The triumph of the commons in India

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Restoring Landscapes

When land is shared by everyone, who is responsible for its well-being?

In India, millions of the poorest and vulnerable people make their living on common land.  But nearly one-third of land in India is degraded (120 million ha).  Common lands especially face many pressures such as loss of ground cover, falling water tables and declining soil fertility.

This environmental phenomenon, known as “the tragedy of the commons” among scientists and researchers, is the classic problem that justifies policy action. But it is still a knotty policy problem in India, and very little research has been done on how to protect common lands.

Village members engage in communal land management. Photo: FES India Village members engage in communal land management. Photo: FES India

Around the world, over 2.5 billion people live on and actively use physical commons, including forests and drylands, according to the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC).

These 2.5 billion are among the poorest and some of the most marginalized people in the world.  How to empower them to protect and restore common lands and improve their livelihoods – especially in the face of climate change – is the billion dollar question.

Foundation for Ecological Security, a non-governmental organization in India, has found a model that works.  Through community governance and building local capacity for sustainable land management, they have restored productivity on 200,000 hectares of common property rangelands, forests and water resources in India.

FES engages with villages through the traditional governance structures already in place, sometimes taking years to understand the community and get everyone on board before they move forward with a project. Their techniques are simple – but the impact on land and livelihoods is significant.

The work of FES has improved the livelihoods of 1.7 million people living in more than 4,000 villages.  Their advocacy has also resulted in some of the first state policies for India on common lands.

Through training, villagers are transformed into better land managers, training and incentivizing community members to manage grazing, protect forests and build dams to recharge watersheds and reduce soil erosion.  Village women are also able to boost their incomes through selling forest products and FES encourages the sharing of traditional practices like gathering edible plants that is being forgotten.

“We will continue to dispel the notions that commons are ‘wastelands’ and that ‘everybody's property is nobody's property’," says Jagdeesh Rao, Executive Director of FES.

This is truly a landscapes approach and provides a tangible example of how research can influence policy and development.  Learn more about landscape approaches here.

The Land for Life Award, presented by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, was granted to FES India in 2013 for their integrated approach to managing common land, the scale of hectares restored and their deep commitment to working in partnership with the communities for sustainable solutions.

This blog is the second (read the first here) in a series about the 2013 winners of the Land for Life Award featured during the Agriculture and Ecosystem’s month-long focus on Restoring Landscapes.
Applications for the 2014 Land for Life award are now open.