Commons-based governance

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5.11 Commons-Based Governance Commons are collectively owned resources, collaboratively managed by their co-users under formal or informal governance systems.1 Their management institutions are finely attuned to the specifics of place and closely link ecological and social reality. For this reason, traditional commons are a crucial ingredient in all documented cases where human groups self-organise to achieve sustainability and/or resilience.2 Creation of new commons has been mooted as a central strategy in climate mitigation and adaptation.3 Permaculture is one of many social movements dedicated to the creation of new commons, and along with these novel institutional mechanisms for climate adaptation that transcend the limitations of state and market.4

Like the species and ecological formations that inspire permaculture design, well-governed commons are resilient, self-limiting, adaptive entities that promote regeneration of landscapes and social systems. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s research on commons identified five requirements for adaptive governance. 5 These effectively translate into a set of baseline social conditions for successful adaptation to climate change. They are: Access of users to accurate and relevant information; Social technologies to enforce user responsibility and compliance with management rules; Effective mechanisms for conflict transformation; Flexible infrastructure for both internal operations and external links; and Encouraging adaptation in the face of changing external circumstances.

The new commons created as part of permaculture are diverse in nature and form. Much agrodiversity is maintained and circulated through informal projects and networks for propagating and exchanging plants. Popular education creates knowledge commons through which concepts such as permaculture principles and design methods, and theories around economic localisation and energy descent are developed, tested and refined. Knowledge commons around social technologies and tools for personal resilience are created, refined and shared through their use in meetings, workshops, events, training exercises, courses, and other forms of group work. Many permaculture projects own and manage their physical base as some form of commons through legal structures such as trusts, cooperatives and community interest companies that support inclusive decision-making processes.

The Centre for Ecological Learning Luxembourg (CELL) is a national and regional hub for permaculture and Transition, legally structured as a non-profit organisation. It operates as a commons and in addition supports establishment of new organisations for creation and management of common pool resources. 6 Relationships with related organisations are cooperative in nature, enacting an ecological model in which each helps create conditions for the success of others. CELL is currently developing design and consultancy services as an income-generating regenerative enterprise. Resulting financial surpluses will be redistributed through its organisational ecology towards citizen groups whose activities do not generate income. This is one way in which CELL cultivates conditions for the emergence of a constellation of organisations with diverse legal forms, pursuing distinct specific objectives within a common aim of promoting societal and environmental health through citizen-led responses to climate change.

A key project that has emerged from CELL is TERRA (Transition and Education for a Resilient and Regenerative Agriculture), a food-growing, educational and community-building project founded in 2014.7 TERRA operates a form of Community Supported Agriculture (equivalent to AMAPs in France and Solidarlandwirtschaft in Germany) a relatively new model of food production and distribution that rests on cooperative legal forms and seeks to blur the distinction between consumer and producer. TERRA operates as a cooperative society whose 150 members act as co-owners and co-managers. It supports three paid employees whose work constitutes an ongoing programme of action learning on soil regeneration, agroecology, popular education, and use of social technologies: running the farm, distributing weekly produce shares to members, and organising learning events and seasonal celebrations. After only one year TERRA had increased availability of locally produced organic food and achieved measurable improvements in soil quality, showing concrete progress towards its long-term aim of combining physical and social techniques to help build a more climate-resilient food system.

Another example of a commons-based system of governance deeply inspired by Permaculture Design is Biovilla, a Portuguese sustainability co-op, founded in 2010 and focused on Nature Tourism, education for sustainability and landscape regeneration. 8 Biovilla is moving towards a Sociocratic governance model based on the horizontal concepts of zoning, closed-cycles, interdependency, systems thinking and possibility management. This allows it to have a flexible, transparent and constantly adapting organizational ecosystem (Figure 3). Each member is considered to have an equal share in the social capital and all members take part in all major decisions. New technological solutions such as WhatsApp support these inclusive processes, helping groups to stay connected.

Biovilla seeks to demonstrate the concept of tri-dimensional alignment within an organisation. This proposes that true sustainability can only emerge when the legal framework is fully aligned with the governance system, and in turn with decision-making processes and finally the organisation’s principles, values and mission (Figure 4). So managing the commons is about more than cooperative ownership: it also implies democratic, transparent, engaging and participatory management of the collective means of production.

Figure Figure 3: Nested scales of governance in Biovilla


Tridimensional Organisational Alignment: a prerequisite for sustainability