Why are the commons important for food sovereignty?
The commons refer to forms of wealth, capacities, spaces and resources that are used, managed and governed collectively for the benefit of many. These can include farmlands, wetlands, forests, pastures, hill slopes, streams, rivers, lakes, seas, coastlines and associated resources.
Farming and grazing lands can be communally governed, although the rights of families to cultivate specific parcels of land are recognised and respected, as are grazing rights of pastoralists. Similarly, small-scale fisherfolk do not own coastal lands, fisheries or sea beds, but these commons are crucial for their livelihoods. Commons are often culturally determined, and many communities regard seeds, wild foods and herbs, fish, animals and traditional knowledge as commons.
In every part of the world, agricultural, forest, fishing, marine, pastoral, nomadic and indigenous communities have developed and practiced systems of sharing, collectively governing and regenerating their natural commons.
The commons are integral to food sovereignty. Commons include not only physical ‘resources,’ but equally important, social-political relations among different food producing communities and valuable knowledge about habitats, genetic resources, migratory routes (for fish and livestock), resilience to disasters and shocks, etc. As savers of seed and living libraries of knowledge about local biodiversity and food systems, women are often more closely connected to the commons than men.
When commons are destroyed or privatised, local people lose access to important environments for foraging, gathering, grazing, hunting, fishing and regenerating biodiversity. Indigenous peoples either completely lose their ancestral domains, or have to follow severe restrictions in what they can harvest from forests, fields and waters.
The commons are continually threatened by mining, oil and gas extraction, industrial agriculture, dams and private property regimes (also called “enclosures”). Forests, pastures and wetlands are converted to industrial monocultures or luxury properties; water sources are diverted to feed tourism, energy and manufacturing industries; and trade-investment deals provide corporations access to biodiversity and knowledge, enabling biopiracy and undermining the autonomy of indigenous peoples, small scale food producers and women. Natural resources are commodified and privatised, long-standing local practices of community resource use and governance are dismantled, and local communities are denied access to the very ecosystems that they have nurtured and which sustain them.
Today, threats to the commons are greatly multiplied by the food, finance and climate crises, all of which are being used as opportunities by states, corporations and financial institutions to deepen their control over natural wealth. Most at risk are land, forests, water, genetic resources and knowledge, which have tremendous value for producing food, regenerating biodiversity, ensuring soil fertility and sustaining life. Defending the commons is a critical strategy for building food sovereignty.
Forest products in Cambodia
Rural communities in Pursat province, Cambodia have been organizing to protect their forests, farmlands, streams, ponds and common lands from industrial agriculture plantations, dams and timber extraction for the past 20 years. Protecting them is crucial to protecting the biodiversity on which their lives and livelihoods depend.
Although they grow rice and vegetables, and raise poultry and livestock, much of their food, medicinal herbs and plants, and household use items come from the local forests, water bodies and commons. The traditional rural diet is extremely seasonal and closely tied to cultural practices designed to protect the local environment and strengthen community solidarity. Seasonal flooding and environmental changes result in different types of fish, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, shoots and herbs becoming available throughout the year. Fishing, gathering wild fruits, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, herbs, and trapping edible insects and spiders remain common ways of meeting family food needs. Forest products are also important for household use and income, for example, bamboo, rattan, honey, resin and palm sugar.
In some areas, local residents identified 18 types of wild fruits, four types of resin, 13 types of mushrooms, 36 types of roots/herbs/vines, and 14 types of wild flowers/shoots/leaves. They further identified six varieties of high value hardwood trees and 13 varieties of ordinary trees that make up the forests in their areas. According to local people, all varieties of natural trees, plants and grasses (such as bamboo) are crucial to nourish the ecosystems that are critical to maintain and regenerate biodiversity.