Report on the first International Commons Conference

Marc Mascarenhas-Swan has been working with political collectives and housing collectives for 20 years. He is a facilitator and trainer working in political education, challenging oppression in privileged communities, and collective organizational development.

Berlin, Germany. November 2010

At the invitation of the steering committee of the first International Commons conference, I went to Berlin to represent our project – Just Alternative Sustainable Economics.

The conference convened to both cohere some of the global forces working to support a commons- based paradigm/ and to share, discuss and innovate policy approaches locally/ and globally that can help take back and enhance the commons.

The commons has many manifestations and definitions, but in essence it is about reclaiming and Sharing resources that belong to everyone and defending traditional or building new social and Institutional systems for managing those resources in equitable, sustainable ways. It is about fighting Corporate or even parliamentary enclosures of water, air, genes, culture, land and much else.” International Commons Conference 2010

The conference itself was hosted by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a political /foundation affiliated strongly with the German Green Party. The well organized conference, with simultaneous translation, meals, and multiple spaces for sessions was well attended, with about 180 participants who had been invited by the host committee.

A lot of the details of the conference and its structure can be found at the conference website, and the conference wiki.

The conference attendees covered a wide and often unwieldy variety of backgrounds. The majority were academics, writers, researchers and leaders of ngo’s, and a smaller contingent were practitioners of the commons. A few were activists organizing communities to fight the erosion of our commons.

The fight for the commons has two interlinked aspects. The work of defending the commons, or resistance based struggles for our shared resources; and, secondly, the work of building the commons from the ground up. The chief challenge of the conference, as I saw it, was that many of the best practitioners of these aspects of reclaiming the commons do not think of themselves as doing so, and therefore were not in attendance. For example, I tend to think of the landless Peoples Movement in Brazil as one of the main forces in the world working to fight for, and maintain the commons, however as I understand it, they wouldn’t think of themselves in this regard. The conference attendees reflected this contradiction.

There were groups like ours, whose work could be defined as commons-based, but do not see themselves in this way – for example urban farm collectives, worker cooperatives, and technology sharing websites. And there were those who more fully believed, and advocated intellectually for the commons, but were not involved in the on the ground work it takes to build it, to win it back. This combined with coming from such varied backgrounds left me feeling very ungrounded.

Although participants came from over 30 countries, the bulk came from the global north. This reflected the logistical difficulty in bringing folks from the global south, and we can only speculate on the other reasons for the underrepresentation – a lack of connection to commons struggles in the global south perhaps, or the language of ‘the commons’ being different in the global south.

A key exception to this was the presence of the Ecuadorans, Alberto Acosta, Minister of the Economy, and Maria Fernanda Espinoza, Minister of Patrimony. They spoke chiefly on the plan to persuade the economies of Europe and North America to pay for preservation of their national forests, as an alternative to drilling for oil reserves located there. But other interesting points included the movement from GDP to Gross Domestic Happiness, and from traditional development to good living; the recognition of natural resources having their own set of rights – as objects, not subjects (and the guarantor of these rights with society); and lastly, the resurrection of the native concept of Minga. Minga is the gathering of community members to complete a task that benefits all of the community. It is considered each individual’s obligation to the community. To earn water rights and community voting rights each member must fulfill the obligation. This concept resembles the governing structure of all common resources.

Following the presentation from Espinoza, Richard Pithouse, from South Africa, responded with some useful points, specific to Espinoza and, in general, for the conference attendees. He pointed out that we need to be grounded in the real, immediate needs of the people. People need jobs, food, and clothing, without popular support based on addressing these needs we can’t win. The struggle for the commons is not only a mental shift (a theme that came up often during the conference), but also we have to acknowledge that there are material interests invested in enclosure, and they defend these interests using violence. For urban dwellers in the global south, what can the commons do?, Pithouse asked, the people can’t return to the land, they have been dispossessed.

There were numerous sessions, conversations and debates that colored the conference, but the last session, which was self organized, was the most enriching for me. It encompassed two key conversations: firstly, “The commons vs. the rights of Mother Earth?” – to raise the question of the relationship between these two key global paradigms for framing social change; and secondly, understanding the move to an incorporated and globalized “green economy”.

The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth came out of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, Cochabamba, April 2010, and is considered by many to be an organizing principle for a global movement for Earth Justice. Pacha mama is related to the indigenous cosmology where human rights are indivisible from earth rights. Using this principle a theme that emerged in the conversation was understanding the need to balance our human right to the commons with responsibilities to the earth, a broader responsibility than the commons principle of maintaining resources to be passed on to future generations of humans. Furthermore, the rights of mother earth framework pushes us to create balancing mechanisms in terms of justice, as a counter point to property rights. The general tone of the room was that these two worldviews are at least sister struggles, rooted in different cultural histories. The conversations helped me to generate strategic thinking about how to reclaim and build the commons that is rooted in the leadership of the global south and poor communities in the global north, addressing questions around human rights, earth rights, and addressing concrete human needs.

It was interesting to hear how the “Green Economy” is going to be a key narrative of global capital over the next 10 years – this will function essentially as land grabs for wind and solar resources, for biomass exploitation for plant based fuels, and intensive patenting. The UN has a fast track agenda : define what a green economy is and design the governance for biodiversity and ecosystem services. The major challenge to the ecological commons will be “carbon rights”.

I left the conference with two key questions which I continue to struggle with.

Do we try to recapture the concept of a green economy, return to the concept of sustainable economies, or do we need something else? As global capital forms its story around the “Green Economy”, what is our story?

Is the commons a framing that can take hold in a North American context, or is this way for those supporters of the commons to evaluate community initiatives, and assess how to build and defend collective resources? Should we look at the commons movement as a “kindred movement”, something that the economic paradigm that we are encouraging is a part of, or as a gathering point?

Although the commons conference may not have been the beginning of a global movement to reclaim the commons, it provoked and expanded my thinking about the commons, in all of its complexities, and reminded me that there are practical ways of organizing our communities that precede capitalism, industrialism, and state socialism, and that can allow us to thrive together.

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