Editorial - Voices from the Commons: Evolving Relations of Property and Management

When Spain's American colonies seized their independence, Simon Bolivar emerged as the leader of a sprawling new nation known as Gran Colombia, covering the territories of what are now Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. In 1834, soon after Bolivar's death, an edict issued in Gran Colombia stated that "in no tribunal or court shall complaints be heard, whose sole object is to request that Indian lands not be divided." The independent nations of Spanish America were affronted, like the colonial authorities that preceded them, by communities that held their lands in common. This was considered the essence of savagery, contradicting as it did the notions of private property and individual title to land which all the invaders of the Americans (irrespective of their countries of origin) considered the essence of civilization.

The prejudice against the commons dies hard. Now that the soviet champions of collectivism and cooperatives have been exposed for their cynical incompetence, and neo-liberalism appears to be triumphant virtually everywhere, it is too easy to assume that privatization is the wave of the future and any attempt to exploit land or resources in common is archaic and inefficient. This is simply the modern version of the age-old prejudice against common title and in favor of private property. It is significant that Garrett Hardin's argument about the "tragedy of the commons" was made in 1968, long before the popular ascendancy of neo-liberal economic ideas and the awesome collapse of the socialist states. Yet, Hardin's argument was picked up and casually accepted, to the extent that "the tragedy of the commons" has become a generally understood cliché that sums up the economic loss and environmental degradation that are expected to result from the common (or worse still, communal) use of resources. The other view, that exploitation of the common often works very effectively, has, as Bonnie J. McCay and Louise Fortmann point out, been amply documented but is less widely known. Yet, this truth has been understood at the grass roots level all over the world for centuries. Those indigenous communities in the Americas who traditionally held their lands and resources in common fought to defend these practices for they understood that they were defending their identities and their autonomy. This battle can be most easily observed the length and breadth of the Americas, but it is a world-wide struggle that pits peoples and communities against planners and governments, and particularly affects the future of indigenous peoples.

The articles in this issue show that this is neither an archaic nor a marginal issue. It is not just that local communities have often known how to use their common resources effectively. It is rather that the effective use of common resources by local communities is in our own day often the most efficient way of ensuring that modern, industrialized economies promote growth with equity and minimal environmental degradation. Furthermore, encouraging the effective use of common resources brings another considerable benefit. We have come to the sad realization that many development programs and projects in recent decades have been unsuccessful. It is also generally recognized that such failures have much to do with macro-planning that pays insufficient attention to local needs and conditions. A better understanding and appreciation of the commons would help to remedy this and to allow local communities to have a greater say in their own futures.Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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