The new idea

Jagdeesh Rao Puppala is working to end the spiraling modern tragedy of these villagers’ forests and other commons and move instead to “the promise of the commons.” His organisation – The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – helps secure rights to the land and assists the local communities in strengthening and building local institutions, restoring degraded ecosystems, and cultivating local volunteers to take on the stewardship and preservation of the forest and water resources around them. These common property resources provide a single platform that anyone can leverage to address issues of social justice, ecological restoration, and poverty alleviation.

These activities also reduce hunger and poverty while reviving democratic functioning in the village. Jagdeesh ensures that the local communities that use “common” lands have the information needed to choose options and run ongoing decision-making wisely. That’s the only way to get sustainable decision-making reliably that will ensure ongoing livelihoods and ecosystems. By recognising that the forests, water, and other natural resources are part of the village’s ecological, social and economic landscape, conservation efforts are always informed by local needs and contexts. Instead of considering farming as crop production alone, FES works with communities, so they see the interconnections between the larger farming system and resources beyond the farm, such as forests, pastures, bodies of water, livestock, pollinators and pest predators more clearly. This kind of systems understanding is innate and latent within farming communities, so efforts to connect agriculture, livestock, pastures, and forests have resulted in vastly improved collective decision making on crop choices, the treatment of groundwater as a common property, and the nurturing of pollinator and pest predator habitats to improve crop productivity. Besides scaling up such measures, FES also plays an equally important role in motivating government and research institutions to integrate the commons into their systems thinking and to screen their sector-based programs for any unintended and undesirable consequences.

The problem

The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a publicly held resource (known as a common) act in their own self-interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource. The Tragedy is often applied to discussions of environmental issues and is a model for a great variety of society’s current resource-based problems, including over-irrigation, habitat destruction, overfishing, and traffic congestion. Around the world, and in India in particular, the degradation of Commons has been identified as a key contributor to poverty, conflict, corruption, and limited economic growth. The commons in India face widespread degradation, leading to falling crop yields, increased cost of cultivation, depleted water tables, shrinking forests, and the unregulated use of pastures.

Everyone in India depends to some degree on the ecological functions of these commonly held lands, but the vast numbers of the most marginalised people in India depend entirely on commonly held community land for every aspect of their lives. While the majority of this common land in India is owned and managed by the government, the poor communities that live on these lands have long standing relationships and practices associated with their management and use of the lands, but ensuring the community works to conserve the land depends on whether their rights are protected. Without any formal tenure rights or legal claims to the land, the community has very little incentive to maintain the health of the ecosystem, despite its importance in their lives. The issue of legal rights to the land become particularly acute when outside private interests or government forces exploit the land, and all of the hard work that a community has invested in the land provides them with no benefits. At the heart of the situation is the even more tragic fact that the government lacks belief in the community’s ability to be effective custodians and stewards of the land, and chooses the short term economically viable option, such as giving the land to industries (eg, mining and logging) to destroy the land and forests completely while ignoring the greatest protectors of the land, the people themselves.

Forests represent the second largest land use in India after agriculture, covering 23.57 percent of the overall landmass of India (378 million hectares). Local people depend on forests and other common lands for fuel wood, fodder, timber, forage, food, drinking water for animals and other household requirements. About 275 million of the country’s rural poor in India depend on forests for at least part of their subsistence, with the collection and processing of Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) alone estimated to be worth between USD 208 million to 645 million per year. Despite their criticality, forests across India are besieged – previously inaccessible areas are now open to exploitation, and subsistence hunting and gathering in forests has given way to large-scale extraction of forest resources to cater to industrial and distant market demands.

Forest destruction has also contributed to a serious and alarming rate of groundwater depletion in India, which has resulted in around 75 percent of India’s dryland districts being declared “dark zones” meaning post monsoon water levels in the aquifers are inadequate to sustain farming practices until the next monsoon season. Practically speaking, forests and other Commons need to be maintained for the ecological functions they serve, the ecosystem services they provide, the biodiversity they contain, and the ways in which they reduce the harmful effects of greenhouse gasses, as well as to preserve local agricultural and water systems. Compounding the problem is the fact that conservation and developmental efforts of the government to improve land usage practices are often administered by different government branches and levels, and tend to be fragmented and piecemeal, and at times they even work at cross-purposes, giving rise to further negative consequences. What is required instead is an integrated methodological framework for conserving forests, grazing lands, and bodies of water that can span across habitats and administrative domains, and which are led by self-governing communities of women and men, who are sensitive to local needs and the long term health of the environment and the village.

The strategy

Recognising that the vast majority of common lands sit in unique geographical regions, with very specific cultural norms, Jagdeesh and the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) have built an adaptable model which puts the onus of the future of the Commons in the hands of the community members, and brings together principles of self-governance, community cohesion and justice. At the heart of the model are three interconnected elements that vitally connect local communities to the Commons, and enable them to better understand and respect the inter-relationships of biodiversity and natural systems: First, is to help local communities retain their rights over the Commons; second is to move these communities towards sustainable land-use practices that aid conservation; and, third is to foster collective action that creates sustainable economic opportunities.

By securing community land rights, establishing community based resource management and governance plans, and creating access to resources and finances, the Commons become the source of resilient livelihoods and improved ecological health. To achieve and multiply impact on community led governance of shared natural resources, FES works to enable system-level shifts by providing system-wide thought leadership and by embedding the Commons in debates on policies and programs. By advancing thinking around community property rights and groundwater management, they advance the dialogue of the Commons at local, regional, national and international levels, rooting the conversation in the larger goals of climate action and sustainable development while at the same time linking it to local thematic groups in neglected domains, like pastoralists and small livestock keepers.

FES is also at the forefront of promoting informed action by improving access to knowledge, analytics and tools, for greater transparency, civic engagement and informed decision-making. As Jagdeesh has observed, “if you put a map on the floor, people start talking and local people know everything about the land.” So, in collaboration with organisations and initiatives across India, they aggregate and contextualise data, analytics, and tools to supplement the decision-making of rural communities. By providing better information to villages, including spatial and satellite imagery, locals can approach the management of the Commons with a birds-eye view that helps them account for the land’s history, current usage, threats, and potential. At the community level, Jagdeesh begins his intervention by identifying natural resources which have been degraded over time, such as forests, grasslands, or bodies of water.

FES then conducts extensive studies of the area and the surrounding communities around the degraded lands, and completes an analysis of the land’s condition, history, and use. Once the studies are concluded, Jagdeesh brings together and engages local organizations who already have trust with the communities living near the natural resource. Depending on their level of awareness of the role that the common lands play in their lives and larger natural ecosystems, FES conducts capacity building workshops to help the community members better understand their importance in managing the Commons, even if they do not directly use them. Jagdeesh then assists these united communities in using provisions of affirmative legislation such as the recently-enacted Forest Rights Act, to claim their rights to access, use, protect and manage commonly held forests and other natural resources.

Excerpted with permission from Ideas that Are Changing the World: Leading Social Entrepreneurs, Ashoka Org.