“We want to stimulate discussion about the impact of commons grabbing”

“The commons we want”: Under this title, the international IASC Conference on diverse forms of collective property will take place in Nairobi in June 2023. Tobias Haller, professor at the University of Bern’s Institute of Social Anthropology and affiliated to CDE, is one of the main organizers. He warns: “Because commons are not included in the 2030 Agenda, state elites and private individuals can continue to legitimize the grabbing of such resources – not least through the SDGs themselves.”

“The topic of commons is entirely absent from the SDGs”: Tobias Haller. Photo: zvg

Interview: Gaby Allheilig, CDE *

Tobias Haller, in a scientific article co-authored with two other experts, you bring out the big guns against the UN sustainable development goals of the 2030 Agenda: You describe them as an “anti-politics machine” that serves the greenwashing of economic growth and cements existing inequality. Why?

When the SDGs were formulated, it was known that – besides government agencies and the private sector – civil society was partly included in the process via some NGOs. Only later did it become apparent that the views of local populations had remained virtually excluded from the SDGs. So, local knowledge about sustainable management of natural resources was left out.


“The 2030 Agenda fails to address the root causes of our environmental and justice problems”


In addition, the 2030 Agenda fails to address the root causes of our environmental and justice problems. Because such political and power-based realities go unmentioned, the SDGs run the risk of becoming an anti-politics machine that obscures these issues, whose extent and dangers are only now becoming visible. With our critical and intentionally somewhat pointed contribution, we want to stimulate discussion about how local populations – especially women and marginalized groups – are deprived of the rights to their resources, and what impacts this has.

The interests of the respective national populations are generally represented by their governments. What’s wrong with that in this case?

There is a disconnect between local people and government agencies. In nature conservation, for example, we know that there are many protected areas that have been established without consulting affected populations. People have been pushed out of their territories, ignoring that these areas are not “pure nature”, but rather that they’ve been used and managed for a long time – in other words, they are cultural landscapes.


“There’s a risk of environmental arguments being used to justify appropriation of natural resources”


Our common SDGs is one of the topics of the IASC conference in June. The SDGs represent a compromise on which the UN member states have agreed. In light of the climate and biodiversity crises as well as increasing inequalities, this is an important political message.

Yes, it does carry a political message. But for it to be taken seriously and not just paid lip service, we need a commitment to tackling the roots of environmental problems and the power imbalances that play a role in them. If these aren’t identified and named, there’s a risk of governments using the environmental arguments from the 2030 Agenda to justify appropriation of natural resources. This isn’t just greenwashing, it goes further – to the extent that it could result in the opposite of what the 2030 Agenda seeks to achieve.

For example?

Forests, pastures, and waterbodies that populations in the global South previously had access to via diverse forms of collective property – so-called commons – have largely wound up in the hands of state elites or private individuals. This leads to very problematic dynamics. In Kenya, for example, the mega-infrastructure project LAPSSET was legitimized with the SDGs. For this, a large port was built in the coastal town of Lamu, destroying the local population’s collectively managed fishing grounds.

In other areas, commons grabbing leads to direct destruction – also at the hands of local populations. In Zambia, for example, local groups are alleged to engage in poaching. These locals say to themselves: “The game has been taken from us and now belongs to the government, not us, and outsiders with purchased licenses are being invited to hunt. Why should we wait until they’ve killed all the game?” This is one example of how environmental degradation and poverty arise. Indeed, since colonial times, local populations in many places have been stripped of their rights to collective resources on a grand scale.


“There is no one who can monitor whether the global North is abandoning ‘business as usual’”


Nevertheless, the SDGs require all countries – including, for the first time, industrialized northern countries – to abandon “business as usual”. And they require all countries to launch reforms for sustainable development at the national level. Don’t you see any progress in that?

That would be a positive development. But I don’t see where that’s specified in a way that carries weight. Many asymmetries aren’t addressed: that Northern countries consume vastly more resources, that they can acquire these resources cheaply under problematic conditions, etc. When formulating the SDGs, certain states in the North were evidently more “dynamic”, to put it mildly. Saying that they committed themselves to the goals is one thing. But there is no one there to monitor it.

It’s not the job of the UN or the 2030 Agenda itself to achieve the goals, but rather the responsibility of each individual country – also in cooperation with each other. Doesn’t your criticism miss the point – namely, that the countries themselves are doing far too little?

We’re not saying that the UN is to blame. It initiated the idea and provided the framework for it. The responsibility lies with the countries – but one must distinguish between countries and government authorities. Strategically, it would have been wise to include commons in the SDGs, namely, collective ownership of resources, which used to be widespread in diverse forms throughout the world. This would have afforded us the opportunity to ask governments implementing the 2030 Agenda: How are you involving these local users? Do you recognize their resource rights and frameworks and the fact that they maintain cultural landscapes? Or: How are you demonstrating to local users that it’s in their interest to cooperate in implementing the SDGs, in the sense of genuine participation? But there’s no trace of such issues. The topic of commons is entirely absent from the SDGs.

This is all the more frustrating given that the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Elinor Ostrom as recently as 2009, for scientifically showing that local people have always been capable of creating sets of rules for sustainable management of local resources.


“Commons research could have made a major contribution to tackling our crises”


So, is that the crux of your criticism? The failure to pay attention to a key branch of sustainability research?

That is one. The other is that we’re in an unbelievable ecological and development crisis, and we urgently need ways to tackle it. This is where commons research could have made a major contribution. Indeed, the question of “How is it that resources are completely overused today, when people once spoke of ‘land flowing with milk and honey’?” has a lot to do with the theft of livelihoods and abdication of responsibility that has been going on since colonial times.

Are commons really a miracle cure to solve global crises and ensure sustainable development?

Commons are not a panacea. But they are a way for broader human groups to organize themselves. Namely, with regard to resource use rules that don’t aim directly at profit, but rather at the maintenance of livelihoods that are passed on to further generations. Even if the resulting distribution and responsibilities aren’t always completely fair, it is more broad-based and balanced than regimes of private property.


“The commons provide important ecosystem services that are central to achieving the SDGs”


In 2021, you published a book on commons in Switzerland. Among other things, you conclude that Swiss commons also offer lessons for participatory management of land and resources internationally. In this country, however, most of the population is excluded from it.

One shouldn’t glorify the commons – they can also be exclusionary. But in our research we found that those excluded are repeatedly reintegrated because they represent a political force. In Switzerland, certain communities and commons organizations are working to acquire more members. This isn’t so easy, as forest and pasture management products are no longer in high demand, and there are few people left who want to work in this sector.

However, by maintaining cultural landscapes, commoners provide important ecosystem services that are crucial to achieving the SDGs, including biodiversity, energy, and climate. In Switzerland, for example, at least one third of all pastures and forests are communally owned. For this reason alone, Switzerland could include them in its implementation plans. This would also send a signal to the global South. Because while commons are secured in this country, such security is absent in the global South.


“Based on the cumulative data, we felt we had to shout out loud”


The private sector does not play a significant role in the commons. But it is a major contributor to these crises. Aren’t you excusing the private sector of its responsibility?

The private sector isn’t directly involved in the commons model, but indirectly it is. This is because private companies invest in regions that once belonged to large swathes of the population. In some research projects where we studied large-scale investments, we found people weren’t properly compensated for loss of commons, nor were promises about jobs or other contributions kept with regard to sustainable development. Things have gone so far that we see projects today that claim to act in the spirit of the SDGs, but actually just go ahead and do their own thing. We’ve seen this, among other places, in Morocco: due to a large solar project, the population lost its grazing land, particularly affecting women and nomadic groups. In the end, they didn’t even receive electricity or the money they had been promised. In some cases, large companies are involved that should be held responsible.

With respect to such developments, which we call commons grabbing, we now have a cumulative database. When compared with what’s specified by the SDGs, the gap between word and reality is so great that we felt we had to shout out loud and also point out that local alternative views and practices of sustainable development exist.

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* This interview first appeared in a 2022 CDE Spotlight on the occasion of the mid-term of the 2030 Agenda and has been slightly adapted.

IASC Conference 2023

The XIX Biennial IASC conference “The Commons We Want: Between Historical Legacies and Future Collective Actions” puts the commons at centre stage. The conference combines a future-oriented research and practice perspective with a look back, as many legal and structural legacies predetermine possible development pathways. This look back helps to position the commons debate in the context of the 2030 Agenda and contributes to making the transformation towards the SDGs a more commons-oriented, participatory endeavour.