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The world celebrated Environment Day on June 5 and the theme for this year was ‘Ecosystem Restoration’. The UN decade on ecosystem restoration, which was launched on World Environment Day 2021, aims to “prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems” and there is an emphasis on reviving damaged ecosystems. We know that ecosystems have been degraded over the years due to human interventions and activities.
Hence, reviving these systems would not only entail ecological restoration, but also protection and governance by humans- people interacting with these ecosystems. But who are these people? Who owns these ecosystems? Who will protect them? The answers are not straightforward.
Here, we have a look at ecosystems and resources which are collectively owned and managed, known as ‘commons’ and how they can help in combating climate change.
Conventionally, we are used to thinking about ownership of any asset or property in binary- private/individual and public/government. However, traditionally in India as well as in other countries, there have been multiple ways of owning and managing property and resources.
One of them is collective ownership, where resources are shared, accessed, managed and controlled collectively by a community. In such cases, by virtue of being members of the community, they have the rights and duties towards the resource. These resources are known as common-pool resources or commons. Commons are not just physical goods, but manifestations of the social relationships around the management of these goods or resources.
Forests, pasture lands, water bodies, grasslands, etc. are some examples of shared natural resources which have traditionally been governed through common property regimes. These regimes are mostly guided by principles of cooperation, sharing and collective action. A set of rules and norms for the management of commons are decided by the commoners (people who use the resources) themselves. There are examples of communities worldwide that have managed and conserved natural resources as common property through self-governance.
We know how ecosystems like forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, coastal areas, lakes etc. play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance by providing “services” like carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, climate protection and so on. When managed properly, these resource systems have also proved to be useful for people.
Commons have played an important role in the livelihood (not just income-earning) security of communities. Several goods can be derived from commons, such as fodder, fruits, tubers, medicinal herbs, water, honey, timber, grasses, flowers, and so on. Many of these materials are used for food and shelter by the communities dependent on them. Some of the materials could be sold in the market in exchange for cash income as well.
Apart from these benefits, commons also act as social security nets to fall back on during risks. The collectives of people which are an integral part of the commons share the benefits as well as the risks from the resources. As a result of the relationships and reciprocities, checks and balances, the system is sustainable and resilient.
The commons have eroded over the years owing to various reasons. Due to a lack of legal recognition of the common property regimes, the resources either came under government control or were privatised. This in turn led to the alienation of communities from their resources since they lost control over their resources. The social relationships underlying the governance and sustainability of these resources also started changing slowly and gradually.
The communities that were directly dependent on the common pool resources for their sustenance had to look for more individual sources of livelihoods. With the advent of the industrial revolution and modernisation, the huge demand for labour and natural resources led to an over-exploitation of both. Without proper management of the resources, they were degraded, impacting their sustainability.
The erosion of commons not only altered the ecological health of the resources but also changed the social fabric of the communities. Communities like livestock keepers, forest-dependent tribals, nomadic pastoralists etc. were marginalised. The socio-ecological systems which thrived on inter-dependencies and mutual relationships were broken down into isolated components.
This individualisation meant that communities were more susceptible to risks, the dependence on government and market for livelihoods increased and the traditional norms and institutions of collective action started fading. The social relationships which held communities and resources together became more transactional. Sustenance and security were lost, thus increasing the vulnerability, especially of the marginalised.
The crisis of commons has a direct bearing on the crisis of climate change. We know that deforestation, depletion of natural resources, degradation of ecosystems, overexploitation of groundwater, etc. are some of the causes of climate change. Thus, the revival of common-pool resources is seen as an important strategy to mitigate climate change.
Restoration of ecosystems has obvious benefits like increase in vegetation cover, increased biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil and moisture conservation and so on. Along with this, the rejuvenation of landscapes leads to the creation of livelihoods and enhanced food security. Properly managed natural resource systems, in turn, enhance agricultural and livestock production systems, help in diversifying livelihoods thus shielding communities from risks stemming from climate change.
Revival of commons entails not just ecological restoration, but sustainable management of the restored ecosystems is equally important. Governance of resources through community-based institutions and common property regimes must be pushed for, instead of privatisation and state control.
Commoning or community management of resources through collective action, inclusive decision-making and collaboration across stakeholders have been initiated at various places to revive those resources. Such initiatives increase the resilience of communities and help them mitigate the impacts of climate change.
The knowledge systems associated with commons are also an integral part of the resource systems. The communities traditionally managing the resources have intimate knowledge about them and this traditional knowledge helps in the governance and conservation of commons. Restoration strategies must involve an amalgamation of both traditional and contemporary knowledge systems for effective climate change mitigation.