Commons at the continental edge

It’s cloudy, grey and overcast, with a feeling in the air of imminent rain but it seldom does.  The weather forecast is the same for the next two weeks, overcast with little chance of rain, and it may possibly stay the same for the next six months.  It’s the strangest sensation – of the air feeling both humid and dry at the same time.  We’re in Lima, in the western desert of Peru where it’s sunny for four months of the year and cloudy for the other eight.  We are 12o south of the equator but its colder than in England.  It’s winter here, and the buildings don’t seem to have any heat, its damp and breezy.

Lima is a city of contradictions, built in a desert, on top of pre-Christian civilisations that first channelled water from the melting snows of the Andes down onto the coastal plains, with great precision, in canals some of which are still utilised today.  On the surface the urban infrastructure looks like a recent addition, a complex jumble of architectural styles and concrete dumped on top of the land, you have to know where to look to see the remnants of the ancient civilisations, not far beneath the surface.

We’re in a restaurant on the clifftops of Miraflores – on the edge of the continent – looking down on the Pacific Ocean swell rolling in to break as waves on the steep shingle beach.  We’re on the edge of a tectonic plate, which means earthquake zone and potential for tsunamis, but apart from the signs and the marked exit routes, you would not know it – life goes on for the 10 million inhabitants much as it always has.  A dynamic city heaving with energy, diversity, and traffic congestion – making almost any progress impossible at certain times of the day.  A city suffering the effects from overuse of resources, and lack of maintenance of both the man-made and natural environments, resulting in everyone sharing a degraded environment.  There is air pollution, water pollution, and the effects of poor waste management.

Miraflores district of Lima – overlooking the Pacific

A first thought that occurred on arriving in Lima for the 17th Biennial conference of the IASC conference was: ‘could this be an example of what is in store for a world where local people have forgotten how to work together to manage their local environmental resources’?  Outside of Lima,  across Peru and other South American countries, there are wider issues of the social and ecological impacts from extractive industries, loss of indigenous rights to forest and water resources, and wider impacts from globalisation of economic systems and climate change.  We’re here, along with around 500 other conference delegates, to explore the governance of commons resources, and to learn from practitioners and academics across South America (and other parts of the world) about new approaches being developed to improve the quality of shared environments, and the governance of shared resources.

Lima looks out to the west across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean – one of the largest commons on the planet.  To the East the Andes form a barrier against the rest of the continent.  Here on the coastal plain between the mountains and the sea the Peruvians have a significant set of problems to solve. The earliest settlers developed solutions for overcoming the shortage of water and building techniques that minimised the impacts of earthquakes.

Remains of an Inca Road overlooked by more modern construction.

Civilisations since have built on that legacy and the city continues to flourish in a desert environment. Our exploration of the current problems facing this region through a commons approach offers scope for implementing new solutions, just as previous civilisations have done for millennia in this part of the world.

There is a dynamism here, a lot of young people are generating new ideas.  Some of them are attending this conference – looking at how to overcome the challenges of climate change and an increasingly dysfunctional global economic system.  Link that to the Peruvian ingenuity for solving problems and finding ways around obstacles and you feel sense of optimism that new approaches based on principles of commons governance can be designed and applied here, despite the challenges.

That is reassuring for the future because it looks like the forecast for the weather will not change – it is likely to remain – overcast and grey, with little chance of rain.  The forecast for the future of commons on the other hand – is optimism, innovation, with a good chance for gain.

John and colleagues from the IASC have previously published a book about attending the International IASC conferences. This can be downloaded for FREE from the University of Gloucestershire’s research repository via the following link: A Companion to IASC Commons Conferences