The real tragedy of the commons: Privatizing what was once a shared resource

Most people working in sustainable development are familiar with the ‘tragedy of the commons’ referring to when a group of individuals, all acting independently and in their own self-interest, deplete common resources to the detriment of a larger group. In the case of land, this means more depleted and degraded landscapes.

But what if someone told you that the real tragedy of the commons “has been the notion that shared resources have to be either taken over by the state or privatized in order to be sustainable?”

esther muiru glf
Esther Mwaura-Muiru discusses community action to take back common lands in Kenya.

This is exactly what I heard at a session on commons land tenure at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) from Ruth Meinzen-Dick of IFPRI. Ruth and her fellow panelists provided evidence that, despite popular perceptions, shared spaces can be and have been used and maintained quite efficiently by communities throughout history.

Common lands provide a myriad of services and resources, including medicines, non-timber forest products and fodder. In addition, they can provide important environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, improved biodiversity, and watershed management that can work toward combatting the negative effects of climate change.

But how do you ensure that commons are managed well?

Part of the equation is land tenure, which was one of the themes of the GLF this year. Commons tenure is especially difficult to achieve, given that states don’t often recognize the resources and services provided by shared land. Many of the services that come from common lands are not marketed, so there is very little incentive for governments to track them. Not having secure tenure, in turn, disincentivizes communities to use resources from common lands well, since the land may be taken over by the state or divvied up amongst private landowners.

While it was not explicitly stated, I inferred from the presentations that common spaces may also lack state recognition because it is often marginalized groups in society who depend on them for their livelihoods.

The poorest segments of populations are often landless, and benefit from common spaces. Nomadic peoples and pastoralists use grasslands and other shared spaces as they move through landscapes. And finally, women tend to depend more on common lands for resources than men, due in part to the status of women’s land rights.

Given that these spaces are gendered, it would lead one to the conclusion that making common land privately owned or placing it under the control of the state would negatively affect women more than men.

This is not really a surprise. However, as was repeated in another session at GLF that dealt specifically with gendered land tenure, women are often the purveyors of the household, and are generally more immediately concerned with the nutritional intake and wellbeing of their families.

Not having secure land tenure of the commons, then, not only disadvantages women, but is bad for household food security and health.

But where is the proof?

During the session “This Land is Our Land,” Ester Mwaura-Muiru, founder of GROOTS, talked about the experiences of rural women in Kenya who were able to provide this much needed evidence.

“Everyone called public land government land. So we asked the women – what does government land mean and what does private land mean?”

The women did some digging and found out that land considered ‘public land’ had actually been historically contributed by each family in the community to be used for public services, such as schools or hospitals. However, over the years, the land had slowly been re-classified as ‘government land,’ allowing those in power to use it for their personal gain.

Mwaura-Muiru said the women alerted the government to this fact and pointed out that there is no inventory of public land. Finally, the women in the communities conducted a participatory study on how to develop this public land, which was incorporated into the national land commission’s framework.

Meinzen-Dick, who also spoke on this panel, corroborated Mwaura-Muiru’s point by saying that one of the biggest problems with tenure globally is the lack of gender-disaggregated information. No one has the numbers that show how much land, collectively or privately, women own.

She was careful to point out that household partnership is important, and that joint ownership by spouses can be a critical way to provide land rights and tenure to women. However, “joint” ownership can have multiple meanings, including joint holdings within the household and joint community property. While some legal systems do provide recognition for joint ownership within household, this and other forms of joint ownership is often undocumented, and so less secure when disputes arise, contributing to the inequality of land ownership.

Why does this matter for land restoration?

This comes back to a point that was raised in the commons session. When people have stronger land rights, know about their rights, and are given ownership of the rules and regulations that govern the land, they are more likely to invest time and money into maintaining land productivity and sustainable use, which leads to better land restoration.

Tenure isn’t everything, but the promise of long-term use coupled with investment power and appropriate technologies can lead to better management of the land and better environmental practices.

So what role can research play?

Providing basic data on land tenure is key to measuring the extent of tenure insecurity for men, women, and communities, and for monitoring progress, e.g. under the Sustainable Development Goals.  Actually knowing and measuring the registration of land is key, as pointed out by Andrea Ledward of DFID.

Further research that monitors the quantitative correlations and the qualitative reasons linking land rights to good land management can further make the case for attention to securing tenure. Without this information, it is difficult to understand why tenure of the commons, and individual or joint tenure for women, is important and what other factors have to be in place to lead to better land management and restoration.


Hello Mia,
I am writing a paper on customary tenure in Indonesia. One of the key questions I want to answer is: what are basic conditions that ensure that commons are managed well? You raised the same question in your article, however, your answer (if you have one) is not clear to me. Could you please share what you know regarding that topic with me?
Warm greetings from Germany,

Hi Lisa, thank you for your comment. I am not an expert in the field, but after listening to these presentations at the GLF, my impression is that the recognition of collective land tenure by governments and the availability of information on land rights (be it individuals, households or communities) are very important.

Dear Lisa, There are no guarantees of effective management of the commons is a vast literature on the factors that contribute. The Digital Library of the Commons (https://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/ ) has thousands of entries. A particularly good starting point is
Cox, M., G. Arnold, and S. Villamayor Tomás. 2010. A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecology and Society 15(4): 38. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art38/

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