Documenting the Commons

2014•07•15 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

The term “the commons” is typically defined as land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community. If you work in the area of environmental conservation then, no matter where you are, it is likely that you will encounter the commons and possibly in the form of open land, pastures, forests, rivers and even coastal waters.

As an environmental expert, I had not fully appreciated my own interactions with the commons until I was asked recently by Professor Lynn Thiesmeyer at Keio University to present a lecture on United Nations University’s video production work. The title Professor Theismeyer suggested for my talk was “Documenting the Commons”. While preparing for it, I came to realize that for over a decade my colleagues and I at UNU had been filming “environmental stories” without consciously recognizing that we were at the same time documenting the fate of the commons in different regions of the world.

Our stories showed how some people were trying to conserve, share and open the commons, while another group of people were trying (or were forced by circumstance) to exploit, privatize or enclose the commons.

In many instances, we also witnessed the every day playing out of what the economist Garret Hardin described as the “tragedy of the commons” — how the environment is degraded when many individuals use limited and shared resources.

Managing the commons is a messy business, fraught with conflicts. Questions of power, fairness, justice and equity are usually at the centre of the struggle over these resources and this has been historically the case. Indeed, I began my Keio University talk with reference to the 17th Century English folk poem about how the law locks up the person who steals the goose off the common, but leaves untouched the villain who steals the common from the goose. This being a direct criticism of the enclosure of commons lands in 1800s England, where citizens’ traditional rights to mow meadows or graze livestock were removed and such use restricted to the “owners”. At the same time, it is a reflection of our justice system that often punishes the petty crime and leaves greater, more significant misdemeanors unpunished.

Our journey started in Mexico

In the period 2003 to 2007, we found ourselves collaborating with several Mexican universities to develop educational materials on water and biodiversity related issues. This work was led by a very talented Mexican colleague here at UNU, Luis Patron. It was his idea that we make documentary films to share our work more extensively and one that proved to be very successful — with over 5 million views on our YouTube Channel and various broadcast agreements.

Our first collaboration was with the University of Guadalajara and together we produced a video documentary and online interactive case study about “Saving the Ayuquila River”. This story dealt with the struggles of communities along the river system who had witnessed the transformation of their valley as a sugar mill began production and large areas of agricultural land were turned into sugar plantations.

At around the same time, the work of scientists from the University of Guadalajara had led to the designation of the Sierra de Manantlán as a biosphere reserve in 1987. Now, while this was a very positive development, one major challenge was that 33,000 people had rights to the land within the reserve. A large proportion of these rights, around 60 percent, were communal under the Mexican ejido system in which community members individually possess and farm a specific parcel of an ejido. Originally based on the Aztec calpulli, the ejido system was endorsed in the 1917 Mexican Constitution.

The challenge for the scientists in the biosphere reserve was to control the relatively destructive land practices of the communities such as pasture, small agricultural land plots and illegal logging. The story is one of positive collaboration between the scientists and the communities that extended beyond the reserve to help solve other environmental problems in the region, including pollution of the Ayuquila River.

In 2007 we produced our second documentary, “Voices of the Chichinautzin”, which deals with the issue of illegal logging. Again, we were working with local scientists from the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos, particularly Professor Topiltzin Contreras (who was later to become the State Secretary of Sustainable Development in Morelos). Together we explored the struggles to manage and conserve the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor, created in 1988. The Corridor connects the Lagunas de Zempoala and El Tepozteco National Parks in the Sierra Norte of Mexico and is a natural green lung and source of water for Mexico City and Cuernavaca.

While the documentary explores a number of complex issues, one story in particular dealt with the Tlahuican indigenous community’s struggle to protect their common lands from outside illegal logging. Tragically, it was the June 2007 murder of one member of their community, Aldo Zamora, by killers identified as members of an illegal logging band, that brought national attention and action to help protect the Tlahuican community and their forest.

In Mexico, the vast majority of the land is in communal ownership and it is through the struggles of these communities that resources are either conserved or exploited.

Indigenous perspectives

The next major area of our video documentary work revolved around the experiences of more indigenous peoples, particularly in relation to the impacts of climate change. By this time, Citt Williams, a young and successful Australian filmmaker, had joined our team and together with the UNU Traditional Knowledge Initiative we made a series of short documentaries.

While almost all of the communities covered were involved in managing the commons, one story in particular — Forbidden Forest of the Dayak People — illustrated how a community can effectively conserve both the local biodiversity and their livelihoods.

Living in Setalung village on the island of Borneo, the Dayak people follow ancient codes that determine how their land should be used and restrict the exploitation of resources such as the local forest. They have a designation, Tana Olen, that means “forbidden forest” and from which no one can log or take resources. By following these rules, the Dayak have conserved their land, whereas neighbouring communities have sold their rights to logging companies and their environment has been badly degraded.

Interestingly, my co-lecturer at the Keio University seminar is an expert on the commons. Gaku Mitsumata, professor at the University of Hyogo, was one of the contributors to the 2013 book Local Commons and Democratic Environmental Governance from UNU Press.

In our conversations he explained several principles dictating the use of common resources. First, clearly defined boundaries are required. Second, there needs to be a set of rules determining the time, place, technologies, and/or quantities of resource units that can be extracted, used or harvested, as well as some determination of how this relates to financial gain — individually or communally. Third, most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying those rules. Fourth, there needs to be a low-cost conflict resolution mechanism.

Upon reflection, and based on Professor Mitsumata’s observations, it was clear to me then that the indigenous peoples with whom our team had been interacting over the past decade were, and have historically been, applying these principles.

The Japanese experience

Professor Mitsumata’s work mainly covers the management of the commons in Japan which in rural areas is referred to as iriai — a combination of two Chinese characters meaning “to collectively enter” or more specifically “collective ownership”.

I was happy to share with him the work that we had been doing in Japan, inspired by former UNU researcher and ethnologist, Anne McDonald (now at Sophia University). McDonald was very much interested in the iriai practices of Medieval Japan and argues that modern forestry management is based on the same principles. She worked with Kaori Brand, a skillful Japanese filmmaker and member of our UNU team, to produce a series of films that document the Japanese experience of managing the commons.

One of the first films they made together was the story “Japan’s Ama Free Divers” about how this unique community maintains their ancient fishing practices. Traditionally female only, the Ama dive for sea-cucumber, abalone and oysters. In line with the principles explained by Prof. Mitsumata, they have developed community-based resource use and management systems, as well as rules on technology and lifestyles (even controlling the number of cars and vending machines on their island).

This film was to become part of a series of documentaries under theme of Satoumi that explores traditional marine conservation at six locations around Japan: Shiretoko Peninsula (Hokkaido), Nanao Bay and Hegura Island (Ishikawa), Ago Bay (Mie), Hinase (Okayama) and Shiraho (Okinawa). The central message of these films is that traditional practices in these areas have played a key role in restoring the damaged marine environments and in their conservation.

On the land, similar conservation practices are evident in Japan through the concept of Satoyama, which was covered in 2009 in two short documentaries by Kaori Brand with the titles “Harvest Time in Satoyama” and “Greetings from Satoyama”. While exploring how the human-nature interaction in these agro-ecological landscapes had generally resulted in positive benefits in terms of biodiversity, the overall concern was that, as the rural population of Japan ages, these Satoyama landscapes might gradually disappear. In collaboration with the Satoyama Initiative, we noted that such landscapes are not restricted to Japan and we looked at a similar situation in the Western Ghat mountain range of India.

A similar concern relates to the forest management practices of Japan, which McDonald suggests have evolved out of the past experience with iriai. This was explored in a documentary film made by Kaori Brand in 2012 that looked at the experience of the Kaga Forest Cooperative Association in Ishikawa Prefecture with an accompanying article on Our World entitled “The Roots of Cooperative Capitalism Run Deep in Japan”. The film shows how the cooperative has developed a novel way of responding to the declining number of foresters that would ensure that forest practices could continue in an environmentally sustainable manner.

The tragedy of the commons

It was while working in Central Asia with colleagues for the UNU’s Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn that we witnessed first hand the tragedy of the commons. In particular, one documentary produced by Luis Patron examined the energy situation in the Murghab region of Tajikstan.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this region was deprived of its previous supply of fossil fuels. As a consequence, people were forced to use a small shrub called teresken as a cooking and heating fuel. Teresken is one of the few plants that will grow in this semi-arid region. The film illustrated how groups of men would travel to the plains to harvest the teresken. It is back-breaking work but, as a result, an area of 70–80 km in circumference around the settlement has been cleared of vegetation.

The consequence has been soil and land degradation. In this region, there is no one with authority over the land and no current alternative energy source. There are, however, local scientists who are exploring ways to replant the teresken and thereby restore the environment. Researchers from the UNU were working closely with these scientists and supporting their work.

The future of the commons

The pressures on shared resources and common lands are great and come from developers, investors and government, as a result of globalization pressures. Nevertheless, as we have documented over the last decade, many commons survive intact today.

The future of such land and resources, however, is unclear. In Japan, as the rural communities decline, as Professor Mitsumata points out, it has become all the more urgent to consider how to rebuild and recreate these communities and their relationship with the land and biodiversity.

He argues that in today’s challenging world, common resources provide a degree of autonomy, independence and a distinctive local culture. Based on the notion of mutual cooperation, the maintenance of the commons offers the opportunity for enhanced welfare for local communities and improved resilience or security.

But such commons do not exist in a bubble, isolated from the outside world. There are entities and forces outside of the local commons that can either help or undermine the communities’ efforts to conserve them. The challenge, therefore, is for those communities to decide the best strategy for collaborating with the outside forces so as to ensure that that the integrity of common resources is not undermined. As we have seen, this can be a life and death struggle, but it is one that is happening in thousands of instances across the globe.

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Documenting the Commons by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.