Governing resources collectively: Parallels between developed and developing countries

Japanese society is more than the humble citizens of the emperor -- it also has sustained collective institutions to manage common pool resources.
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Japan shows it is possible to have an industrially efficient, technology oriented society and still efficiently manage common resources. Dave Halberstadt

Japan shows it is possible to have an industrially efficient, technology oriented society and still effectively manage common resources. Dave Halberstadt

BOGOR, Indonesia (18 June, 2013)_Taking a trip to the rural areas of Japan offers something else – in addition to the industrially efficient, technology oriented society with a crave for adorable accessories and definite love for raw fish. Japanese society is more than the humble citizens of the emperor; it also has sustained collective institutions to manage common pool resources.

So to organize the 14th conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) in Fujiyoshida city at Mount Fuji wasn’t as strange a choice as some might have originally thought. The study of the commons as pioneered by the Nobel Prize winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom, has been celebrated for questioning the inevitability of the “tragedy of the commons”, and the role of local communities in coming up with more effective and sustainable solutions to collective action than the state and private sector.

This conference was the first time that local commoners both planned and hosted the IASC in their common lands. For researchers like us who are primarily concerned with commons in poor countries, the multiple plenary sessions focusing on Japan’s commons as well as a field trip to actual commons allowed us to find overlaps and differences across the “developed” and “developing” country commons divide.

Even in Japan, we learnt, incentives to govern the commons remain deeply rooted in commoners’ social and cultural fabric. Commons are not only resources that people cut down and exploit but can also symbolize shared history and memories, kinship ties, feelings of belonging and religious affiliations. But unlike community forestry in Nepal — where CIFOR studies have long shown that poor people with limited access to private land and trees are especially dependent on community forests — the commons in Japan does not seem to be enmeshed in the same way with people’s exigency to survive.

Commoners in Japan engage proactively with global debates over climate change and see their role in conserving their commons as a contribution to addressing these global level problems.

These comparisons lead us to question our own deeply rooted assumptions about why people govern resources collectively. It is not only to directly consume resources that are held in the commons but also to value the importance of common resources for the global good. Commoners in Japan engage proactively with global debates over climate change and see their role in conserving their commons as a contribution to addressing these global level problems. In this sense, the disconnect between local and global processes and understandings that are often reported in the literature on the commons in developing countries do not seem to hold the same currency.

Japan also showed us that the relationship between economic development and collective action in the commons is not always a negative one –a higher standard of living does not necessarily lead to greater privatization, individualization, abandonment and the resultant disappearance of the commons. In Yamanashi prefecture, for example, the commoners use the income they earn from renting common land to the military to invest in better conserving their commons and advocate for recognition of their common lands as a World Heritage Site.

In the course of its growth and development, Asia is anticipated to face pollution, environmental and energy challenges. While it is clear that the importance of the commons for people’s livelihoods has decreased with changing lifestyles, Japan’s experience is one that shows it is possible to have an industrially efficient, technology oriented society and still effectively manage common resources.

For more information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact Bimbika Basnett and Maria Ojanen.

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