Resisting environmental and social injustice through commoning

Lize Swartz in conversation with Dr Gustavo García-López, 2019-2021 Prince Claus Chair

Social and environmental injustice are increasing globally as neoliberalism tightens its grip. Crisis upon crisis are hitting especially vulnerable populations, interacting to create precarious and untenable living conditions. These issues become more pressing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made more visible to the world the environmentally destructive and socially unjust patterns of our societies. The recovery of more equitable and sustainable ways of life based on communality and interconnectedness is needed to address the hypercomplex global crisis generated by globalized neoliberal capitalism, argues Dr Gustavo García-López, current Prince Claus Chair holder at the ISS. Lize Swartz spoke to him about his work and how commoning can transform the world we live in.

The ISS is one of two research institutes hosting Prince Claus Chair holders—researchers who are selected to spend a period of two years at the institute (or at Utrecht University on alternate years) to conduct research aligning to the position’s theme of ‘development and equity’. Dr Gustavo García-López started his tenure as Prince Claus Chair holder at the ISS in September 2019, focusing on ‘sustainable development, equity and environmental justice’, and regularly visits the Institute, where he spends time working on his research and interacting with other researchers.

Having done his PhD on community forestry initiatives under Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom at Indiana University Bloomington, during his tenure at the ISS Dr García-López will continue to focus on commoning initiatives and community-based natural resources governance, in particular initiatives to recover the commons. To this end he is developing two projects. One of them is comparing initiatives in Portugal (Baldios) and in Galicia, Spain (Montes Vecinales) that are attempting to recover a rural commons and sustain rural livelihoods that are in crisis. He will work with organizations to facilitate collaborative learning processes and the co-production of knowledge to find out what is working and how it is working so people can recover their ties to the land, culturally and economically. While these two study areas have many cultural commonalities, they have different political and legal systems, and García-López with other colleagues hopes to look at the type of policy reforms needed to facilitate the recovery of the commons for each of the contexts.

The second project he is currently engaged in is centered in the Caribbean and focuses on the climate crisis, in particular just transitions to a system that is not based on fossil fuel, extraction and private profit, but rather is based on the commons and is more sustainable and equitable. His interest in this area is based on his personal ties to the area, as a Puerto Rican, but also his observations as a political and environmental activist of growing disaster capitalism following the historic damages caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2018.

“[Hurricane Maria] was a moment of dramatic change,” he said. “Many people had to self-organize to survive, so many community kitchens called Centres of Mutual Aid emerged. Those centres also became spaces for discussing how we can change our society. People discussed how resilient they were, but also the economic crisis, the housing crisis in Puerto Rico, the education crisis, or the food crisis.” According to García-López, one of the biggest issues in Puerto Rico is that 85% or 90% of Puerto Rico’s food is imported “because our agriculture was killed historically to give way to industrialization”.

García-López is also involved in JunteGente, an organization started by a group of friends following Hurricane Maria that focuses on building a collective of professors at the Universidad de Puerto Rico (University of Puerto Rico) to intervene in debates on the economic crisis, the debt crisis, etc. and shape the conversation on this, but also to provide a space for encounters among organizations and academics working on issues of energy, health, environmental justice, urban issues, education, and so forth to develop ways to strengthen cross-sector solidarity.

The loss and recovery of rural livelihoods

The loss of rural livelihoods due to the commercialization of agriculture and rapid, ongoing urbanization, reduced government support for peasant farming, the privatization of land, as well as ecological problems all contribute to what García-López refers to as a rural crisis. In Spain and Portugal, as in many other parts of the world, however, communities are resisting the crisis by attempting to recover the rural commons through various initiatives.

For his PhD, García-López studied community forest management initiatives in Mexico, where similar initiatives were taking place. “Community-based natural resource management is globally recognized as one strategy to integrate proverty reduction, inequality and sustainable livelihood agendas,” García-López says. In Mexico, communities had their own forest enterprises—small, cooperative businesses operating at the community level—that controlled the land and sold timber as an income. But beyond that, forests were recognized as being complex ecosystems with multiple benefits that can be derived from them. Allowing communities to control the land and financially benefit from forests ensured that they were protected by the communities dependent on them. But, García-López highlights, forests are also protected because the value of conserving them—their tangible and intangible benefits beyond source of income are recognized by communities. “There is a conservation mentality in some of the communities.” In Oaxaca, for example, communities created their own community conservation areas, where forests were conserved for other reasons as well: “It’s also an identitarian issue—they are also proud that they have this beautiful forest that they conserve.”

While communities in the Global South are focused strongly on conservation, García-López notes that the Global North is seeing the reversal of trends related to natural resources overexploitation and deforestation. “Centuries ago, the idea of private property owernship did not even exist. In Europe, common lands were given to peasants to enjoy… there was a global shift, and now especially after 2009, after Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize for Economics for the study of the commons… the global discussion started to change, and nowadays in urban cities you see a lot of initiatives to recover urban commons—to recover urban gardens, or housing as a commons, a cooperative—as a reaction to the expansion of private property.” Reconceptualizing natural resource use would change how we think about our relationships and with nature: “Everything that you do to a commons happens to everybody.”

The notion of a commons also can be applied to understand our human interconnectedness globally, remarks García-López. “Everything we do in life is affecting others and is benefiting others in positive and negative ways because of our interconnections. And I think climate change demonstrates that the whole planet is a commons. Anything you do is going to affect the whole world. Climate change changed everything because it shows that everything is interconnected… so we should manage it collectively.”

One of the big problems we have today is the equality issue associated with private property, class and power, where a few people have too much and many are excluded, says García-López. “The commons invites us to think about redistribution, about equality, about the problem of democratic governance—how we make decisions collectively instead of privately. It has a great potential while always recognizing that there will always be challenges. Politics has to remain self-reflective and critical and we have to keep in mind who is excluded.”

Besides this tendency to exclude that has to be kept in check, he mentions an additional, ideological challenge. “Our mindsets, our imaginaries have been so distorted by the idea of private property or self-interest, ownership… if you look at other cosmovisions or ontologies they recognize that precisely because of interconnectedness, ownership doesn’t make so much sense, but it’s difficult to get out of it when you’ve spent your whole life in that system… self-interest is a reality. Ostrom showed us that you could have self-interest, but that you could transcend it by recognizing that acting together would be in everybody’s interest.”

García-López remarks that we’re currently a short-term society, which impedes the ability to envision sustainable futures. Individualism is a major challenge to transformations to collectivity, he says. “It’s hard to do it when you’re overexploited in your work and you don’t have time to do things, because the style of our society is the compartementalization of life. To do things collectively becomes harder when your everyday patterns are individual. That’s why these discussions are linked to discussions about rethinking work—how we do everything. Some commons scholars talk about social reproduction needs that we require for basics of life.”

What García-López stressed throughout the conversation is that academics should be engaged in collective efforts and commoning initiatives that can start within academe as an effort to collectivize and share knowledge and co-create knowledge, reaching out beyond academia to engage with commoning initiatives that are visible in urban and rural contexts around us. While García-López’s research focuses on studying commoning initiatives—the recovery and reimagination of way of life in which things are communal, shared—anyone can create commoning initiatives in their own neighbourhoods or work space to help shape a new society based on degrowth and post-development.

Watch Gustavo García-López in a recorded webinar by JunteGente with the topic “How can we build a counter-hegemonic, supportive and ecological political power from below that challenges the lethal virus of the colony?”

About the authors:

Gustavo Garcia-LopezGustavo García-López is an engaged scholar-activist with a transdisciplinary training, building on institutional analysis, environmental policy and planning, and political ecology approaches. His research and practice centers on grassroots collective commoning initiatives that advance transformations towards socially-just and sustainable worlds. He is currently Assistant Researcher at the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Planning, University of Puerto Rico- Rio Piedras (on leave). He is co-founding member of the editorial collective of the Undisciplined Environments blog, and of the JunteGente collective, a space of encounters between organizations fighting for a more socially-just, ecological and decolonized Puerto Rico.  

Lize SwartzLize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.

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