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The opportunities and challenges presented by a land-based commons approach. Preface by Gaël Giraud

A publication of the ‘Land Tenure and Development’ Technical Committee

Written by: Gaël Giraud, Sigrid Aubert (Cirad), Martine Antona (Cirad), François Bousquet (Cirad), Camilla Toulmin (IIED), Patrick d’Aquino (Cirad)

Writing date:

Organizations: Comité technique « Foncier et développement » (CTFD), Agence Française de Développement (AFD), Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et Européennes (France) (MAEE)

Type of document: Research Paper

Documents of reference

‘Land Tenure and Development’ Technical Committee, 2017, The opportunities and challenges presented by a land-based commons approach, Paris, Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (MEAE), French Development Agency (AFD), 83 p.



These are trying times. Societies in the global North and South are beset by interlinked environmental, food, financial and economic crises, but ill-equipped to untangle them as the short-term outlooks of our institutions, accounting systems and public policies lack the long view needed to resolve such issues. In the meantime, our fixation with markets (hardly the most reliable source of guidance) diverts attention from the fact that natural resources are becoming increasingly degraded, scarce and hard to access for many actors, particularly the most disadvantaged. Supplies of potable water are dwindling from Cape Town to La Paz, in Syria (where disastrous management of the 2007-2010 drought contributed to the calamitous civil war), Amman (which draws some of its water from ancient aquifers 400m underground that may not outlast the next generation) and even the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where reduced river flow (due to melting glaciers in the Himalayas) is intensifying alarm about rising sea levels that are pushing back coastal defences and threatening rice production and aquaculture.

If we are to avoid major regional or even continental collapses, we need a radical – and rapid – rethink of our relationship with natural resources. The international community was first alerted to this when the formidable Donella and Denis Meadows published their best-selling report back in 19721. If we consider how the authorities responsible for the long-term uni- versal interest responded to their warnings, we can see that there has been huge progress in terms of increased awareness among disadvantaged populations that have had to adapt their practices in order to survive. However, this is counterbalanced by resistance from elites who refuse to see why they should renounce their comfortable Texan lifestyles. In 2015, the Italian chemist Ugo Bardi re-sounded the alarm among the international community in his report to the Club of Rome2, which went largely unreported by the media … This year, amid growing concern about the increasing scarcity of underground natural resources, his dire warning was confirmed in a research paper produced by the French Development Agency (AFD)3.

We need to consider the fact that the world could reach peak copper extraction before 2050 4. Copper is essential to modern industry, where the infrastructures needed for renewable energies consume even more resources than those powered by fossil fuels. Without copper, the transition to renewable energies could be extremely problematic.

Nor should we forget the genocidal effects of failure to manage land and water resources effectively at the international level. Between the late 19th and 20th centuries, over 50 million people died in terrible famines that swept through India, Brazil, China and Africa, which were largely ignored by the West5. Droughts and floods triggered by El Niño caused major epidemics, mass rural exodus, and uprisings that were brutally suppressed by colonial administrations whose ‘active neglect’ and blind faith in free trade lethally aggravated these catastrophic situations. Josué de Castro’s geography of hunger, published in 19536, showed that this problem was far from being resolved a century later. Major famines continued until the 1970s in India, Bangladesh and even China (during the infamous Cultural Revolution), as well as the Sahel7 and Ethiopia (the fall of the emperor). Are we going to be able to avoid a repetition of such tragedies?

Ecological, economic and social changes are urgently needed to enable us to develop the kinds of societies that we want. While they differ in their details, all these societies involve relinquishing an illusion that has persisted since the 18th century: the idea that the only way we can relate to natural resources is through private ownership. Most of our environmental problems stem from the privatisation of the world, from a system that allows American citizens to extract oil from their gardens, or industrial fishing fleets from all over the world to plunder the wildlife in our oceans. Private property is essentially a recent, late-19th century invention, imported from Roman law and rewritten by medieval jurists during the Gregorian reform. It may be that its initial inclusion in Roman law transferred the strange relationship between master and slave to the way that humans interact with things. In any case, it com- bines three types of relationships to things that should not necessarily be interlinked – the right to use something, the right to make productive use of something, and the right to destroy something.

Land, sea and the resources they can provide – water and minerals in the first instance, but also farm, fish and forest products – are central to these questions. Once we stop looking at things solely in terms of private ownership, it becomes apparent that a huge range of dif- ferent land tenure regimes exist. Most include hybrid norms and institutions that developed out of inherited colonial systems and longstanding customary rights, creating interlinked and embedded property regimes that can be interpreted in many different, and potentially conflictual, ways. This can lead to violence, especially when ‘modern’ procedures and ‘public interest’ are invoked to assign vast tracts of cultivable and irrigable land to national or foreign investors, disregarding the rights of local farmers and herders (and their descendants) who are confined to small plots or denied access to the transhumance routes they need to survive. New forms of community regulation are needed, even where customary rights prevail. In the African Sahel, for example, customary systems can no longer deal with conflicts between farmers from the south and nomadic pastoralists from the north, which are triggered by denser crops, bigger herds and changing climatic conditions.

It is not a matter of dismantling all forms of private ownership or arguing for wholesale public ownership (the totalitarian tragedies of the 20th century showed that this can make things worse8, but of thinking in terms of bundles of rights that can ensure universal, sus- tainable and equitable use of resources.

As part of its international efforts to reduce inequality and protect the environment, the French Cooperation has long argued for the need to reconcile the legality and legitimacy of the multiple forms of land tenure that exist around the world. This involves explicit legal recognition of existing established rights, whatever their origin (custom or State), and a proper assessment of the condition and potential of the natural resources concerned. These two dimensions – recognition of rights and knowledge of resources – would enable all stakeholders to play an active role in land policies that can deliver sustainable economic and social development in both rural and urban areas9.

This belief underpins the work that the ‘Land Tenure and Development’ Technical Com- mittee (LTDTC) has conducted over the last 20 years under the auspices of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and the French Development Agency10. With this new publication, which is the fruit of collective reflection on all kinds of commons, the LTDTC aims to renew our understanding of the many different ways that land and natural resources are used. Commons rightly occupy a central place in this understanding. By ‘commons’, we mean any kind of resource that a community (possibly established for this purpose) undertakes to protect and ensure that members can access, knowing from experience that privative appropriation could lead to its disappearance. Protecting access to any resource (water, forest, minerals, etc.) entails learning to distinguish between the different rights to use it, and resolving not to make it into a commodity that can be assigned to the highest bidder.

Readers will understand that our capacity to administer our commons properly depends on the willingness of a significant portion of humanity to avoid the catastrophes mentioned at the start of this preface.

The combination of scientific issues and reflection by development practitioners pre- sented in this paper provides an analysis of commons that can feed directly into political action. Far from being a naively Rousseauist vision of commons, and especially of customary rights – which are sometimes inegalitarian and undemocratic – this paper explores how public policies on sustainable development can implement and promote a ‘land-based commons’ approach. In doing so, it sketches out the political prospects for genuinely ‘sustainable de- velopment’ in societies where land is no longer pillaged on the scale that it is today, which will soon compromise the very conditions for the viability of certain sections of humanity. The development of a shared, more egalitarian world where everyone, women and men, young and old, will have access to the fruits of a protected Earth and fair pay for their work, regardless of the colour of their skin.

Gaël Giraud is Chief Economist at the French Development Agency, Director of the Chair for Energy and Prosperity, Research Director at CNRS.

1 Meadows D. H. (2012), Limits to growth (in a finite world): 30 years after the Meadows Report, Rue de l’Echiquier.

2 Bardi U. (2015), Extracted: How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet: [new shock report for the Club of Rome]. Chelsea Green Publishing.

3 Giraud G., Mc Isaac F., Bovari E., Zatsepina E. (2017), Coping with the Collapse: A Stock-Flow Consistent Monetary Macrodynamics of Global Warming, Updated version: January 2017, AFD Research Paper Series, n° 2017-29 bis, January 2017.

4 Rostom F., Giraud G., Vidal O. (2015), Can the Interdependence Between Energy and Matter Resources Lead to an Economic Collapse? in The Dynamic Energy Landscape, 33rd USAEE/IAEE North American Conference, Oct 25-28, 2015, International Association for Energy Economics.

5 Davis M. (2006), Génocides tropicaux - Catastrophes naturelles et famines coloniales. Aux origines du sous- développement, La Découverte.

6 De Castro J., Buck P. S., Orr J.-B., Sorre M. (1953), Geopolítica da fome: ensaio sobre os problemas de alimentação e de população do mundo.

7 Meillassoux C. (1974), Development or exploitation: is the Sahel famine good business? Review of African Political Economy. 1(1), 27-33.

8 Perhaps the utopian ideal of full privatisation of social space is mysteriously linked to the equally destructive notion of the total absorption of this space into public ownership. Isn’t that the ultimate meaning of Karl Polanyi’s proposition?

9 In urban areas too, because what is a town or city if not a territory where certain services are shared? The problems that South Africa (and other countries) face in breaking down the geographic apartheid that continues to divide its major cities show that creating commons within populations that are reluctant to live together looks very simple in theory, but is extremely hard to put into practice.

10 The White Paper on Land governance and security of tenure in developing countries (2009); Large-scale land appropriations: Analysis of the phenomenon and proposed guidelines for future action (2010); and Formalising land rights in developing countries (2015).

The full document is available on the website of the ‘Land Tenure and Development’ Technical Committee on this page.



Acronyms and abbreviations

  • List of boxes

  • Acknowledgements

  • Executive summary


PART 1. The issues involved in a ‘commons approach’ to land practices

  • Facilitating societal adaptation to global changes

  • Arbitrating conflicts of interest in access to land by private investors and local populations

  • Promoting respect for human rights and social justice when dealing with land matters

  • Supporting forms of land management that are conducive to peace and territorial balance

PART 2. Adopting a flexible definition of « land-based commons »

  • Entry point through resources

  • Entry point through appropriation regimes

  • Entry point through the ecosystem

  • Entry point through communities

  • Entry point through governance

  • Entry point through practices

PART 3. An analytical framework to initiate the commons approach to land issues

  • Looking beyond ‘common lands’

  • Going beyond community-based management

  • Understanding commons as ‘action situations’

PART 4. Six guiding principles for the application of a commons approach to land matters

  • Principle 1: Recognise the prevalence of commons, and where necessary ensure that is recognised

  • Principle 2: Improve understanding of the environments in which commons targeted by international cooperation interventions operate

  • Principle 3: Support and strengthen key commons

  • Principle 4: Ensure that behavioural changes proposed by external interventions are socially acceptable

  • Principle 5: Proposed support should be based on joint management and subsidiarity

  • Principle 6: Implement reflexive monitoring and evaluation



  • Bibliography

  • English-French lexicon of key terms