Comment

A case for Commons sense

When 196 countries met at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, last November for the 14th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a key question on top of the agenda was how to govern biological resources (or biodiversity) at different levels for the world’s sustainable future.

The meeting had come at a significant time: it was the CBD’s 25th year of implementation, countries had approximately 350 days to meet global biodiversity targets, and there was the backdrop of a damning report that humans have mismanaged biodiversity so badly that we have lost 60% of resources (which can never be recouped). Finally, there was growing concern on how the Convention’s objectives of conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits were being compromised, including by the parties themselves.

For thousands of years, humans have considered natural resources and the environment as a global public good, with communities having diligently managed these resources using the principle of ‘Commons’.

In simple terms, these are a set of resources such as air, land, water and biodiversity that do not belong to one community or individual, but to humanity. All developments we see in the establishment of civilisations across the world as well as agricultural development feeding the world today are a result of such ‘Commons’ being managed by communities for centuries.

Then came the urge of those with money and power to privatise these resources for individual prosperity in the form of property management principles, intellectual property rights and others. In one form the CBD — a multi-lateral environmental agreement that has provided legal certainty to countries through the principle of sovereign rights over biodiversity — also contributed to states now owning the resources, including their rights on use and management.

Today, states control and manage biodiversity with strict oversight of who can use what and how. The intent of the CBD and having sovereign rights was to manage resources better. But the results of such management have been questionable. A key reason cited is that ‘Commons’ and common property resource management principles and approaches are ignored and compromised.

Why ‘Commons’?

According to estimates, a third of the global population depends on ‘Commons’ for their survival; 65% of global land area is under ‘Commons’, in different forms. At least 293,061 million metric tonnes of carbon (MtC) are stored in the collective forestlands of indigenous peoples and local communities. This is 33 times the global energy emissions in 2017. The significance of ‘Commons’ in supporting pollination (the cost estimated to be worth $224 billion annually at global levels) cannot be overlooked.

In India, the extent of ‘Common’ land ranges between 48.69 million and 84.2 million hectares, constituting 15-25% of its total geographical area. ‘Common’-pool resources contribute $5 billion a year to the incomes of poor Indian households. Around 77% of India’s livestock is kept in grazing-based or extensive systems and dependent on ‘Commons’ pool resources. And 53% of India’s milk and 74% of its meat requirements are met from livestock kept in extensive ‘Common’ systems.

Despite their significance, ‘Commons’ in India have suffered continued decline and degradation. National Sample Survey Office data show a 1.9% quinquennial rate of decline in the area of ‘Common’ lands, though microstudies show a much more rapid decline of 31-55% over 50 years, jeopardising the health of systemic drivers such as soil, moisture, nutrient, biomass and biodiversity, in turn aggravating food, fodder and water crises. As of 2013, India’s annual cost of environmental degradation has been estimated to be ₹3.75 trillion per year, i.e. 5.7% of GDP according to the World Bank.

Why the concern?

‘Commons’ becoming uncommon is a major socio-political, economic and environmental problem. While the state can have oversight over resource management, keeping people away from using and managing ‘Commons’ is against effective governance of ‘Commons’.

The sovereign rights provided for, legally, under the CBD should not be misunderstood by the state as a handle to do away with ‘Commons’-based approaches to managing biodiversity, land, water and other resources.

Current discussions under the United Nations should focus on how and why ‘Commons’ have been negatively impacted by progressive pronouncements to save the earth and people.

Another key concern is the changing socio-political impact of migration. Gone are the days when we can consider ‘Commons’ as resources relevant only for rural communities. ‘Commons’ are now a major provider of livelihood options for both urban and peri-urban populations. The relevance of ‘Commons’ impacting urban dwellers cannot be overlooked with more urbanisation happening.

Approaches for the future

There needs to be a review of current governance of biodiversity and natural resources. After 18 years of action to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity, it is very likely that the same 196 countries will meet in 2020 to apologise to the world for having failed to meet the objectives of the convention.

In addition to seeking more money, time and capacities to deal with biodiversity and natural resource management, we need to focus on three specific approaches: one, to re-introduce more strongly, the management and governance principles of ‘Commons’ approaches into decision-making and implementation of conservation, use and benefit sharing action; two, to use Joseph Schumpeter’s approach of creative destruction to put resource management in the hands of the people; and three, to re-look at Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning principles of dealing with ‘Commons’.

The time for corrective approaches and action is now.

Balakrishna Pisupati, currently working on the promise of ‘Commons’, is Chairperson, Forum for Law, Environment, Development and Governance (FLEDGE) and former Chief of Biodiversity, Land Law and Governance at the United Nations Environment Programme


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 1:53:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-case-for-commons-sense/article26252368.ece

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