Planning for the Rio+20 Conference: Enter the Commons? Planning for the Rio+20 Conference: Enter the Commons?


The Rio+20 conference in Rio de Janeiro this June will be a major event in the world’s ecological history. The event, officially the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, will provide an opportunity for the world’s nation’s to take stock of what has happened to the environment since an earlier, landmark conference in Rio in 1992 – climate change, loss of biodiversity, species extinctions, desertification, etc., etc. – and to plot ambitious strategies to save the planet in the coming decades.


But don’t hold your breath. The world’s governments are not likely to come up with anything significant. The G-20 nations, which have been described as the “executive board of the world,” have little interest in bold political and institutional reform. That would only disrupt the desperate search for economic growth. An open, candid inquiry into the growth economy, consumerism and the finite carrying capacity of Earth’s biophysical systems would be far too politically explosive. It is far easier to talk about a “green economy,” as if greater efficiencies alone will save the planet.


The real goal of governments at Rio+20 will be to make it look as if they are doing something significant for the environment. No one expects that Rio+20 will result in serious, practical government commitments to “sustainable development” (whatever that means), let alone new forms of multilateral governance that could arrest the planet’s ecological decline.


Given these credible expectations, a lot of people are looking to the alternative People’s Summit Rio+20, which in late May will convene a wide spectrum of international environmental, social justice and indigenous rights advocacy groups. These are the people with a serious commitment to change and a willingness to grapple with ecological realities.


In preparation for the conference, a wide array of these groups, many of them associated with the World Social Forum, recently met in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to do some advance planning for Rio+20.


One significant thing that came out of these meetings was a sense that the commons will have an important role to play in sketching a new vision of governance and pro-active strategies. There is a realization that it is no longer enough to denounce globalization or rail against capitalism. Realistic alternatives must be set forth. For many, it would appear that the commons can provide a useful framework and vocabulary for starting a very different conversation – one that at once addresses politics, economics, culture and our individual aspirations and energies.


The following text was produced by one of the 17 working groups at the Thematic Social Forum which took place between January 24 and January 29 in Porto Alegre. Commoners from Brazil, Germany, France, India, Argentina and Bolivia took place in producing this “open document,” which will evolve in coming weeks and months.


The version published below will serve as input for a more general and comprehensive document that will be prepared for Rio+20 by the Thematic Social Forum.  Translations into Spanish, French and Portuguese have been done already, and a German version is in the works. A grateful salute to my colleague Silke Helfrich for her role in this process, and for her blog post about this.


Here is the insightful document produced by the working group. Highly recommended!


Challenges of the current context: the dangerous conspiracy between state and market


State and market, at least in its hegemonic shape, are closely linked and it is hard to differentiate their actions. Even those of us who believe that it is possible for a democratic state to guarantee the general well-being, we see ourselves confronted with states that have no shame in catering to the banking sector –the chief culprit for the recent economic crises– while cutting social expenditures. Both state and market share the same ideological commitment to progress and competition. Both are committed to a model of development and economic growth that destroys the planet and the richness of the commons. Both dismantle our culture and livelihoods in order to convert us into consumers of goods. This inevitably leads to such outrages as the Brazilian mining company VALE’s construction of the Belo Monte dam in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, which will have a devastating impact on the biodiversity and the indigenous people of the region.


This threat to what is common to us are achieved through diverse mechanisms:

  • Legal: through agreements on free trade and investment protections and intellectual property, and international bodies like the WTO and the WIPO;
  • Economic: through private appropriation of territories (landgrabbing);
  • Technological:through genetically modified organisms (GMOs), restrictive systems of access to culture (DRM),geoengineering, etc.


All these phenomena are part of a grand, still untold story of our time: the process of enclosure of the commons, which goes beyond the privatization because it involves expulsion, disenfranchisement and social fragmentation. Enclosures are expanding and intensifying, and, “when the last tree is cut, when the last river has been poisoned” they will go on with the enclosure of the fundamentals of life at a scale of nanotechnology.


Meanwhile, the same states and markets have prepared the trap of the “green capitalism,” which they will try to enforce through the Rio+20 conference. This will signal the next round of enclosure, commodification and financialization of nature.At the same time, states and corporations are conducting a war against the right to share by means of agreements like ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), proposed laws like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (ProtectIP Act), direct attacks against citizen organizations like Wikileaks, regulations that impede the reuse and exchange of seeds, and more patents on traditional knowledge. This is the the moment we are living in.


The concept of the commons and the convergence of the social movements


The commons (some call it common goods) are not simply shared “goods.” The term refers to social practices based on the principle of commoning (the making of a commons). The goals of a commoning-process are clearly different from the typical practices of the state / market duopoly. Furthermore, the commons are a useful conceptual framework to analyse the future that we want. The commons functions like a different operating system at the level of community and probably (here is where the challenge lies) for the entire society, provided we devise appropriate institutions and policies.Hence, the construction of this conceptual framework is a dynamic process. It requires everyone to listen to what each social movementunderstands to be a commons. It is necessary to know more about the specific practices of commoning, whether they be embodied in indigenous and peasant communities, local seed banks, non-market-based initiatives of urban housing, or communities of developers of digital culture and software. We must understand the similarities of enclosure that each field is suffering, the silent as well as the well-known ones. This mutual awareness can help us to find a way to overcome crippling dualisms like public and private, state and market, individual and collective. In this way we aspire to create new settings that are structured according to creative principles of governance that arise from the bases.


Resistance and construction: commons, commoning


The processes of enclosure face resistance. And most of them can be analysed from a commons perspective. On each continent, organized communities are confronted with these challenges. In Bolivia, for example, there is the emblematic case of TIPNIS, the indigenous territory and national park threatened by the construction of a highway that would split in half a pristine park. Indigenous organizations marched more than 600km during two months in defence of this park and long-standing ways of life based on the communion with nature and on self-government, receiving extraordinary support and urban solidarity.As in this local struggle, the resistance is global. Attacks on water as a commons are encountering organized community resistance in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. Twentyseven million signatures were collected in a referendum on “water as a commons” in Italy in 2011.


On each continent movements like Occupy, the Indignados and others are arising that do not simply resist, but actively search for alternatives. All over the world people are cooperating via the Internet to create shared works and tools –Wikipedia and free software are the most visible examples– and new forms of social mobilization. Each can be thought of and connected to each other by a larger vision of the commons.


The resistance is also propelled by proposals for alternatives that emanate from the social practices of the commons. These practices form an alternative framework for the transformation of daily life as well as for the design of new public norms and policies that recognize self-management as the central element for a necessary social transformation.


Some examples of the variety of experiences, innovations and productions based on the commons are, among many others: strategies of collaborative consumption associated with barter and the practice of sharing; systems of community management of shared resources like forests, waterways and fishing grounds; and numerous initiatives that are building digital commons.Together these commons constitute a rich kaleidoscope of working models based on self-determination and collective management of shared resources.The social practices related to this paradigm naturally vary and yet they also have common features. A principal one is that they exemplify the idea that one’s self-fulfillment depends on the fulfillment of the others, and vice versa, and that this mutual concern blurs the borders between individual and collective interests.


Contradictions, concerns and challenges


Obviously, during this process of building a Commons Sector, the challenges are manifold. On one side, there is no clear consensus for many things. On the other side, many nuances of the commons paradigm have not yet been explored – and further exploration is necessarily going to be part of the ongoing social construction of the commons framework.


There are divergent perspectives among the stewards of various commons. Many digital commoners do not recognize their dependency on the “analogue” world on the one hand (computers cannot produce food), and many ecologists and traditional communities tend to underestimate the potential for social transformation that free technologies and culture can provide, on the other hand. Some commoners believe that the right to share and self-management can achieve the universal desire for social justice without exhausting the natural resources. Others in good faith are skeptical. Some argue that the idea of the commons continues to (re)trace the pathologies of property and the domination of nature and thus tend to be anthropocentric; others that see in the commons the possibility of a greater communion between nature and culture.


There are also many unresolved concerns: One of the most recurrent is the tension between the local, the regional and the global. It is impossible to think of commoning without thinking about a social subject, a “community.” It is therefore easiest to think about the commons paradigm at a local level. But thinking about the commons at a global level is a great challenge, and even impossible to escape because there is only one earth, and we have not only the right but the responsibility to share it. Confronted with this challenge, it is fair to ask what should be the role of a state that conceives itself as a defender of the commons?


Even while these explorations must proceed, it is necessary to name the commons in order to consolidate alternatives to the current state/market model and to visualize and communicate the alternatives. Nevertheless, our language is so permeated by the terminology of the state/market system and that of ideologies having a different mindset, that a major challenge is to develop a new vocabulary that truly describes the world we want. Resolving the conundrum of “common goods that are not goods” cannot be a closed process. Which is why we invite you to help us collectively build this vocabulary in a way that we can adapt to the diversity of contexts in which we each act.


The commons are right before our eyes. Together we will find methods for naming them and, even more important, for converting them into a diversity of governance systems based on the principles of commoning.


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