speak.

There are some positive examples and trends, of course, but I do not know if they can counter the overall trend. Some NGOs have started focusing on CPRs, but this is yet to become widespread. A certain hostility towards CPRs exists in many research bodies and donor agencies. For example, when I was working for the World Bank, in the initial days, when I presented a proposal to work on CPRs, I got a negative reaction. Then some other researchers told me that the Bank is not geared towards supporting collective approaches; it prefers to focus on individual, private efforts. I don't know if things have changed.

Any final advice for those interested in CPRs?
I can only repeat what I said earlier – listen to farmers and communities and look at the issue in a holistic fashion. Also, one should not be rigidly bound by academic discipline. This kind of thinking is against conventional 'scientific' practice, which is theoretical, discipline-bound and not farmer-oriented. Farmers know what their problems are and what they need.

Elinor Ostrom: The strength of community
Sworup Nhasiju

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom, together with Oliver Williamson, won the Nobel Prize for Economics. While Williamson's work focused on developing a theory in which business firms served as structures for conflict resolution, Ostrom focused on common property resources, popularly known as the 'commons'. The citation stated that the award was bestowed 'for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons', the first worldwide recognition of the role of effective 'institutions' in the management of natural resources. In fact, fellow Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called this an 'institutional' Nobel, noting that the crux of both Ostrom's and Williamson's work is that 'institutions are what make economics happen'.

If one assumes, as many economists do, that individuals are ruthlessly selfish, and would therefore eventually destroy commonly owned resources, the only plausible solution would be to privatise the commons. On the other hand, many environmental experts, rejecting the idea of dividing common resources into small parcels, prefer government intervention. But Ostrom has shown that the government, too, might not be the best allocator of public resources. In her classic work, Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action (1990), Ostrom shows that, under certain conditions, when communities are given the right to self-organise, they can democratically govern themselves in a way that can preserve the environment. At the policy level, Ostrom's findings give credence to the many indigenous and peasant movements across the developing world where people are trying to govern the land they have managed for centuries, but are now running into conflict with governments and global corporations.

Ostrom's work challenges the US ecologist Garrett Hardin's famous article from 1968, 'The Tragedy of the Commons', which warned against overpopulation and of the potential for collective damage arising from the choices made by individuals. Ostrom suggests that, far from being a tragedy, the commons can be managed for a shared prosperity, given the right institutions. Her conclusion challenges orthodox economics from both the left and the right, suggesting that markets can indeed efficiently organise production and consumption – but only when supported and nurtured by networks and communities. Ostrom thus sought out new institutional arrangements that could be used by people, communities and societies facing real-world problems, dealing with not just what is to be done but also how it can be done. While much of her research was done in villages in western Nepal, her work is particularly relevant to Southasia as a whole. This region not only has a long tradition of community-owned natural resources, after all, but is also seeing a revival of community-based management through decentralisation policies.

A substantial body of Ostrom's recent work is on forests of Southasia, integrating differing perspectives to provide comparative assessments of forests managed by national governments and communities. Based on comparative studies in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal, the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tadoba-Andheri Tiger Reserve in India, she concludes, 'We do not advocate using fences and guns to protect government forests or turning forests over to communities as the only answers to the problem of deforestation … Unless one ensures the livelihoods of those living around or within a forest, a major investment in monitoring alone … may even be counterproductive.'

Learning from mistakes
Before the publication of Governing the Commons, several authors had already demonstrated the impressive capacities of local governance for managing the commons in Southasia. Robert Wade described how local institutions had successfully managed irrigation systems for several centuries, while Narpat Jodha (see accompanying article) documented the great importance of the commons for the poor. By the time Ostrom's work was published in 1990, there were community irrigation cooperatives in many parts of the region, and both India and Nepal had taken steps towards greater involvement of community in forest management. While these have not been as successful as many had hoped, Ostrom's observations are helpful in understanding how future policy measures can support conservation and livelihood development outcomes. Taken as a whole, Ostrom's corpus is important because it recognises that, while communities can successfully manage their resources, they do not necessarily do so. In fact, like governments and market institutions, community-based institutions often fail; as such, much of Ostrom's focus has been devoted to explaining these successes and failures.

One of Ostrom's most important theoretical contributions is what is known as the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework, used to analyse policy relevance and effectiveness of institutions. The framework takes into consideration the fact that policy processes and outcomes are affected, to some degree, by four variables that are not under the control of individuals: attributes of the physical world, attributes of the community, rules that create both incentives and constraints for certain actions, and interactions with other individuals.

The framework also describes three levels of action: operational, collective choice and constitutional choice. These three are interconnected since, for instance, the outcomes of the 'constitutional choice' affect any 'collective choice' decision-making, which in turn affects operational-level activities. For example, in India, joint forest management is a programme under the Centre's participatory policy, which encourages communities to collectively form Forest Protection Committees that are expected to make operational rules for resource use, monitoring and sanctioning. This framework can be used to understand the actual functioning of a policy decision or programme, and thus helps to identify both interconnections and where more attention may be needed.

In another major contribution, a set of 'design principles' developed by Ostrom provide other valuable guidelines to policymakers, helping them to formulate policies that have a greater chance of being successful. Through comparative case studies, Ostrom finds that successful management systems for common resources often share a set of eight such design principles, essential components that 'account for the success of these institutions in sustaining the CPRs and gaining the compliance of generation after generation of appropriators to the rules in use'. For example, she emphasises that monitoring of resources by users is the single most important factor in ensuring sustainable use.

As governments across Southasia recognise the importance of the commons to rural livelihoods, particularly for the rural poor, Ostrom's work can help in developing community institutions that will help to manage CPRs sustainably. Ultimately, this can show us how to forge a better relationship with the natural environment, for the benefit of all.

~ Rucha Ghate

~ Rucha Ghate is a researcher at SHODH: The Institute for Research and Development, in Nagpur.

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