The commons

The commons
Jacqui van Heerden

The commons are the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable Earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.

Commons can also be defined as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates for individual and collective benefit.

The use of “commons” for natural resources has its roots in European history.

In the Middle Ages, rural districts of Europe were often characterised by an “open field” system of agriculture, where each village would be self-sufficient. This land would be farmed or grazed by the nearby villagers. Starting in the 12th century and continuing to the end of the 19th century, England saw a process of enclosure where people were evicted from common land as it was seized by larger landholders and fenced, claimed as private property for private use. You could think of this as the first “land grabs” before colonisation.

In Switzerland and parts of Germany, well-functioning grazing commons are still retained. Many commons use has expanded beyond grazing and farming to public recreation and environmental protection.

The right to roam

Access to the countryside is a variation on the theme of the commons. In the UK, an extensive network of public footpaths crossing private land exists where people have a “right to roam”. Under these laws people can walk across and camp on private land with few guidelines. Norway, Sweden, Finland, European countries and Iceland have right to roam laws that allow reasonable unrestricted access to nature.

In the US and Australia, private property owners would consider this illegal trespassing. A “commons” concept has never been embraced here, with some citizens even claiming beaches as part of their private property, unlike the indigenous cultures that preceded them.

There was a popularised theory written by biologist Garrett Harding that when people have access to a common resource they tend to overuse it. However, this was based on speculation rather than actual observation and misunderstanding of commons versus open access, and he later radically modified his views (Book: The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons).


A research project undertaken in 1992 to 1995 showed where shepherds were permitted to move collectively between seasonal grazing pastures. In Mongolia, degradation remained relatively low at approximately 9 per cent. Comparatively, Russia and China, which mandated state-owned pastures involving immobile settlements and in some cases privatisation by household, had much higher degradation, at around 75 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively.

Community managed forests exist in Nepal, Indonesia, India, Brazil and South Korea with the aim to protect forests and relieve poverty among nearby communities.   These programs work by giving a financial stake to local areas increasing the incentive to protect them from overuse. The harvesting and selling of timber and land is regulated by local organisations, and profits must be used in preservation of the forests and community development.

Nepal adopted a community forestry management program in the 1990s and in 20 years, locals have noticed a visible increase in the number of trees.


In New Mexico, a community-run organisation, Acequia Associations, supervises water in terms of diversion, distribution, utilisation, and recycling, in order to reinforce agricultural traditions and preserve water as a common resource for future generations.

Inevitably the commons are at odds with the private realm – in modern capitalist societies, existing commons are under threat never mind trying to establish more “commons”. We see this today with land being seized from peasants or indigenous people for profit making purposes for private companies.

In Australia, one long standing example is the Murray-Darling Basin which is subject to ongoing demands from large farming concerns growing crops such as cotton, almonds, and the need of the river’s ecological health, downstream towns and smaller farmers.

Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere, that includes literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage.


Public libraries and the content within them are an important part of the commons.  The establishment of tool libraries extends the “commons” and encourages sharing of resources rather than ownership.


You could consider open source as a form of commons, where people share their source code freely for possible modification and redistribution.

Management of the commons

The governance of natural resources used by many individuals in common is an issue of increasing concern to policy analysts. Both state control and privatisation of resources have been advocated yet it seems degradation; pollution, politics and greed are products of this management system rather than sustainability for future generations, fair share and enhancement.

Elinor Orstrom conducted field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources, such as pastures, fishing waters and forests. She showed that when natural resources are jointly used by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable.   

Ostrom wrote a book Governing the commons and won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for this work.

Is there a future where local communities manage and use their local resources? •

Like us on Facebook