A composite of images taken over 15 years and showcasing the results of efforts to conserve and protect the commons in Charangam, India. Photo by: Foundation for Ecological Security, India.

Many discussions on how land should be governed to protect the environment focus on putting the land under government control (parks and protected areas) or under individual private property. But extensive experience with forests, rangelands and agricultural landscapes shows that there is a need to strengthen common property to improve the ecosystems, as well as the entitlements of local communities to sustain rural livelihoods.

Globally, more than 2.5 billion people depend directly on common pool resources such as forest, pastures and dry lands for their livelihoods. In India, around 21 percent of the geography can be classified under commons — shared resources. Commons provide wide-ranging contributions — from food, fodder and timber to improved farming systems, livestock production, biodiversity conservation and ground water. These resources, which by their very nature are indivisible or best managed undivided, play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance, provide important resources that sustain life, and foster collective action that goes beyond managing natural resources. Despite their importance, the commons have usually been neglected in policies for environmental conservation and poverty alleviation. Projected as “wastelands,” they are too often taken away from community use for biofuel cultivation, corporate contract farming and industrial zones.

In India, over the last half century common lands are on the decline by as much as 31-35 percent. The decline can be attributed to the absence or weak tenure arrangements acknowledging the customary rights of communities. Yet communities are the ones who have the knowledge, proximity and rules to manage these resources effectively.

The recent recognition of community ownership under India’s Forest Rights Act as well as the role of local communities in managing forests under Joint Forest Management arrangements provide a welcome step. Secure tenure over commons engenders collective action and ensures sustained commitment towards their conservation. Such rights are also integral to the larger process of building democratic institutions for governance of natural resources.

At the Foundation for Ecological Security, our efforts to secure rights of use and ownership over the common pool resources like the forestlands, revenue wastelands and pasture lands for village institutions have assisted 2.89 million people from 5,323 village institutions in seven states of India to improve the management of common lands. It involves assisting villages in recording their customary use practices, mapping their resource boundaries, inventorying the forest and common resources, setting up institutional arrangements for judicious governance, and claiming their rights over land and produce. In the villages where have secure tenure over the common lands, we assist them in framing rules and regulations so as to improve the democratic character of their functioning and providing access to the poor and marginalized. The differences are seen not only in more than 475,000 hectares of the commons, but also in improved productivity on the adjacent 400,000 hectares of privately owned lands, together resulting in better incomes from agriculture, livestock production and the sale of forest produce.

In order to face the growing threats to the commons in India, we launched the Commons Initiative in 2009 — by building strategic collaborations, bringing together practitioners and their networks, decision makers and scholars and initiating a process for a long-term campaign on the issue of commons. Progress in this direction is slowly being made in many states. A collaborative arrangement between the government of Andhra Pradesh’s Rural Development Department and NGO networks has been established to strengthen efforts to conserve, develop and protect common lands through community involvement under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The government of Rajasthan, in 2010, became the first state to formulate a draft common land policy, following it up by developing operational guidelines on the implementation of grazing land development.

In a significant decision, the Supreme Court of India directed state governments to draw up schemes to evict encroachments on common lands and restore them to local government institutions. Following the apex court’s direction, 69 pronouncements and 49 orders on commons were issued by various high courts and state governments. The Planning Commission of India has also recognized the importance of the commons, creating a working group on natural resources management and rainfed farming and a subgroup on institutions and commons. The need for favourable land tenure arrangements, institutional design and program architecture was highlighted for effective governance and management of commons. Following direction from the LokAdalat of Karnataka, two districts in Karnataka have also embarked on a program to improve the management of commons.

Forests and other commons need to be maintained for the ecological functions and services they provide, the biodiversity they harbour, and to absorb harmful greenhouse gases. We believe that the major problem in forest conservation is in viewing forests in isolation; instead, our efforts are concentrated at locating forests and other commons within the larger ecological, social and economic setting, which offers scope to institute arrangements that balance the interests of preservation, conservation and exploitation of natural endowments.

Another important dimension that needs to be reinforced is the thinking that local communities can capably manage their resources. Instead of relying on big government apparatus undertaking what local communities can capably manage, or transferring such vital resources to private interests, the government machinery should ideally be playing a larger adjudicatory role that would secure the interests of the local communities.

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About the author

  • Jagdeesh Puppala

    Jagdeesh Puppala has served as the Foundation for Ecological Security's executive director since its inception in 2001. His core areas of interests include the conservation of forests and water, bio-regional planning and land use studies. Jagdeesh is equally interested in alternative narratives on "developmental" issues pertaining to rainfed agriculture in arid, semi-arid, dryland ecosystems as well as in decentralized governance of natural resources, commons and collective action.