In the mountains of southern Switzerland, a small village clings to the side of a steep slope that descends to the banks of the Torbelach River. For centuries, Torbel’s inhabitants have grown grain, hay, and fruit trees. During the summer, cattle graze on alpine pastures, providing the community with milk for the cheese making that drives the local economy. The villagers have managed their land in common since the 15th century, keeping careful records of land distribution, agreeing upon regulations, and adapting to changing historical and environmental circumstances. 

These principles continue to serve as important guides in the study and advancement of the commons.

For a tiny village on the Swiss Alps, Torbel has had a big impact on the way we think about managing land. Torbel, along with several other commoning institutions around the world, was the inspiration for the renowned political scientist Elinor Ostrom’s eight design principles for a successful commons. These principles continue to serve as important guides in the study and advancement of the commons, especially as Agrarian Trust expands the reach of the Agrarian Commons.

Torbel came to international attention in 1990, when Ostrom published her groundbreaking study of commons, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In the book, Ostrom argued against the dominant understanding of the commons, as exemplified by Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, which held that the commons would inevitably—and tragically—be depleted by rational, self-interested actors. The existence of communities like Torbel was evidence enough for Ostrom that Hardin’s model was too abstract. It failed to take into account the reality of commoning institutions that had successfully regulated community access to common resource pools (CPRs) for centuries, and sometimes even millennia. 

Starting with a study of Torbel’s commoning practices, Ostrom set out to find the features that were shared by successful commoning communities, which she termed CPR institutions. How, for example, do these communities ensure that their members are fully committed to the agreed-upon regulations? After reviewing examples of commoning practices from around the world, including irrigation communities in the Philippines, village commons in Japan, and the common pasture of Torbel, Ostrom identified eight characteristics or “design principles” of a successfully managed commons.

  1. Clearly defined boundaries. 
  1. Regulations made by the commoners that correspond to the needs and conditions of the community and their environment.
  1. An established system for decision-making that allows individuals affected by the regulations to change the regulations.
  1. Monitors drawn from, or accountable to the community of commoners who actively ensure the rules established by the commoners are being adhered to.
  1. Graduated sanctions for members who violate regulations. These are determined by members of the community, or by individuals accountable to the community.
  1. Conflict-resolution mechanisms that are low cost and easily accessible for members of the commons.
  1. The ability to create regulations without the infringement of an outside authority.
  1. Decentralized decision-making in the case of larger commons.

Reflecting on Ostrom’s work in relation to Agrarian Trust, it is clear that the Agrarian Commons fulfills several of Ostrom’s conditions for a successful commons. By removing land from the marketplace and providing long-term, accessible leases to farmers, the Agrarian Commons model ensures that the commons maintains clear boundaries (principle one) that separate it from the volatility of the contemporary land market. The board is also able to vet new farmers and decide who will be the best fit for the needs of their community and environment. Furthermore, by giving farmers and community members a voice on the board of the Agrarian Commons, the model allows those most affected by the rules agreed upon by the board to alter the rules to best suit their needs (principle three). Finally, the locally controlled management structure of the Agrarian Commons allows communities to tailor their approach to the specific needs and conditions of their community and environment (principle two). For evidence of this, one only need look at the diversity of objectives of the existing Agrarian Commons, which range from renewing the land in Appalachia to creating a new homeplace for Somali refugees in Maine.

The Agrarian Commons fulfills several of Ostrom’s conditions for a successful commons.

The Agrarian Commons model does differ from Ostrom’s CPR institutions in that the youngest of these institutions was over 100 years old at the time Ostrom’s book was published, while the oldest was over 1,000 years old. The institutions Ostrom studied had centuries to evolve successful institutions, capable of adapting to new and challenging circumstances, while drawing strength from generations of collaboration. The Agrarian Commons, on the other hand, is only around two years old. 

This shouldn’t deter people from continuing to champion the commons, however. In a landscape devastated by rampant privatization and the unchecked exploitation of our shared world, we need to start somewhere. The Agrarian Commons provides the legal and organizational basis for new commons to develop the level of durability, local autonomy, and mutual commitment Ostrom saw in the village of Torbel. 

For more on Ostrom and the Commons, check out: ProSocial Teaming: Elinor Ostrom & ‘The Commons’ via Connections: Behavior Planning and Intervention Blog

Post Author Noah Wurtz is a writer, activist, and gardener living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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