Mon, 14 Jul 2003

Conference seeks balance in the use of common resources

Nantiya Tangwisutijit 'The Nation' Asia News Network Bangkok

The international Chiang Mai conference that started on Friday (yesterday) was challenging conventional ideas about the use of common resources.

Its host, the Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), has brought together hundreds of leading academics -- mainly from Southeast and South Asia -- social and environmental activists and community members to share perspectives on the spectrum of aspects of the commons.

American ecologist Gerrett Hardin, in his widely cited 1968 essay Tragedy of the Commons, said the enactment of laws allowing landowners to fence off their property was a strategy aimed at preventing the degradation and overuse of common land. His idea influenced a global policy of private property rights allocation.

However, it has become apparent today that, far from Hardin's perception of abuse of common territory, the use of common land has always been well regulated and protected by the communities living off that land. Forest-dwelling communities in Thailand, for example, rely on customary rules to make sustainable use of forestland for communal food gathering and watersheds.

Increasingly, such communities -- along with activists and academics working in the field of common property and other resources such as forests, rivers and fishing grounds -- are demanding recognition for their beneficial practices.

The Chiang Mai conference is another major event held to reinforce the need to preserve common land for public benefit.

The four-day meeting carries the theme "Politics of the Commons: Articulating Development and Strengthening Local Practices".

"The fact that our common [resources] in the region are being heavily exploited is a compelling factor for us to organize the conference," RCSD chairman Anan Kanchanaphan said.

Southeast Asia is under rapid development, which is leading to environmental degradation, intensified competition for resources and the exclusion of communal rights, he said.

Regional resources have been transformed from de facto commons managed by traditional tenure and ethnic dispersion, to proprietary enclaves governed by state-owned bodies and the private sector with exclusive rules and regulations.

Examples abound in the region.

The Mekong River, for instance, is a common water resource shared by millions of people in six Southeast Asian countries. But upstream states, including China, Thailand and Laos, are carving out navigation channels by blasting its rapids. They are significantly changing the river's character without informing downstream communities about future impacts, Anan said.

In Vietnam and Laos, the governments are preparing to curb the traditional practice of shifting cultivation by tribal communities in mountainous areas in order to grab land for planting cash crops. In Thailand, the newly initiated government policy to "transform assets into capital" will transfer land in the public domain to the hands of a few individuals.

"Such commercialization and privatization schemes put common resources at the risk of being controlled by the market instead of the more secure multiple-management system by various social institutions such as the family, the community, the market and the state," Anan said. "The reliance on volatile markets is a path towards uncertainty in which the majority of people might be worse off because they have lost control over their resources."

More than 200 academic papers in five thematic categories will look at a wide range of approaches on the commons problem:

* Situating the commons in post-colonial and post-socialist thinking

* Trans-nationalizing the commons and the politics of civil society

* Local voices in the globalized market: Cultural diversity and pluralism

* The politics of tenure reform

* Crisis and access: critical times for the commons.

The conference will offer young academics and researchers working on issues of the commons the opportunity to rub shoulders with big names in the field including Prof. Nancy Peluso from the University of California at Berkeley, Prof. Charles Keyes from the University of Washington and Prof. Philip Hirsch of the University of Sydney's Australian Mekong Resource Centre.

Environmentalists and community members will take part in the conference's roundtable discussions on the Mekong commons -- past, present and future -- and the linkages between decentralization and good forest governance.

A public forum on the privatization of water and energy resources in Southeast Asia is also scheduled.

"It will be an exciting forum of learning and intellectual discussion amid the present gloomy global political atmosphere under the hegemonic thinking of the market economy," Anan said. "But it is our role to make sure there are always other kinds of knowledge that people can benefit from when the market fails."