Why the Commons Matter

“Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor.”

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. 1944. (p. 35)         

“Our ancestral domain or traditional territory covers not just our ancestral land but all the flora and fauna within it, the wildlife, the air, the minerals under it, the water which flows through it, the spirits within, which is passed on from one generation to another."

Nena “Bae Rose” Undag-Lumandong, an indigenous woman leader from the Philippines, speaking at the first Sombath Symposium on “Humanity and Nature: Traditional, Cultural and Alternative Perspectives”, February 15-17, 2015, Chulalungkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand


The enclosures of the commons that Polanyi wrote about in 1944 Britain continue all over the world today, through an alarming array of laws, policies, and treaties and agreements, often through the exercise of brute force. In a world wracked with deepening climate, economic, environmental and social crises, capital recognizes the potential of commons to nurture and recreate “the conditions needed for life and its reproduction.” (De Angelis, n.d.)

The commons refer to different kinds of wealth, spaces, values, social relations, systems, processes and activities that “belong to” communities, societies and in some cases all of us, that are actively claimed, (re)created, protected and restored for collective good and purpose, for present and future generations. The best known examples of commons are natural, for example air, water, land, forests and biodiversity. But over the years, commons scholars have expanded the realm of the commons to social, intellectual, cultural and even political spheres. These include health, education, knowledge, science, technology, the internet, literature, music, human rights, justice, etc. Notions of social and political commons that require interventions by state institutions do not sit well with some commons scholars. We argue, however, that values and facilities crucial for life, dignity, equity and equality should be recognized as commons, even if we do not yet have non-state, non-market regimes to govern them.

Commons can be 'inherited’ by a community or group from previous generations and passed on to future generations. They can be invented, created, adapted, protected and replenished through collectively agreed and evolving rules, for example irrigation systems, music, urban gardens, revived watersheds, seeds, traditional knowledge, online knowledge portals, workers’ cooperatives, etc. Internet technology has enabled a virtual commons which in turn has led to the generation of new knowledges and knowledge communities, as well as new forms of social relations. Seed-sharing is one of the oldest commons that communities have practised. By ensuring seeds are made available to the public (through seed libraries, for example), it promotes local communities’ capacities to achieve food sovereignty and resiliency, and generates a shared sense of place, local interdependence and responsibilities.

Commons are not governed through private property, market or state regimes, but by one or many groups of people, who can be socially, economically, and culturally diverse. For example, a territory may include a forest, river and coastal area that would be shared and protected by peasant fishing and pastoral communities through a collectively elaborated system of governance with rules, obligations, penalties for over-use, damage, etc. Online platforms for sharing information and knowledge engage multiple users from across the world.  But for a resource, space, knowledge or facility to be commons, it must be identified and delimited as commons. Its boundaries, users, rules of access, use and control, inclusions and exclusions, and system of governance must be developed and recognized by the users of the commons. Commons evolve in practice and there are no commons without “commoning,” i.e., the acts and processes of creating commons (Linebaug, 2010). As social constructions, commons thus involve negotiations of social and political relationships among people who are part of a commons, as well as between them and actors outside the commons, for example, members of a community forest often have to negotiate with state authorities and/or neighboring villages who may want to gain control over the forest.

In this paper, we limit our discussion to natural commons that include lands, water bodies and associated resources that are not governed by state, market or private property regimes.  These can include, for example, farm/crop lands, wetlands, forests, wood-lots, open pasture, grazing lands, hill and mountain slopes, streams and rivers, ponds, lakes and other fresh water bodies, seas and oceans, coastlines, etc. In many rural communities, farm/crop and grazing lands are communally owned, although the tenure rights of families to cultivate specific parcels of land are recognised and respected. The notion of commons does not negate individual agency and responsibility; on the contrary, protecting and managing collective resources requires a collectivity of individual actors working together towards shared goals. In many upland areas in Asia, swidden fields are claimed by individual families but the broader hillside is protected by the entire community.  The lives and livelihoods of fisherfolk are greatly dependant on rivers, lakes, seas and oceans as commons, and their cultures and traditions define practices, rules, and limits for harvesting from and protecting them.

We argue in this paper that natural commons are threatened by the dominant model of capitalist and neoliberal development— leading to their commercialization, privatization, and commodification and destroying not only time-tested practices of sharing, using, managing and protecting them but also threatening the survival of communities that depend on these commons. Such processes are systemic and perpetuated by global governance institutions such as International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and market-driven mechanisms. However, local populations and communities are fighting back. There are many struggles around the world that illustrate their resolve to defend, protect, reclaim, restore and create the commons. These struggles not only directly challenge capitalism but offer better ways of organising our societies based on shared responsibility, benefits, accountability and equitable socio-cultural relations.

Commercialization, Commodification, Privatization

The expansion of global capitalism and neoliberalism has greatly accelerated enclosures, which bring the commons into private property and market regimes, demarcating and delineating zones for exclusive use by particular actors/groups, and breaking up and parcelling out collectively managed spaces for fishing, foraging/gathering, grazing, etc. to individualised ownership. Market-driven frameworks and policies such as free trade and investment agreements, financialization, private property regimes, and privatisation of public goods and services destroy notions of collective governance and responsibility, and pave the way for commons to be destroyed.  In a cynical manipulation of the climate crisis, the atmosphere and air are designated as global commons, but captured through market mechanisms. Emissions trading, clean development mechanisms (CDM), Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and Blue Carbon allow polluters and financial traders to monopolize resources vital for the planet and society but provide no assurances that anthropogenic climate change will be effectively checked.

Farmlands, forests, pastures, wetlands and rivers and other water sources are captured for a variety of purposes: logging, plantations, raw industrial materials, extractive industry, property and real estate development, energy production, tourism, etc. Industrial agriculture (which includes plantations and processing) spurs the concentration of productive resources, land, and labor in the hands of corporations and local elites. Many trade-investment deals provide private corporations and research institutions access to agricultural and natural biodiversity, and traditional/local knowledge with the possibility to claim intellectual property rights (IPR) over products derived from them. Profits from such patents accrue to the prospecting corporations and institutions, not to the people who have nurtured these commons for generations. Such bio-piracy is a matter of great concern to rural communiies everywhere, especially indigenous peoples. Women, who are the savers of seeds in most peasant farming communities, are generally the first to be displaced from new agricultural production packages based on 'improved' seeds.

The commons are also endangered by policy conditions attached to development financing from IFIs, and bilateral and multilateral donors, who tend to favor trade liberalization, private investor-friendly regulation, and the commercialization and privatization of natural resources and public goods and services. Industrial, chemical-intensive and mono-culture oriented agriculture and agro-forestry, large-scale commercial aquaculture and extractive industry—all of which bring commons into private property and market-based regimes--are high on the agenda of IFIs and even the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).  Not only are lands, forests and water sources given over to private companies for long periods of time (25-99 year-long leases) but also, they are polluted, contaminated, degraded and depleted through over-use, extensive application of chemicals, and the dumping of waste matter.

To further illustrate the above point, the World Bank is firmly committed to private property regimes, individualised ‘marketable’ land rights and “easing barriers to land transactions”. In World Bank parlance, “good land governance” may include strengthening women's access to land and capital, but it also includes facilitating large-scale land acquisitions for private investment, maximising the market potential of land, using land as collateral for loans, etc.[1]  The International Finance Corporation (IFC) provides financing for large-scale energy and industrial agriculture investments that often result in displacement of local populations from their territories. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) promotes rapid economic growth through private sector operations, which have repeatedly resulted in air and water pollution, land degradation and depletion of natural resources. Client governments are required to provide private companies unfettered access to land, water and other natural resources, and enact 'market-friendly' (rather than community or society-friendly) policies and regulations. There is little recognition of the complex relationship and inter-dependence between human well-being and the goods and functions that healthy ecosystems provide--especially in rural areas.

In January 2010, the World Bank, FAO, International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) proposed the “Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respects Rights, Livelihoods and Resources” (PRAI) to ostensibly minimise the most egregious impacts of large scale, private, agricultural investments on land. However, the PRAI are geared towards smoothening the access of agricultural investors (usually large, well-endowed corporations) towards the agricultural lands and natural resources they want, rather than empowering rural communities to uphold their rights to commons crucial to present and future generations. 

Problems with Governance

Although many governments, IFIs, and regional and global institutions acknowledge the importance of the natural environment to the well-being and survival of rural peoples, they do not recognize the importance and viability of collective eco-system management with localised centres of governance and decision making. Their preferred models of governance prioritize individualized ownership and access/tenure rights that can be freely traded in markets.

States have, by and large, tended to adopt governance models that favor the interests of markets and corporations over the interests of their citizens, especially those who most rely on the natural commons for food, health, and livelihoods. In many Asian countries, lands and water bodies not under legal private ownership are designated as 'public property,’ and governments claim the ultimate authority to allocate/use them for national economic and security purposes. Thus, forests, pastures and farmlands are converted to industrial mono-crop farms; lakes and wetlands are filled for real estate projects; rivers are dammed; and lands and water bodies are sequestered for mining, drilling and other extractive industry. Exclusive forest preserves and biodiversity conservation areas are established that restrict or deny access to local communities but allow private companies to log and harvest resources through economic concessions.

The privatization and commodification of the commons have profound and long-term impacts on rural and urban societies. They shift governance of natural territories and eco-systems from local populations to private companies and free market institutions, disembedding economies from societal control and prioritising short-term profits over long term sustainability. Time tested practices of sharing, using and managing natural resources within and among communities and different user-groups are dismantled, increasing the potential for conflicts, weakening social cohesion, and diminishing the quality of eco-systems. Local people are cut off from crucial, life-sustaining spaces and resources, and the natural environment is degraded because of deforestation, land use changes, chemical contamination, diversion of water flows, and over-exploitation, which in turn negatively affect the availability and safety of wild, foraged, and gathered foods. Privatization and commodification especially disempower women, since they are responsible for most foraging activities and rely (more than men) on their immediate environment to ensure the sustenance of their families.

Communities across the world report that their traditional, informal systems of managing natural resources and territories were far more effective in conserving and regenerating lands, soils, forests, water and biodiversity than the modern, formal systems introduced by states. However, actions by communities to defend their commons from expropriation, privatization and commodification have generally been criminalized and are often violently repressed by governments.

Local governance, however, is not without problems, nor is traditional leadership uniformly good and just across communities and societies. Traditional power structures are as susceptible to corruption, abuse and capture by vested interests as modern power structures. Communities in much of rural India tend to adhere to deeply entrenched discriminatory practices based on the caste system that forbid particular communities to use the same commons as others, and sequester some resources for exclusive use by historically powerful groups. Such discrimination extends across Asia even in the absence of caste systems, especially against indigenous peoples and those of different ethnicities. Sedentary farming communities often clash with nomadic pastoralist and forest peoples' communities over rights to control the use of open pasture, forests and woodlands. Socially and economically privileged commmunities make alliances with state authorities to secure access and control over land, forests and water. Even in less stratified villages, chiefs often feel well-within their bounds to sell off community lands for personal gain. Some of the worst problems arise where modern, formal, administrative hierarchies co-opt traditional leaders, driving wedges between community and government priorities. In the Philippines and Cambodia, for example, where REDD-readiness projects are implemented, the promise of economic incentives and money have led indigenous leaders to buy into such projects without broad community consultations. Further, in much of the world, patrilineal and patriarchal social-political structures deny women any voice in making decisions about how community lands and resources should be used and managed.

Women and the Commons

Historically, women have depended on access to the natural commons and have suffered the most from their enclosures, commodification and privatization. Women are the fiercest defenders of the communal cultures that European colonizers tried to wipe out and they were at the frontlines against land enclosures in England and the ‘New World’ (Federici, 2004). These realities have not changed in modern times. Women continue to rely on the natural commons and their immediate environment for their sustenance. According to the World Women’s Report (2010), 75 percent of households in Asian countries that include Cambodia, Laos and Nepal depend on firewood and biomass such as wood, agricultural crops, wastes and forest resources for their energy and livelihoods. Further, women have unique roles as food producers and providers, and are involved in every stage of food production from sowing, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting of staple crops, which are major sources of the rural poor’s diets (FAO, 2011).  Farmers' organizations across the world recognize that women have deep ties with land and that food producing commons are more likely to be reallocated to commercial use if the power to make decisions about land use lies solely with men.

With the dwindling of the natural commons, both the ability of women to cope with poverty by relying on these resources and their capacity to collectively govern them are further diminished.  These processes have led to the “catastrophic dislocation of the lives of the common people” (Polanyi, 1944: 33), because the vagaries of market supply and demand dynamics take over long-standing, stable principles of human-nature relationships.

However, like the women during England’s Enclosure movement, grassroots women from around the contemporary world are actors and leaders in protecting, restoring and defending the commons in at least two crucial ways. One, in their defense against processes that commodify, enclose, and privatize the commons despite threats of criminalization and harassment. For example, 90 percent of the protestors and leaders in the land grabbing case of Boeung Kak lake are women. Kun Cha Tha, who quit her job selling rice to devote her time to the local struggle to protect their lives and homes, said, “I live here. I have rights and I am working with the women here so we won’t have to move. I will keep on fighting here” (Lieberman, 2011). Many of them argue that there is no option but to protest and be at the forefront of the struggle. Second, in the reorganization of reproductive work, reconstructing their lives and homes as commons. There are various accounts of how women led the collectivization of reproductive work as a means to share responsibilities among the community, and protect each other from poverty and the violence of the state and individual men (Federici, 2010). The Landless Peoples’ Movement (MST) in Brazil for instance, has communalized their housework in their land struggles from encampment and land occupation to building of their communities. Further, many communities in the past and now have a deep sense of sharing responsibilities in terms of household work and caring for children. One of the authors grew up in a set-up as such where neighbors take care of each other. Unfortunately, this sense of community is being eroded more and more under the current development model.

Reclaiming and Defending the Commons

Today, the threats to the commons are greatly multiplied by the deepening financial, economic and climate crises, which are being used as opportunities by state, corporate and international institutional actors to deepen control over precious, life sustaining resources. At the same time, the commons have always been arenas of intense social-political organization, mobilization and action. As threats to the natural commons multiply, struggles of local populations intensify to defend their collective rights to land, water, forests and shared territories. These include advocacy for innovative approaches to governing, stewarding and managing natural territories. At the heart of these struggles to reclaim and defend the commons are principles of human rights, gender, social and ecological justice, sustainability, democracy, self-determination and inter-generational equity.

The commons provide a framework for governance in which individual benefit is inextricably tied to collectivity and long-term security is favoured over short-term gain. The very act of commoning is political in that it challenges established power hierarchies and the notion that the interests of a few are permitted to undermine the needs of the majority.

Commons are non-commodified systems of production and thus a direct challenge to capitalism. Commoning practices are increasing in visibility in the midst of recurring crises because they offer creative survival options in difficult times and at the same time allow people to effectively resist destructive development, economic growth and capitalist expansion. It is crucial that we not only defend existing commons from enclosures and cooptation, but also that we help shape new commons to respond to challenges and crises, and to give expression to the regenerative capabilities of people and nature.

As a necessary building block in shaping another and better world, the defense, protection and (re)construction of the commons and various acts of commoning, therefore, remain an urgent collective political and social project that everyone must be part of. 


De Angelis, Massimo (n.d.).  “Crises, Capital and Co-optation: does capital need a commons fix?” http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/crises-capital-and-co-optation-does-capital-need-commons-fix (last consulted: 29 June 2016)

Federici, S. (2004) The Caliban and the Witch, Brooklyn, Autonomedia, 1st edition.

Federici, S. (2010) “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons” http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/feminism-and-politics-commons (last consulted: 23 June 2016)

Food and Agriculture Organization (2011) “The role of women in agriculture” http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/am307e/am307e00.pdf (last consulted: 25 June 2016)

Liberman, A. (2011) “Cambodia: Women fight land grab around Phnom Penh's contested lake” http://news.trust.org//item/20111228223200-wtp7l?view=print (last consulted: 27 June 2016)

Linebaugh, P. (2010) “Some Principles of the Commons” http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/01/08/some-principles-of-the-commons/ (last consulted: 29 June 2016)

Polanyi, K. (1944) The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time, Boston, Beacon Press.

United Nations (2010) The World's Women 2010: Trends and Statistics, New York, United Nations.

Photograph by: Ridan Sun

This article was originally published in 2016 by CETRI in French as part of their quarterly publication, Alternatives Sud 

Focus on the Global South
Date of publication: 
Thu, 2017-06-22

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