This policy brief explores how Commons (i.e., modes of management of a resource by the community of its users, which defines rules for guaranteeing availability and sustainability of the resource), as studied by 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics Elinor Ostrom, have the potential to renew approaches to stabilising the management of natural resources under tension at the local or regional level and to preventing and managing conflicts. This potential notably resides in the capacity of Commons-based approaches to articulate regional and international cooperation frameworks with the direct engagement of grassroots resource users in governance schemes, aiming to prevent and solve conflicts over natural resources.
Since the early 1990s, access to natural resources (water, land, forests, biodiversity, etc.) has been identified as a security issue and a possible source of conflicts over transboundary resources, notably water (rivers, lakes). While “there is high scientific agreement that … increased rivalry [over natural resources] is unlikely to lead directly to warfare between states” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Adger, Pulhin et al., 2014), they have already contributed on diverse occasions to the development of inter-community conflicts (e.g., the Darfur conflict in Sudan since 2003 or, more recently, the conflicts between Dogons and Fulani in Mali in 2018, linked to the theft of livestock in the context of global warming).
Natural-resource management is also a source of inter-State tensions over water management (e.g., conflicts between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan around management of the waters of the Nile River in the context of the ongoing construction of the Ethiopian ‘Renaissance’ dam on the Blue Nile, or conflicts over water resources in Central Asia – notably between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and air (e.g., tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia over haze caused by forest fires). Conflict resolution and prevention, the fight against climate change, and development, therefore, appear to be closely linked issues.
In the first part of the brief, we address the nature of Commons in the field of natural-resource management and how they are both vulnerable constructs and a possible tool to turn processes of natural-resource degradation and rising tensions into cooperative pathways towards sustainability. In the second part, we then address the specific case of transboundary Commons through three case studies: the process of securing pastures between Burkina Faso and Mali; the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area; and Lake Chad. We latterly show how transboundary Commons may represent a promising direction as a tool for environmental peacebuilding and we identify a set of conditions for their success that depends on a case-dependent combination of factors that cannot be limited to the implementation of a Commons-based approach.
Transboundary Commons have important innovation potential in the fields of nature conservation, development, and peacebuilding. They pave the way for new international cooperation mechanisms that combine both the legitimacy of interstate cooperation and the flexibility and mobilisation potential of Commons.
This, however, requires a shift of perspective for public actors (and particularly for States), from a role of direct regulation of natural resources to a subsidiarity approach in which they support Commons at different territorial scales (including the transboundary scale) that contribute to public objectives. This shift does not represent a withdrawal of States and public actors but, on the contrary, a reengagement of these actors under new roles and attributes.
Developing transboundary Commons also requires international dialogue to make room for conversation with innovative representations of resource-users that are not only channelled through State organisations and to organise adequate and innovative representation of the different scales of Commons in transboundary negotiation forums.
It is, however, still necessary to detail the conditions for fruitful articulation between multi-scale Commons, new types of regulation, and the private sector in new institutional settings involving transboundary Commons, in order to develop further approaches in the framework of viable, real-use cases. This will require transdisciplinary research but also dialogue between actors across the fields of diplomacy, security, defence, humanitarian work, development, and research. The coordination of these actors, whose logics are sometimes different or even divergent, is difficult but essential. In this perspective, the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute represents a platform for multi-cultural exchanges that can contribute to this debate.
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