“State recognition of commoners’ organizations is extremely important”

Communal property has been a tradition in Switzerland since the Middle Ages. The mountain village of Törbel, in the canton of Valais, even made scientific history with it. But what about today – are collective bodies and their resources still relevant in mountain regions? And if so, how do they contribute to sustainable development? Researchers from the Universities of Bern and Lausanne conducted case studies in the cantons of Uri, Grisons, Obwalden, Valais, and Ticino. They conclude that this “Swiss Lab” of such land management systems holds lessons for similar organizations elsewhere.

“Long-term thinking is one of the essential qualities of commoners’ organizations”: Karina Liechti. Photo: CDE

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Karina Liechti, you’re a co-author of the recent book on commoners’ organizations such as corporations (“Korporationen”) and civic communities (“Bürgergemeinden”) in Swiss mountain regions, “Balancing the Commons in Switzerland: Institutional Transformations and Sustainable Innovations”, and you studied them in the canton of Obwalden. What makes such collective bodies interesting for research today – apart from historically?

On the one hand, their longevity. Despite sometimes massive political, social, and economic changes over the centuries, these bodies have always managed to adapt or to actively shape the relevant processes. On the other hand, the different reactions they evoke. People either admire them as representatives of a form of sustainable natural resource use – or they are sceptical, seeing them as an ancient kind of social order that no longer fits our times. We wanted to find out how accurate either of these perceptions was. What can we learn about how such bodies deal with social change? And does this form of organization – the collective use of natural resources such as forests and alpine pastures – have a future?


“Commoners’ organizations provide many services that benefit society as a whole”


There is also another way of looking at commoners’ organizations. They are struggling with various decreases: in membership numbers, in the practice of alpine farming, and in the value of wood products, especially in mountain regions. They owe much of their economic survival to state contributions. Doesn’t this preserve structures artificially?

Commoners’ organizations provide many services that benefit society as a whole – especially in the use of alpine pastures and forests. Take the example of landscape conservation or the prevention of natural hazards through the preservation of protection forests. These services deserve remuneration. Besides, in agriculture, a large part of the contributions goes to the individual farms within commoners’ organizations – and not to the organizations themselves, which manage common property such as alpine pastures.


“An important role of commoners’ organizations is to be advocates for nature and landscapes”


Commoners’ organizations have learned to market themselves: the image they present and cultivate is that of guardians of a near-natural landscape who act for the benefit of the general public. At the same time, they’re paving alpine access roads or building new forest roads – at the expense of biodiversity and landscape quality. How sustainable are they really?

This is indeed a controversial issue. Development or intensification measures can increase profitability, reduce workload – or even preserve the traditional use of an alp. But at the same time this affects landscape or natural values, even though commoners’ organizations see themselves as custodians of their property and not as for-profit entrepreneurs. They have to face this controversy – they have always had to – and seek dialogue with different interest groups. Nature and landscape need advocates. In my opinion, this is an important role of collective bodies and will remain so in the future.    

Aren’t nature and landscape conservation organizations better positioned to take on this advocacy role?

I think these are two roles that complement each other. The role of environmental organizations is to draw attention to changes that have a negative impact on nature and the landscape – and to propose measures together with affected stakeholders to preserve these values. The role of corporations and civic communities is to bring in the perspective of those who work the land, and to maintain natural values and landscape qualities through adapted use. Alpine farming, for example, has increased biodiversity.


“Decisions are made jointly, with the next generations in mind”


As you mentioned, commoners’ organizations have adapted and also changed, in response to various pressures. How?

This depends very much on where these organizations are located, what their characteristics are, and what strategies they have developed to deal with changes. In many cases, it is mainly their income structure that has changed. For example, some lease out land with building rights and generate an income from the interest. Or they operate a district heating power plant and use their own wood for energy production. Others have become active in tourism. By diversifying, commoners’ organizations can ensure their survival and perhaps even maintain their less lucrative uses.

However, this also entails social changes. For example, some commoners’ organizations no longer define themselves exclusively through the traditional roles of alpine pasture and forest management. This means they also have to deal with their own identity – or with scepticism from outside.

The book concludes that commoners’ organizations in the Swiss mountain regions hold lessons for similar bodies elsewhere. What are they?

In my opinion, long-term thinking is one of the essential qualities of collective bodies. Decisions are made jointly, with the next generations in mind. This is not always the case in the general political and economic landscape. At the same time, commoners’ organizations are themselves stakeholders and have a very close relation to the resources they manage. This means that their decisions are perhaps more “down-to-earth” and application-oriented than if a government agency were to decide. But of course there are challenges here as well: after all, local interests must not take precedence over higher interests. I am thinking of questions of ecology, equality, and participation.


“Unfortunately, collective bodies have a reputation in many countries for being old-fashioned”


Are there other lessons that are important for similar bodies elsewhere, including internationally?

Long-lived collective bodies can be found all over the world. In many regions of the global South, they exist in mobile pastoralism or for irrigation systems. Unfortunately, many governments and authorities see such bodies as being old-fashioned – or they are generally denied collective property rights. Accordingly, their existence is made difficult, or collective land management systems are deliberately destroyed. Numerous studies of examples in the global South show that this is not just “land grabbing”, but “commons grabbing”. Switzerland can therefore set an example of how the state can recognize collective bodies with their resource rights as partners and include their voice in policymaking. This recognition is extremely important.

Recognition includes participation. However, corporations and civic communities in Switzerland are often criticized for being “closed communities”. While inhabitants who are not members can obtain certain rights of use, these are severely restricted. Is this not a one-sided form of participation, reserved for the privileged?

One can certainly see it that way. However, it must also be said that today many things are in a state of flux, and corporations and civic communities deal with the issue of membership in different ways. Some commoners’ organizations are actively trying to recruit new citizens, such as the civic community of Chur. Others are closed, like some corporations in the canton of Obwalden. Among other things, concerns about social cohesion play a role here. In addition, the privileges in the commoners’ organizations in the canton of Obwalden are quite small nowadays. This is because products and services such as wood or summering rights on the alp are no longer in high demand. This has led the corporations to open use of the summering pastures to farmers who are not themselves members of the corporation.


“They must retain their active role in resource use”


What do you think needs to change with regard to membership?

From my point of view, collective bodies need to think about how they can include people who want to get involved. A newcomer may be looking for such a commitment, while locally there may be a shortage of staff. In such situations, collective bodies should seize the opportunity to open a door to many people’s need for belonging and connection.

In your opinion, in what other directions should today's commoners’ organizations move so that they can continue to be a model for sustainable development in the future?

I think the most important thing is that they keep their active role in resource use. On this basis, they could expand their fields of activity, such as in nature conservation and landscape management – but also in educational activities promoting sustainable use of natural resources. Commoners’ organizations also have the potential to become important actors in achieving national interests, especially in the context of sustainable development strategies – particularly in Switzerland. Such important actors in resource use must not be forgotten.

Tobias Haller, Karina Liechti, Martin Stuber, François-Xavier Viallon, Rahel Wunderli, 2021. Abingdon, Oxon/New York: Routledge.

“Balancing the Commons in Switzerland: Institutional Transformations and Sustainable Innovations"

This book presents the results of an interdisciplinary research project, SCALES, which was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). It sheds light on how institutional changes in the administration of collective bodies are embedded in the public policies of the respective cantons and the federal state. In doing so, it highlights power relations and the very different paths that local collective organizations and their members have taken to cope with the loss of value of the commons and the increased workload required to maintain governance of these bodies.

From the Valais mountain village of Törbel to the Nobel Prize

The joint management of natural resources in Swiss mountain regions has interested international scientists since the 1970s. Törbel, a mountain village in the canton of Valais, features in two seminal studies by US-based authors. In 1981, Robert M. Netting published “Balancing on an Alp”, an ethnological study of living conditions in the Upper Valais. Netting’s work contributed to establishing cultural ecology as a scientific discipline. In 1990, Elinor Ostrom published “Governing the Commons”, which examined the rules for the sustainable use of pastures and forests, and the communal maintenance of paths and water channels. After her studies on commons worldwide, she posited that natural resources are better managed as communal rather than private or state property in the long run, if certain principles are met. In 2009, she received the Nobel Prize in Economics.