P2P Foundation

Ethical Markets Wealth of Networks

Posted October 24, 2009

The economic rationale for ‘collaborative goods’: complementing Ostrom
Mark Cooper could easily have been the third leg of the stool of the recent Nobel Prize for economics, which rewarded research into the economic rationale of non-market modes.

Thanks to Jaap van Till for reminding us of a commentary on a landmark essay on the rationale for choosing collaborative goods. The commentary by Harold Feld stresses the key explanation of different types of goods.

Essay: Journal on Law and High Technology (2006) – The Political Economy of Collaborative Production in the Digital Information Age. By Mark Cooper.

Harold Feld:

“Open source software and open spectrum have created multibillion dollar industries, so it will probably come as a surprise to folks that it shouldn’t work. Why? Because under the current dominant analysis in econmic theory, the open source and open spectrum models should eventually collapse under their own success. When the community is small, goes current thinking, collaborative models can work well. But as the potential value of the product grows, as the number of participants makes it harder for the commnity to self-police conduct, as free riders are able to capture benefit without contributing, the system should collapse and require reversion to the classic private property model. Which is why open source and open spectrum have suffered a classic “tragedy of the commons” and died.

Except they haven’t. New open source products continue to get made, as do new open spectrum products and technologies. Despite increasing congestion and a concomitant increase in the number of bad actors seting up networks without coordination with neighbors (technically known in economics as “a-holes”), wireless networks continue to deploy and provide solid, reliable service.

The natural conclusion is to laugh at ecnomists and keep using linux and 2.4 GHz equipment. But it is rather dangerous to laugh at economists for a variety of reasons. Most important from my perspective is the impact on public policy. I go to the FCC and elswhere to promote the open spectrum model and push for rules to make it happen. I point to how well this model is working and how expansion of these policies will continue to promote billions of dollars in economic activity (oh yes, and the First Amendment too). Inevitably, I get push back with “sure, it has worked so far, but to get real investment in equipment and new services, we need exclusive licenses. Otherwise, big companies like Motorola and Qualcom won’t invest and the spectrum will go to waste.” Similarly, when folks push open source solutions for government applications, one push back is “sure, this stuff works for some applications and it’s nice when it happens, but you can’t rely on people developing what you need unless they can capture all the value. For that you need proprietary solutions.”

The other thing is, frankly, it would be a lot more reassuring to understand why this stuff works when theory says it shouldn’t it. After all, neoclassical economics didn’t enjoy a resurgence merely because big corporations and conservative foundations funded it. It has a good track record in reality. If nothing else, a new theory that explains how things like open source and open spectrum work economically could tell us how to create policies that make them happen more often, where appropriate.

Enter Mark Cooper. Unless you’re a policy wonk, you’ve probably never heard of Mark Cooper. Cooper is Director of Research at Consumer Federation of America and has bascially been the “go to” guy for hard-core economc analysis in energy and telecom for the public interest side since I can remember. He’s one of the sharpest thinkers and prolific writers I know. And Cooper has finally developed a theoretical basis for the sustainability of open source, open spectrum, and other collaborative models.

Others have tackled piecesof this issue before, and at varying levels of complexity, from Eric Raymond’s classic “The Cathedral and the Bazzar” to Yochai Benkler’s “Some Economics of Open Spectrum.” But Cooper is the first to take open source, open spectrum (and, in an upcoming work, peer-to-peer) and explain that these are neither transient anomolies or one-time flukes of circumstance. Rather, they represent rational economic decisionmaking that takes advantage of how new technologies have altered traditional cost and incentive calculi.

To try to squeeze this down to basics.

Neo-classical economics focuses primarily on two types of goods (recognizing that ‘goods’ can apply to any set of services or rights of action). The first is “private goods.” Private goods are marked by their scarcity (which gives them value), excludability (the owner of the good can exclude others from their use) and consumability (when I use them up, they are gone). Public goods are marked by their lack of excludability and the fact that they are not consumed. There is also no incremental cost in adding a new user (which is derived in part from their lack of consumability).

To provide an example of a “public good,” consider broadcast television signals. It costs as much to produce the signal (not the receiver equipment, mind) if only one person receives it as if a million people receive it.

Neo-classical economics argues that public goods will not be produced unless we can find some way to give exlusive private rights to the producer. Otherwise, I, the producer, have no incentive to produce the good, since I can’t derive profit from them. In the case of a broadcast television signal, law gives me excludability of the content via copyright.

In addition, there is something called a “network effect.” This holds that the more people are plugged into the network, the more valuable the network is. Thus, the ability to exclude people/content becomes much more important as the network gets larger.

This is broadcast television. Initially, the networks paid the local broadcasters to carry their content. Once that content became popular, the programming networks could exercise greater control because access to the programming had become so valuable.

Cooper identifies a new kind of good called a “collaborative good.” A collaborative good exhibits properties like a public good in that it is not consumed, and exhibits networks effects in that it grows more valuable the more people use it. As a result, there is no such thing as a “free rider” problem. Everone who uses the good enhances its power (and therefore the value I receive as the producer of the good/service). In addition, the collaborative nature of the project allows me to distribute costs of production and receive benefits from others, giving me further incentive to participate under a set of collaborative rules rather than under a set of competitive rules. My value increases through collaboration, and actually decreases if I try to enforce exclusivity.

This is a function of changes in technology, not changes in human nature. We haven’t all suddenly become cooperative altruists. But technology has changed the cost and nature of production and distribution, creating a rational incentive to collaborate rather than compete. Such changes have happend before. In the turn of the last century, economist tried to understand why corporations had become the dominant form for economic activity. This created a puzzle for economists because it separated ownership (dispersed among shareholders) from control (held by corporate officers), a hitherto unthinkable thing. Why would you own something if you couldn’t control it. The answer- because this lets me have a potentially signifcant reward while risking only modest capital — may seem intuitively obvious now, but it was not then. Similarly, people wondered how corporations could continue to grow in the face of increased costs of size and coordination. Ronald Coase, supplied an answer in 1937 that firms will grow as long as they reduce costs by reducing transactional costs and this gain overcomes any other costs or inefficiencies.

So we know that economic incentives and costs are not static and can change over time. To propose that new technologies have further reduced transaction costs is not, as some critics argue, to suggest that human nature has changed or that the laws of profit and loss have suddenly been reversed. This is not some new economy version of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” Rather, it is an evolution in looking to how a technology that radically changes the economics of production and distribution is reflected in the new incentives for production and distribution. Just as technology made mass production feesible and changed how people did business, so have changes in the information technology.

This does not eliminate the need for rules, but it does suggest different rules than under the neo-classical economic model. Rather than emphasizing private rights and enhancing the ability of those with private rights to exclude others, rules for collaborative goods should facilitate collaboration and prohibit (or at least make more difficult) excludability. This will prevent the cooption of the total collaborative value by a single bad actor.

Also, it is important to note that not all goods are colaborative goods. Indeed, not even all goods in information services or spectrum use are necessarily collaborative goods. Cooper does not claim we have come to the end of private property, and new rules should allow people to share your lawn or even your computer when you are not using it. But he does argue that we should (a) recognize the existence of collaborative goods, and (b) create rules that allow for the development of collaborative goods, rather than continue to mindless expand the ability to exclude and privatize under the neo-classic tautology that private rights are invairably the best way to encourage economic efficiencies and production of goods.”

Why Monetary (Re-)Design is Important
Great explanation by Eric Harris-Braun of why the design of currency is so important.

“Recently I’ve had some discussions about our MetaCurrency work with folks trained in economics. For some reason it seems particularly hard for some of them to grok what we’re up to. More than once I’ve been told that working on changing the money system “hooey” and is barking up the wrong tree because “money simply facilitates trades,” and that’s it. Well, here’s another statement: “cars simply facilitate moving stuff.” Like the idea that “money simply facilitates trades” it is true for a narrow range of inquiry. But for even a slightly broader range of inquiry both of these statements are false. What’s so interesting to is how hard it is in the case of money, to see that that statement is being made in a narrow context at all!

In the case of the technology of cars we know that the details of the technology itself has huge systemic implications. The CO2 produced by the internal combustion engines they run on has large consequences to the health of the planet’s ecosystems. The specific effects of cars as a facilitator of moving stuff around vs. for example trains & and various other communal methods, or horses and buggies for that matter, have large consequences to the health of human social ecosystems.

You can’t ignore the details of the technology in the case of cars, nor can you in the case of money. Both are technologies who’s specifics make huge difference. What’s weird is that by and large people don’t even seem to think that money HAS any specifics. But it does. The currency alphabet that we’ve talking about (or currency literacy) is about getting the semantic and conceptual tools in our heads to see those specifics re money, so we can actually create forms of them that don’t have the pernicious side effects. On top of that we’re claiming that the best way to use such an alphabet is in an open, distributed, and democratic context, not a centralized one.

I see this situation is as if we lived in a society where we had invented cars, but we still had absolutely no idea how the production of CO2 by internal combustion could be responsible for climate change. We have created money, but we don’t realize that the form of issuance of that money (debt based issuance), has very large side-effects. We don’t really know why there isn’t money for health care and education, we don’t know why fundamentally our financial systems crash all the time. But it turns out that there are lots of other ways of issuing money into circulation (as there are other types of engines for cars), that don’t have the same side-effects. My claim is that many, many of the fundamental patterns of our society are largely driven by the systemics that spin out from that basic axiom of debt based central issuance. If you change that one thing, lots of other things change. But it goes further than that too, just like in the case of cars as “facilitators of moving stuff.” You can change out the engines to all be fuel cell electrics and thus solve the CO2 problem, but if we keep cars in place as our main way of moving people around we still have a huge range of social problems created by traffic, commuting, segregation of life into bedroom-suburbs and business centers, etc. And it goes even further, we pave over thousands of acres of arable land for cars. There are safety issues in using cars. They kill people and animals in ways that other transportation systems don’t. They consume a scarce fuel resources which sets up other dependency relationships. They are built of metals which are getting increasingly scarce. They change the way people not in cars behave while moving around the world, and the list goes on. Just as it does with money, when you start to dig in deeper.

So I can see how all of this would seem to some economists as “hooey.” If you are a traffic engineer, then any talk of switching out engines in cars as if it were meaningful is indeed hooey. It doesn’t make a difference in that narrow context of getting cars to flow through intersections.

So although it may be true that money “simply facilitates trades,” oversimplifying it in this way completely ignores other very real effects which emerge from money and our decisions about how we issue it, manage it and transact it. Different currencies change the rules about those things and although they may still facilitate trades, they can completely change all the ancillary “side-effects.”

Intentional design of currencies is about waking up to the fact that these things are indeed not just “side-effects” but “actual systemic effects” and we should be responsible for them in similar ways that we need to be responsible for all those “side-effects” of using cars to move stuff. We can’t ignore those these “side-effects” and have a livable planet, livable economies or livable communities. Yet looking at money in this way is completely (and possibly intentionally) outside the scope of traditional economics. Traditional economics seems to look at things like this in terms of “externalities,” and certainly there is a loud cry from within traditional economics for accounting for externalities and moving them into the system. And some economist seem to get the deeper issue.”

Supporting indigenous communities and biodiversity against the enclosure of the commons
For indigenous communities, biodiversity has always been a local, commonly shared resource on which they have been dependent for their livelihood. The current moves in many countries of the South to introduce new intellectual property laws under the GATT/WTO agreements to, in effect, ‘enclose’ these ‘commons’ and bring them under a regime of private property and patents for the benefit of corporations, are a grave threat to their very survival.

An important text by Vandana Shiva:

” THE ‘enclosure’ of biodiversity and knowledge is the final step in a series of enclosures that began with the rise of colonialism. Land and forests were the first resources to be ‘enclosed’ and converted from commons to commodities. Later on, water resources were ‘enclosed’ through dams, groundwater mining and privatisation schemes. Now it is the turn of biodiversity and knowledge to be ‘enclosed’ through intellectual property rights (IPRs).

The destruction of commons was essential for the industrial revolution, to provide a supply of natural resources for raw material to industry. A life-support system can be shared, it cannot be owned as private property or exploited for private profit. The commons, therefore, had to be privatised, and people’s sustenance base in these commons had to be appropriated, to feed the engine of industrial progress and capital accumulation.

The enclosure of the commons has been called the revolution of the rich against the poor. However, enclosures are not just a historical episode that occurred in 16th century in England. The enclosure of the commons can be a guiding metaphor for understanding conflicts being generated by the expansion of IPR systems to biodiversity.

The policy of deforestation and the enclosure of commons which started in England, was later replicated in the colonies in India. The first Indian Forest Act was passed in 1865 by the Supreme Legislative Council, which authorised the government to declare forests and wastelands (’benap’ or unmeasured lands) as reserved forests. The introduction of this legislation marks the beginning of what is called the ’scientific management’ of forests; it amounted basically to the formalisation of the erosion both of forests and of the rights of local people to forest produce. Though the forests were converted into state property, forest reservation was in fact an enclosure because it converted a common resource into a commercial one. The state merely mediated in the privatisation.

In the colonial period peasants were forced to grow indigo instead of food, salt was taxed to provide revenues for the British military, and meanwhile, forests were being enclosed to transform them into state monopolies for commercial exploitation. In the rural areas, the effects on the peasants were the gradual erosion of usufruct rights (nistar rights) of access, of food, fuel, and livestock grazing from the community’s common lands. The marginalisation of peasant communities’ rights over their forests, sacred groves and ‘wastelands’ has been the prime cause of their impoverishment.

Biodiversity has always been a local commonly owned and utilised resource for indigenous communities. A resource is common property when social systems exist to use it on the principles of justice and sustainability. This involves a combination of rights and responsibilities among users, a combination of utilisation and conservation, a sense of co-production with nature and sharing them among members of diverse communities. They do not view their heritage in terms of property at all, i.e. a good which has an owner and is used for the purpose of extracting economic benefits, but instead they view it in terms of possessing community and individual responsibility. For indigenous peoples, heritage is a bundle of relationships rather than a bundle of economic rights. That is the reason no concept of ‘private property’ exists among the communities for common resources.

Within indigenous communities, despite some innovations being first introduced by individuals, innovation is seen as a social and collective phenomena and results of innovation are freely available to anyone who wants to use them. Consequently, not only the biodiversity but its utilisation have also been in the commons, being freely exchanged both within and between communities. Common resource knowledge based innovations have been passed on over centuries to new generations and adopted for newer uses, and these innovations have over time been absorbed into the common pool of knowledge about that resource. This common pool of knowledge has contributed immeasurably to the vast agricultural and medicinal plant diversity that exists today. Thus, the concept of individual ‘property’ rights to either the resource or to knowledge remain alien to the local community. This undoubtedly exacerbates the usurpation of the knowledge of indigenous people with serious consequences for them and for biodiversity conservation.

The Western bias in defining property rights

Today we have to look beyond the state and the market place to protect the rights of the two-thirds majority of India – the rural communities . Empowering the community with rights would enable the recovery of commons again. Commons are resources shaped, managed and utilised through community control. In the commons, no one can be excluded. The commons cannot be monopolised by the economically powerful citizen or corporation, or by the politically powerful state.

Commons and communities are beyond both the market and the state. They are governed by self-determined norms, and are self managed. In the ‘colonial’ and ‘development’ era, the commons were enclosed and community power undermined by takeover by the state. Thus, water and forests were made state property, leading to the alienation of local communities, and the destruction of the resource base. Poverty, ecological destruction and social disintegration and political disempowerment have been the result of such state-driven ‘enclosures’.

In the globalisation era, the commons are being enclosed and the power of communities is being undermined by a corporate enclosure in which life itself is being transformed into the private property of corporations. The corporate enclosure is happening in two ways. Firstly, IPR systems are allowing the ‘enclosure’ of biodiversity and knowledge, thus eroding the commons and the community. Secondly, the corporation is being treated as the only form of association with legal personality.

IPRs are the equivalent of the letters patent that the colonisers have used since 1492, when Colombus set precedence in treating the licence to conquer non-European peoples as a natural right of European men. The land titles issued by the Pope through European kings and queens were the first patents. Charters and patents issued to merchant adventurers were authorisations to ‘discover, find, search out and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people’. The colonisers’ freedom was built on the slavery and subjugation of the people with original rights to the land. This violent takeover was rendered ‘natural’ by defining the colonised people into nature, thus denying them their humanity and freedom.

Locke’s treatise on property effectively legitimised this same process of theft and robbery during the enclosure movement in Europe. Locke clearly articulates capitalism’s freedom to build on the freedom to steal; he states that property is created by removing resources from nature through mixing with labour in its ’spiritual’ form as manifested in the control of capital. According to Locke, only capital can add value to appropriated nature, and hence only those who own the capital have the natural right to own natural resources; a right that supersedes the common rights of others with prior claims. Capital is thus, defined as a source of freedom, but this freedom is based on the denial of freedom to the land, forests, rivers and biodiversity that capital claims as its own. Because property obtained through privatisation of commons is equated with freedom, those commoners laying claim to it are perceived to be depriving the owners of capital of freedom. Thus, peasants and tribals who demand the return of their rights and access to resources are regarded as thieves and saboteurs.

The takeover of territories and land in the past, and the takeover of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge now has been based on ‘emptying’ land and biodiversity of all relationships to indigenous people.

All sustainable cultures, in their diversity, have viewed the earth as terra mater (mother earth). The colonial construct of the passivity of the earth and the consequent creation of the colonial category of land as terra nullius (nobody’s land), served two purposes: it denied the existence and prior rights of original inhabitants and negated the regenerative capacity and life processes of the earth.

In Australia, the concept of terra nullius (literally meaning ‘empty land’) was used to justify the appropriation of land and its natural resources, by declaring the entire continent of Australia uninhabited. This declaration enabled the colonisers to privatise the commons relatively easily, because as far as they were concerned, there were no commons existing in the first place!

The decimation of indigenous peoples everywhere was justified morally on the grounds that they were not really human; and that they were part of the fauna. As Pilger has observed, the Encyclopedia Britannica appeared to be in no doubt about this in the context of Australia: ‘Man in Australia is an animal of prey. More ferocious than the lynx, the leopard, or the hyena, he devours his own people.’ In another Australian textbook, Triumph in the Tropics, Australian aborigines were equated with their half-wild dogs. Being animals, the original Australians and Americans, the Africans and Asians possessed no rights as human beings. Their lands could be usurped as terra nullius – lands empty of people, ‘vacant’, ‘waste’, and ‘unused’. The morality of the missions justified the military takeover of resources all over the world to serve imperial markets. European men were thus able to describe their invasions as ‘discoveries’, piracy and theft as ‘trade’, and extermination and enslavement as their ‘civilising mission’.

Whether it is the gradual privatisation and divisibility of community held rights or the declaration of terra nullius, the transformation of common property rights into private property rights, implies the exclusion of the right to survival for large sections of society. The realisation that under conditions of limited availability, uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources involves taking away resources from those who need them for survival, has been an underlying element of Indian philosophy. Prudent and restrained use of resources has been viewed as an essential element of social justice.

According to an ancient Indian text, the Ishopanishad:

‘A selfish man over utilising the resources of nature to satisfy his own ever increasing needs is nothing but a thief because using resources beyond one’s needs would result in the utilisation of resources over which others have a right.’

This relationship between restraint in resource use and social justice was also the core element of Mahatma Gandhi’s political philosophy. In his view:

‘The earth provides enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.’

The eurocentric concept of property views only capital investment as investment, and hence treats returns on capital investment as the only right that needs protection. Non-Western indigenous communities and cultures recognise that investment can also be of labour or of care and nurturance. Rights in such cultural systems protect investments beyond capital. They protect the culture of conservation and the culture of caring and sharing.

There are major differences between ownership of resources shaped in Europe during the enclosures movement and during colonial takeover, and ‘ownership’ as it has been practised by tribals and farmers throughout history across diverse societies. The former is based on ownership as private property, based on concepts of returns on investment for profits. The latter is based on entitlements through usufruct rights, based on concepts of return on labour to provide for ourselves, our children, our families, our communities. Usufruct rights can be privately held or held in common. When held in common, they define common property.

Equity is built into usufruct rights since ownership is based on returns on labour. The poor have survived in India in spite of having no access to capital because they have had guaranteed access to the resource base needed for sustenance – common pastures, water, and biodiversity. Sustainability and justice is built into usufructuary rights since there are physical limits on how much one can labour and hence there are limits on returns on investment of labour and return on investment. Inequity is built into private property based on ownership of capital since there is no limit on how much capital one can own and control and invest.

IPRs as an extension of the eurocentric concept of property to biodiversity and biodiversity-related knowledge

The culturally biased and narrow notions of rights and property that have shaped IPRs are inadequate and inappropriate for indigenous cultures and for the objective of conserving biodiversity and cultural diversity. Through IPRs and TRIPs a particular eurocentric culture has been universalised and globalised. When applied to biodiversity, such narrow concepts of rights become mechanisms for denying the intrinsic worth of diverse species, and denying the prior rights and prior innovations of indigenous communities.

The thrust of the Western IPR regimes in the area of biodiversity is diametrically opposed to indigenous knowledge systems. Knowledge is considered to be the produce of individual creativity, based on Western scientific thought and systems of knowledge creation and gathering whereby the resource base is merely viewed as ‘raw material’. In this paradigm IPRs represent the property rights to the products of mind, thereby resulting in knowledge and creativity being so narrowly defined that the creativity of nature and non-Western knowledge systems have been ignored.

The two categories of IPRs that have a direct impact on the erosion of prior rights of communities are patents and plant breeders’ rights. Plant breeders’ rights negate the contribution of Third World farmers as breeders and hence undermine farmers’ rights. Patents allow the usurpation of indigenous knowledge as a Western invention through minor tinkering or trivial translation.

The Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plant (UPOV) Convention represents a Western-devised (therefore internationally ‘acceptable’) form of plant variety protection, other than patenting.

A frequent comment heard in scientific and lay circles, is that ‘we should patent all our traditional knowledge and biodiversity’. However, neither traditional knowledge nor biodiversity can be patented by indigenous practitioners because for indigenous societies, it is not ‘novel’, it is ancient.

The reason that the collective and cumulative innovation of millions of people of thousands of years can be ‘pirated’ and claimed as an ‘innovation’ of Western-trained scientists or corporations is because of two reasons. The first reason is the colonial hangover of the idea that science is unique to the West, and indigenous knowledge systems cannot be treated as scientific.

The second reason is that countries like the US, where most pirated indigenous innovations are filed for patenting, do not recognise the existing knowledge of other countries as prior art. Thus, while patent regimes offer no protection to indigenous communities for their common innovation and their common resources, they allow the appropriation of their biodiversity and knowledge by scientists and commercial interests of other cultures, including members of the ‘modern’ scientific culture in their own societies.

IPR systems evolved in industrialised countries and reflected in the TRIPs agreement only recognise Western knowledge systems as scientific and formal and non-Western knowledge systems are regarded as unscientific and informal. The creation of monopoly rights to biodiversity utilisation through its claim to the creation of ‘novelty’ can have serious implications for erosion of national and community rights to biodiversity and devaluation of India’s indigenous knowledge. TRIPs gives countries the option of formulating its own sui generis regime for plants as an alternative to patent protection . Collective rights can be a strong candidate for such sui generis systems for agricultural biodiversity and medicinal plant biodiversity. Therefore, it is crucial that community-held and utilised biodiversity knowledge systems are accorded legal recognition as the ‘common property’ owned by the communities concerned. Building such an alternative is essential to prevent biodiversity and knowledge monopolisation by an unbalanced mechanistic and non-innovative implementation of TRIPs or in response to Special 301 threats from the US.

Examination of existing national and international legal community rights legislation reveals that there are no binding legal instruments or standards that adequately grant rights to indigenous people’s collective knowledge and innovations thereby protecting their knowledge from biopiracy. That is not to say there is no scope for such developments. To the contrary, trends and precedents set in the area of international indigenous rights legislation and case law signify a strong movement in this direction, with several significant judgments being passed in recent years.

The CBD, an instrument passed in 1992, represents the boldest move in the direction of recognising indigenous knowledge traditions and innovations. The Convention deals specifically with biodiversity and makes biodiversity conservation the obligation of member states. It also recognises the role of local communities and tribals in conservation of knowledge for biological wealth.

In the preamble, the Convention states:

‘that contracting parties recognise the close and traditional dependence of many indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles on biological resources and the desirability of sharing equitable benefits arising from the use of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices, relevant to the conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of its components.’

Right to enact laws

The Convention not only recognises the sovereign rights of the nation state to biodiversity and the method of its utilisation through Articles 3 and 4, but also gives them right to enact their own laws for protecting their biodiversity, in a manner best suited to their particular needs and priorities.

The UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 1993 yet to be adopted by the UN General Assembly, promises to strengthen the position of indigenous collective rights considerably. For instance, Article 29 states:

‘Indigenous people are entitled to the recognition of the full ownership, control and protection of their cultural and intellectual property…’

Despite the Draft Declaration constituting a non-binding status, the articles indicate a strong international consensus on the positive assertion of indigenous community rights. It will provide a powerful tool in changing attitudes as well as a focus for dialogue and debate at the national and international level.

The Fourth Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in 1996 by FAO, produced the Leipzig Declaration on ‘farmers’ rights’. This Declaration gives legal recognition to farmers’ innovation in contributing to the rich diversity of agricultural crops in the world. The central objective of farmers’ rights is to ensure control of and access to agricultural biodiversity by local communities, so that they can continue to further sustainably develop their farming systems.

It is quite evident that there is a lack of fit between the structure of commons and communities, and the structure of Western, especially US concepts of rights and property.

If commons and communities do not fit into the narrow, non-sustainable and parochial framework of eurocentric jurisprudence, then it is that framework that needs changing rather than the collective nature of rights of communities.

The challenge at the end of 500 years of colonialism and 50 years of independence and the threshold of the third millennium is to evolve a millennium perspective on the environment, and on people’s rights instead of being enslaved by the colonial paradigms that have emerged over the last 500 years of colonial rule.”

The above article is an edited extract from a longer version which appeared in The Enclosure and Recovery of the Commons published by The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, India. Vandana Shiva is a scientist and activist. She is also a contributing editor for Third World Resurgence. (TWR 84 – August 1997)