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We’re All in This Together

Communities with strong ethics of the commons most resilient to disasters

Following the hugely destructive earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, communities along Japan’s northeastern coast faced a major challenge of social organization: People who had lost everything needed to decide, often together, how to rebuild. They had to work through complex issues of property rights, urban planning and emotional connection to the land. Some communities quickly came to a consensus about what to do, but others – particularly those in urban areas – remain divided more than two years later.

pinyaphoto by MikiAnn, on Flickr

Why the gap? Hokkaido University sociologist Taisuke Miyauchi believes the answer has to do with what scholars call “the commons”: resources belonging to the community as a whole rather than being controlled by an individual, a corporation, or a government body. Shared grazing land and fishing grounds are classic examples of commons. But information, air, water, and language can fit the definition, too (or at least the contemporary version of it).

Miyauchi studied a group of fishing hamlets in Kitakami, Miyagi prefecture whose residents had a long history of cooperatively managing fishing grounds and seaweed beds. Although the tsunami nearly obliterated the hamlets, residents smoothly and quickly reached a consensus on how to rebuild. Meanwhile, a number of urban neighborhoods that lacked commonly managed resources became mired in disagreement over the reconstruction. Miyauchi argues that the community cohesion created by managing the commons was critical in helping the fishing villages bounce back from the tsunami.

There’s a bigger lesson here, especially as the globe enters the era of climate change: Communities with a strong ethic of the commons will likely be more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather and natural disasters.

That may be an oversimplification, but at a international conference where Miyauchi presented his research last week, academics and policy-makers offered many other examples of how common property systems help people overcome disaster. The research is particularly relevant because land grabs and resource exploitation by multinational corporations continue to errode commons around the world, destroying a key source of resilience just when we need it the most.

“In an unpredictable environment, the complex of commons, livestock, and agriculture provides stability,” says Rahul Chaturvedi of India’s Foundation for Ecological Security. The organization was involved in a 2010 study of how 3,000 households in 100 villages throughout India use common forests and fields. They found that not only poor households, but households of all income levels, accessed the commons for fuel, grazing, water, and food. These resources reduced families’ vulnerability to unstable wage labor and agricultural markets.

Chaturvedi says rural people in India have strong rights to some kinds of commons, but not others. “Rights to pastureland are increasingly recognized, and in 2007 the Forest Rights Act was also passed to correct historical injustices. People feel their access is improving,” he said. The situation is different for land dubbed “wastelands,” however. The name was originally bestowed by the British colonial government on areas that didn’t provide revenue — regardless of whether the land was useful for locals. Today the designation makes these areas especially vulnerable to privatization and development, Chaturvedi says.

Aaron Russell of the Center For International Forestry Research says the same is true of supposedly marginal forests in Laos. According to a 2012 study, the Lao government has so far granted 2,600 land concessions covering 1.1 million hectares — or 5 percent of the country . Nearly three-fourths were to foreign investors, mainly from Vietnam, China, and Thailand, who planned to use the land for agriculture, tree plantations, and mining. Much of this land is government owned in name but managed as village commons in reality. The government is making good on its official right to sell off these areas to foreign investors in order to gain capital. “Low value” forests are particularly at risk.

Russell and colleagues recently compared income and wellbeing in a village where common forest remained to two where it had been sold to investors, cleared, and replaced with sugar cane and eucalyptus plantations. The forests in the area are called dryland dipterocarp. According to Russell, they look “scraggly and stunted” but actually provide mushrooms, frogs, wild vegetables, beetles, flowers, and insect larvae to locals. They also supply fodder for what Russell calls “buffalo banks”: livestock that families can sell off when crises like sickness, crop failure, or job loss hit. In the two villages where land developers razed most or all of the forest, people were not able to keep their livestock. Even though overall income was nearly the same in all three villages, Russell argues that wellbeing and security declined when commons disappeared.

“Forests in Laos are an overwhelmingly central part of livelihoods and culture. They are key for coping with uncertainty,” he said. “Policy makers should consider how much forest to leave to ensure communities are resilient to shocks.”

Anthropologist and fisheries scholar Bonnie McCay suggests another way common property systems may be linked to resilience. “You can make the argument that these systems keep you from being locked into the conditions of private property. They are looser sets of arrangements that give flexibility. You don’t need money to reallocate resources,” she says.

Where community members have general rights to a common fishing ground, for example, they can easily switch species if one fish population begins to decline. But where rights are privatized and fishermen own individual catch shares for specific species, switching becomes more difficult. “It’s a big risk created by privatization of fishing rights,” McCay says. “It gets people trapped when they should really move. What I’ve seen is that the value of fishing rights goes down, and you go into debt, just like when the housing market crashed.”

New Zealand’s government recently had to step in and bail out fishermen caught in just such a trap when an orange roughy fishery collapsed, she says. Perhaps the situation would have played out differently had fishery rights not been privatized.

Griffith University coastal management doctoral researcher Daniel Ware points out that there are limits to how much security commons and community cohesion can provide in the face of climate change.

“Strong communities recover from disaster, and communities that recover from multiple disasters become stronger. In Australia towns pride themselves on how well they recover. But there’s a tipping point where it doesn’t work anymore. In Queensland the insurance companies are withdrawing because there have been so many floods, and farming communities are getting stranded,” Ware says.

The same is true for the more tangible safety nets commons provide. “Buffalo banks” and wild vegetables won’t help anyone if they’re wiped out by catastrophic fires. Well-managed common fishing grounds are meaningless if sea-level rise submerges the coastal villages that depend on them.

Resilience may be important, but even the most resilient system has a breaking point.

Winnie Bird
Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist and translator focusing on the environment and architecture. From 2005 to 2014 she lived in rural Japan, where she covered the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster for publications including the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Yale Environment 360. When she’s not writing she can usually be found in her vegetable garden. She currently lives in the California Bay Area.

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