Tenure and governance for restoring landscapes: Intangible bases for tangible progress


by Rahul Chaturvedi, Liya Thomas, and Ruth Meinzen-Dick | April 21, 2020

The picture of the 100 hectares of common land in Kacholiya village of Rajasthan, India, epitomizes the potential for landscape restoration. The contrast between the picture from 2003 and the backdrop of the same landscape today shows how even highly degraded lands can be brought back to life. Now rich in biodiversity of both indigenous flora and fauna and improved with water harvesting structures, the restored charagah (common pastures) offer replenished soil fertility and improved water supplies, resulting in more fodder and fuelwood available for community members. The community makes a profit of 2 million INR (over US$28,500) every year from the commons.

Photo credit: Gabriel Diamond

“Now that we have regenerated our village pastures, I do not have to take my cattle to graze to the neighboring village or purchase fodder from the market. I graze my livestock in my village and save up 25,000 INR annually on fodder,” says Khem Singh Rawat, a farmer and active member of the Tree Growers Cooperative Society, Kacholiya.

But there is more to the story than just tree planting or technical innovations. What brought about this change, and what makes it sustainable, is the change in the tenure and governance of this land. “Tenure” and “governance” may sound abstract, but they play a key role in how people interact with their landscapes.

Tenure reflects the rights and responsibilities that different people have over resources. The restored landscapes are “commons”—shared resources, where the rights that local communities have are often unclear and have been eroded over centuries. The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) has been working in Rajasthan and other Indian states to assist with government recognition of communities’ rights over commons. But rights alone are not enough. For FES, the rights are only one piece in the puzzle needed to improve the governance of commons, that is, the way local people and organizations, working with government agencies, set and enforce rules over common land and water resources. Although rural communities in India have customary rules and practices to manage and govern these resources, without formal recognition of their rights to those lands, they lack the authority or incentive to effectively safeguard them. On the ground, weak tenure arrangements (that fail to acknowledge the customary use and ownership of communities) and equally weak recognition of local governance arrangements disenfranchise local communities and erode local collective decision-making, ultimately resulting in degradation of resources and loss of local livelihoods.

In this context, FES helps demonstrate the strength of local communities in effectively managing the commons through collaboration and use of local knowledge. FES also helps communities to form inclusive local organizations for managing the commons and to tap government programs for additional resources for the commons. In Kacholiya, for example, despite being from diverse backgrounds, the villagers built a vibrant local organization that worked through a Tree Growers Cooperative Society and tapped funds available under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to undertake tree planting and other investments aimed at restoration of barren pastures and water bodies. The key to maintaining the benefits from these investments has been the local organization that developed and implements robust rules for better management of their land and water commons.

By enabling rural communities to organize themselves and access secure legal rights to their commons, FES aims to change the 50-year-old metaphor of “Tragedy of Commons” to “Promise of Commons.” The Promise of Commons initiative, launched in 2018, now has over 75 NGO and research organizations partnering to build a groundswell of public opinion, policy, and action to support the commons. CGIAR is supporting this initiative through three Research Programs: Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). PIM researchers have drawn attention to the importance of community rights to the commons and developed tools to strengthen local governance and links with government. PIM and WLE have developed “games” to teach key lessons about collective action for managing these shared resources. FTA’s work provides insights on how to make these processes more inclusive of groups that are often excluded from decision-making and benefits of landscape restoration, including women, pastoralists, and tribal communities. Together, the CGIAR programs are also providing support to the ambitious scaling-up goals of the Promise of Commons to benefit 38 million people, and to do a rigorous assessment of its impacts. As of 2019, three states had policies to strengthen recognition of rights to commons and support for communities in managing their resources.

“The Promise of Commons provides a valuable learning laboratory for collaboration between communities, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers. For example, behavioral games have been used in research to identify what makes it likely that people will work together, but this has given us the chance to adapt these ‘games’ to also strengthen collective action,” says Ruth Meinzen-Dick, co-leader of PIM’s Flagship on Governance of Natural Resources.

The partners in the Promise of Commons initiative build on these positive experiences to create impact at larger scale. The diversity and scale of benefits resulting from sustainable land and water management mean that blueprint approaches won’t work, but tools are developed to support participatory institutional change processes. Local farmers’ and herders’ contributions to ecosystem services such as better water supply and carbon sequestration go far beyond their communities.

Jagdeesh Rao, Executive Director of FES, believes that, “Commons are innately all about interrelationships and reciprocities” and “the Promise of Commons mirrors such an understanding in joining hands with others, forming alliances, energizing momentum, building visibility and having a collective voice of different actors for addressing immense challenges and moving the needle.”

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we highlight the case of Kacholiya to reinstate the “power of people” helping the “power of nature to heal itself” and celebrate commons as a promising solution to address climate change, for both global and local well-being.