What can we learn from the concept of the commons for collectively managing natural resources? Notes from PEGASUS’ participation in the IASC Congress 2017


by Anne Maréchal, IEEP

Several members of the PEGASUS team attended and presented papers at the 2017 congress of the International Association of the Study of the Commons (IASC), which took place from 10-14 July 2017 in Utrecht, Netherlands.

The theme of the 2017 IASC congress– ‘Practicing the Commons’ – put an emphasis on the role of practitioners, which strongly resonated with many of us in PEGASUS given our interest in how ‘common pool resources’ can be managed in a collective way and considering that the engagement with practitioners is at the core of the project, especially in the 34 PEGASUS case studies.

The IASC congress provided interesting examples of different types of commons - land or resources managed by a community - their governance and the issues they face in different parts of the world. Commons take various shapes and forms across the world, but their concept as a way of collectively managing natural resources is at threat. Part of this can be explained by the gradual introduction of private property rights which now dominate worldwide. These conflict with common property rights which usually do not define ownership clearly, but govern commoners’ rights (or obligations) to access, exploit or manage a common land or resource. In the EU, few commons are still actively managed by communities, but there are exceptions especially in mountainous and more remote areas (e.g. Scotland, Basque country, Romania, etc.).

What are referred to as ‘common pool resources’ overlap conceptually with the notions of public goods and ecosystem services. The governance of commons is highly relevant to PEGASUS as it reminds us of the ways in which local communities have collectively managed their natural resources in sustainable ways for centuries. Lessons can also be drawn on how the transition away from commons have been managed overtime – not always successfully.  Commons that remain have had to adapt to accommodate modern legal frameworks, for example to maintain the principles of collective action, commons’ governance has usually been formalised through the setting-up an association or a cooperative. Locating the IASC 2017 congress in the Netherlands was thus ideal and the field visits provided many examples of successful cooperatives. 

For instance, some of us went to visit a citizens’ cooperative with about 1,000 members whose objective is to achieve a 100% renewable and independent sourcing of energy. The cooperative’s members all invested a fixed amount which collectively enabled them to build 4 wind turbines, on a piece of land rented from the municipality on a long-term contract. The investment should break even after about a decade and start to provide dividends to the cooperative’s members, in addition to a free supply of electricity from a renewable source.

Although PEGASUS does not focus specifically on the management of commons, many of the lessons relating to the governance of commons resonate with some of the early findings from the PEGASUS research, such as the importance of local leaders in establishing collective initiatives or the role policies (in a broad sense) can play to empower rural actors. Other questions were raised such as the legitimacy of some collective actions, the issue of their durability in the long-term, or the trade-off between autonomy and support from local authorities. Many valuable thoughts which the PEGASUS team is eager to explore in the final steps of the project.