Where’s the Value in a Commons Conference?

The Blog posts keep coming thick and fast from Senior Research Fellow John Powell as he attends the IASC European Conference in Umeå, Sweden. (This is partly due to the person in CCRI being on leave on Monday and Tuesday, so a little bit of a backlog!).

In it John reflects on the merits of such a conference, and how diverse the experiences and discussions can be in a very short period of time – which often are very different to one’s ‘normal’ routine…


Where’s the Value in a Commons Conference?

One forgets, stuck in our own little office space, hanging onto our staplers and our jobs, the world condensed to four walls and a computer screen; one forgets the mind expanding value of attending an international conference. The IASC regional and global conferences are a case in point: often in obscure and out-of-the way parts of the world; costly, difficult to reach, usually requiring multiple forms of transport, and organising time away from the day job and the family; yet endlessly fascinating in the people one meets and the issues explored. This 3rd meeting of the European Regional grouping of the IASC in Umeå has brought us to the edge of the Arctic, the northern fringes of the European Union. One minute we are discussing problems of Sami indigenous rights and conflicts between forest commons and grazing rights across northern Scandinavia, the next we are looking at irrigation and water user organisations in Albania, traditional community rights in Castile, or the governance of karstic landscapes in Italy. Research projects being presented are not confined to Europe. At the morning break, for example, you can be filling your coffee cup while discussing the problem of political decision making in rural Thailand, then get involved in a conversation over land law in Mozambique, while the people behind you are chatting about brown seaweed in South Korea. And what comes across are not the differences, but the similarities: in the causes of conflict, the solutions being proposed, and the challenges facing local communities in trying to maintain long standing institutional arrangements of commons resources on which livelihoods depend.

This is where the true value of the IASC conferences lie, in being able to explore such a wide array of problems that bring insights from the ‘global to the local’. Yes, the local context of problems varies, the legal, political, and institutional situations are different, and you need to have a detailed grasp on all of these to even begin to understand where to look for solutions; but there are glimpses of the potential to learn from one situation and apply it to another, or at least to explore how successful approaches in one part of the world might be adapted and applied to another.

This is not to say that those experts appearing at the conference have all the answers. Most of the ongoing research is into what might elsewhere be called ‘social dilemmas, or ‘wicked problems’, those that are difficult or even impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing aspects that are difficult to recognize, and replete with complex interdependencies. An issue constantly grappled with at these meetings is how to deal with global commons issues which threaten most of the planet, its biodiversity, as well as social and economic relationships. Solving commons problems is difficult enough at the local or regional scale, but currently seem to be beyond our capabilities at the global scale. So far we have no answers, but the issue is always there, lurking in the background, and waiting for young researchers, to come along and apply new ways of thinking that might lead to more effective governance approaches and solutions.

Then it’s all over and we retreat back to our little microcosms, where a multitude of other priorities intrude, but armed with a fresh stack of business cards and new people to email, which one day might yield a partner for a project, a joint paper, or even the ultimate goal, a new way of approaching global commons problems.

Below is a picture of a street in Umea – which is known for the number of silver birch trees throughout the city.