What do we have in common?
by Farida C Khan
THE commons refer to those spaces that are understood by economists as non-excludible and non-rivalrous. The first characteristic implies that no one can be excluded from these spaces and the second means that if one person uses the space, this does not prevent another one from doing so. This second criteria cannot hold if there are an inordinately large number of users. For instance, a very large field can be a common space for all the people who dwell by the field — the children play on it, cows graze on it, women walk through it, etc. If we were to place the entire population of a mega city such as Dhaka on such a field, it could not retain the non-rivalrous functions it had and be used as a common resource in the same way anymore. We must therefore use both sense and context when referring to the commons.
The very first question to ask when considering the commons is whom it is common to. Theoretically, a common space is common to all living beings. But this is clearly not a practicable definition as far as use. We could theoretically also venture to say that property owned jointly by two married people is common to them. We all know the obvious error in the above statement — such a case defines what is not common, or has been brought into exclusion or enclosure, i.e. it is private property.
The notion of the commons refers historically to land held by communities that were used by them. The entire problem of the commons began with the Enclosure Movement, when land was starting to become private property, thus leading to less land held in common. This led to the notion that common lands would be overused unless protected and preserved through some innovative means. However, the encroachment of private interests into the commons is not sufficiently recognised as causing the problem of the commons. Economists bring up the problem of free riding which is understood as a seemingly universal or timeless problem of funding the upkeep of the commons. The modern logic considers increases in population across the earth to be the reason for the degradation of the commons, but one should note that the expansion of private (and state) property is just as, if not more, responsible.
First articulated in Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (1833), William Foster Lloyd put forward the idea that individual interests and social interests may be in conflict, contrary to the notion of the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith, which argues that individual and social interests are aligned. Commonly called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, this concept was explained in the following manner: If there is an open pasture, each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on this land. This may work for societies that have tribal wars, poaching, or disease and thus never test the carrying capacity of the land but as soon as there is social stability and a fall in mortality, the commons generate tragedy. Each rational herdsman will keep adding another animal to the pasture, since he will receive the proceeds from the sale of this animal; however, the overgrazing of the pasture and its degradation will lead to disutility for all other herdsman. That is the tragedy — and now it is widely used to bemoan the degradation of all property that is not private; there is no one to finance the upkeep of such property because no one will come forth with the funds if everyone can benefit from this property — the classic free rider problem.
This story presupposes many things — that people who use the commons do not have a mindset that holds much in common. They only think about themselves, their profits, and do not feel a sense of joint ownership with those who they share the commons.
The question is whom do we think of when we consider ourselves? Who is the big ‘I’ that is operative in this individualised calculus? Is it myself? My child and me? My spouse and me? My parents, siblings and myself, or my grandparents, uncles and aunts, and their families and ours as well? My entire village? Our modern selves become more and more unitary in the definition of the self while our pre-modern allegiances continue to value the family, the village, everyone in the community and so on. The same question can be posed regarding the commons — who is it for? Are we aware of those who share the commons with us in the same way that the entire family shares the kitchen or all different households share the roof of an apartment building? Surely so — since we know it is a common space; we do not treat a common space the same way that we treat space that is ‘ours’ — a space to use and abuse at our will. It is because others besides our so-called selves matter that we take care of our own spaces — our front yards, the front of our house, people will see it and we take pains to make sure that they will see it well, because we are part of a family, neighbourhood, a community, and now in modern times, a nation.
Since the mid-twentieth century nations define for us what public, common, and shared spaces mean. Public funds derived from our tax contributions will determine what common services are provided for everyone and which resources will be available for the general public along with who will be included, and who excluded. Certainly, no common property in Bangladesh could possibly be shared with a resident citizen of Uganda, the United States, or India. Laws, grounded in sovereign states, have to define common property for us in modern times. And therefore who is a citizen will define those who share such common property.
Hence in the US, ‘illegal aliens’ who have crossed the border to California and set up tents in state parks are seen to have no right to stay there, unless citizens of the US take up their rights or business owners need them for construction work and appeal to law enforcement agencies to leave them alone. In contemporary times when all is mapped and allocated, only citizens have the right to enjoy what belongs to the state — at the will of those chosen to administer the state.
Let me now turn to what I really intended to discuss. In most countries, forests are usually common property of the citizens, guarded by the state and sometimes inhabited by people who have lived there before the state took on its current shape. In Bangladesh, what is left of such forests are in a similar situation. The small per cent of land that constitutes forestland (the government says five per cent and so it is likely to be far less than that official figure) is now so scarce that it is ‘rediscovered’ as the commons — again because the expansion of private property has rendered scarce the remainder/residual lands and also because the state, which is often an instrument of a relatively small group of powerful citizens that also uses (or abuses) the law to extract what it likes from the commons. Following the British, we delegated to our Forest Department the management of our commons. This was done to avoid the tragedy outlined above but unfortunately the tragedy now prevails because resources have dwindled to a level that makes us have the lowest percentage of forestland in all of South Asia and this has because of indiscriminate use.
Over time, the state has created enclosures in the forest for its own arbitrary designated use. Whether it is the Forest Department or private loggers or poachers that have raided the forest, the conversion of forests to firing ranges or army camps, the exploration of gas in the forest, plantations in forests, cutting of trees and hills to settle citizens that can serve as vote banks for the state — there have been many ways in which deforestation has proceeded over time.
Now, the Wildlife Protection Act of 2010 and 2012 has come about to apparently protect the commons — both the flora and fauna. These bills contain a wide-ranging definition of the wildlife and forest-related offences and crimes. These expanded definitions could easily encourage the forest officials or the officials in charge of the wildlife protection to use their authority against the tribal/indigenous communities living inside or outside the forest by filing cases against them. The Forest Department and other branches of the state have used various means to fine, evict, or shoot at indigenous peoples who live in the forests in Bangladesh. They can easily bring any criminal charges against any innocent people forcing them to leave their homesteads. It has already been said since the 1960s that Jhum cultivation is responsible for deforestation — one wonders how the forests blossomed for centuries under this practice. It is also said that over time, there are too many tribals indiscriminately practising Jhum causing deforestation. How there are too many tribal populations when the census always reports so few (and they leave the nation’s borders when they can) is also a puzzle. Once again, the scarcity problem in the commons is not because selfish or thoughtless people who live there are degrading the land, but because of the needs of private interests that are backed by the state as well as the impossibility of out-migration that comes with creating a nation with such a high population density.
The forestlands have been common lands owned by tribal people who have lived on them and depended on them, and looked after them as their own lands. The state is using its legal mandate to decide for the inhabitants of the forests how they should now use these lands. The state has encouraged many plains peoples to settle into these lands, creating a resource crisis, which now makes the ways of the tribal peoples unsustainable. The extent of deforestation that has happened under the management of the Forest Department has created a shortage of trees, plants, wildlife and a loss of biodiversity. If the land were managed by the tribal peoples, there may be far more likelihood of conservation.
By the settling more people into these lands, the government has created a situation where a non-rivalrous good has become rivalrous. There is battle over land, trees, and a rapid depletion of resources with a high rate of extinction of plants, foods, names, rituals, and ingredients of cultures that make the fabric of Bangladesh as rich as it is.
One must also take into account that globally there is a sense of resource scarcity and environmental degradation. Even if the rest of the world has far more land and resources per capita than Bangladesh, the global psychic sense is that the world does not have enough and most common property is now congestible or rivalrous. Hence the name Common Pool Resources — referring to what was previously infinite relative to use and is now in danger of a shortage.
Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics for her work on governing the commons through collective action. She used case studies from Nepal and other places to argue that around the world private associations have often managed to avoid the tragedy of the commons and develop efficient uses of resources. She also finds that formally government protected forest will fail to protect common pool resources if local users do not regard the state’s rules as legitimate. Therefore those rules need to be developed through a consensus with locals instead of being pushed on them in an antagonistic manner. It is interesting that Ostrom found that many tribal communities in interior areas of Nepal are the very cases that managed common pool resources well.
It is imperative that locals in forests be given some autonomy and assistance to secure common ownership over their/our lands so they are able to sustain these resources. The example of betel cultivation among the Khasis is an instance whereby indigenous peoples are making products valued in the market while being able to retain their basic modes of living.
In India, The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 passed by the parliament was followed by a year of fiery campaigns by rival lobbies of forest conservation and tribal rights activists. The Act was designed undo the ‘historical injustice’ perpetrated on forest dwelling communities by providing a framework that recognises and vests forest rights in them. The FRA has formed the basis for community management of forests. However, there is resistance from many vested authorities to give up power over forest resources. This has become a norm for the beneficiaries of the state — those by whom the powers of the state are held in common. In fact, the Ministry of Environment and Forest finds the situation intolerable — how can poor tribals in Gram Sabhas be allowed to vote to decide the fate of the large ‘development’ projects of the rich corporate houses and multinational corporations?
What is relevant here is who the state thinks deserves to be in the commons. This is a contestation that is common to all states and knows no boundaries. Are the people living in the forests seen as part of the family that makes the state? Who is the ‘us’ that are entitled to the commons? Many tribals have left Bangladesh over time — the Rakhine for Burma and the many groups, Chakmas, Khasis, Tripuras and others, for India. If they had felt that the commons belonged to them, would they have left? What sort of sense of commonality does the state allow for different peoples in Bangladesh? Who feels that they are part of the official ‘us’?
We know that rivers, mountains, and wildlife know no nation state boundaries. Yet we put them there and people have to abide by them — a Hajong must decide if she is Bangladeshi or Indian, a Rakhine whether he is Bangladeshi or Burmese. And then they hope that the state sees them as people who have rights to national resources.
The process by which those of us who are committed to maintaining heterogeneity in our relatively newfound national identity can help define who ‘we’ are is not an easy one. It is difficult for many of us to understand the needs of the ‘others’ amidst us. My suggestion would be to pause and recall the moment of alienation we felt when we were excluded from anything at all, and use that moment to embrace and extend the definition of ‘we’ to as far as our imagination might allow.
Farida C Khan is professor of economics, University of Wisconsin-Parkside.