Archive for the 'commons' Category

A new language for the commons

Friday, October 21st, 2011

a new operational language of direct democracy, developed in the last decade in thousands of occasions of commoning at the heart of new social movements, and inspired by the practices that for hundreds of years have been at the heart of indigenous commons, are now presented to the world in the form of a movement challenging global capital . . . now, I think this is damn important!

Mother Earth, states and commons: reflections on “el cumbre”

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Some history

Fifteen years ago, I attended the First Encuentro for Humanity against Neoliberalism, called by the Zapatistas and held in the Lacandonian jungle, Chiapas, Mexico. The Encuentro has been an inspirational event for many of us who participated, for so many reasons. Overall, it started to crack open the claustrophobic feeling we had in the middle of the so called “end of history”, giving us a perspective that perhaps history was once again just beginning, as many activists started to draw their attention to the modes and cultures of struggles against capitalism advanced by indigenous people. Retrospectively, if there was one thing that the Encuentro definitively achieved, was to inject the seed of indigenous democratic method and consensus seeking among a quite diverse set of people, it brought a different set of sensibilities and measures to decision making among political animals. In other word, it planted the seed of the commons into political processes, which, especially in the West, at the time where dominated by the self-imposed ghettos of identity politics and “identity-ideologies”. In fifteen years, this seed has grown through encuentros, nurtured by collectives, flourished in social fora and social movement assemblies, and became the subject of controversy in the dichotomising battles among “verticals” and “horizontals”, socialists and anarcho-autonomists, as in the preparatory period of the European Social Forum held in London in 2004. It was the job of an indigenous president — the first in the history of Bolivia — to embrace the dichotomy, overcome the sterile aspects of this opposition and give it instead productive contents. To the point that on the last day of the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, shortly El Cumbre (April 19-22), I even found myself - old “horizontalist” as I am -  on the front row of a hectic crowd on the football pitch of the Cochabamba Stadium cheering with chants and flag weaving at Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez (well, I was still cautiously cheering, OK?).

Indeed, one of the things that most impressed me of this conference is the political genius of this president and his team in bringing together a diverse global social movement and finding a way to articulate its energies, expertise and powers to a political process dominated by state politics, i.e. the UN decision making on climate change. And we definitively needed something like this, because unlike the successful struggles against WTO or neoliberal globalisation in the past years, here the social movements do not simply want to wreck negotiations and to say “no” to a model of capitalism (neoliberalism). Here the social movements wants concrete actions that not only are up to the task of drastically and rapidly reducing greenhouse gasses emissions, but also and at the same time that are socially just. Therefore, a wide and diverse spectrum of social movements want the end of capitalism (without which no drastic reduction of greenhouse emission is possible) and the constitution of something new (without which no social justice is possible). Never as in this moment the “shadow of the future” cast by global warming has been giving urgency to the need of an emancipatory project: “Socialism o barbarie”, as Hugo Chavez endless repeated Rosa Luxemburg classic warning, but also, “Madre Tierra o Muerte”, or, which is the same thing, the “rights of Mother Earth” or the “rights of capitalism”.


You may call it co-optation, but  I am not sure about it, not yet at least. Co-optation is when a social movement and its aspirations are diverted or used for different purposes than the original one, as when wage struggles against capital are for example turned into means for its development (and wage cuts somewhere else). Surely, there is no doubt that this conference has allowed Evo Morales to score so many political points, both internally and externally, as many activists have kept repeating me. However, both the broad goals and, to a very large extent, the means of this conference — the decision making process giving rise to the documents — are aligned and shared among a wide spectrum of participants, social movements activists, state officials and NGOs.

The success of the conference is unquestionable, at least from the perspective of participation. People from more than 140 countries attended (although definitively less Africans and Asians), more that 40 different official government delegations (at different level), more than 30000 participants, and a huge amount of coca leaves freely distributed by the stand of the Presidency along the fair on the road of the University campus. I wished our European socialist politicians were so open minded and respectful of our own traditions and begun distributing free marijuana leaves in their festivals, denouncing the hypocrisy surrounding the illegality of this magic leaf, and defending its contribution to humanity for health and peace. I would start to have more respect for them!

For those who wanted to do some work and contribute to the final document,  the process was inclusive and participatory. Together with many who have registered at the conference, about a month earlier I have received an invitation to start discussing via electronic mail in the tables of work (mesa) I had selected. On the first day of the conference, I joined  my table of work among the 17 (well actually 18, but about this see below) available — mesa 9, on “shared visions”, i.e. the  vision shared within the movement that could be agreed on in terms of degrees of global warming targets to be reached and the broad actions on structural causes which were necessary to be undertaken. For a list of all the different mesa, see here,2-. From the very start, it was clear to me that the facilitator that welcomed us was  appointed by the government, and in fact I found out later she worked for two ministries,  environment and external relations. It was also clear that her training and sensibilities where quite attuned with having to deal with a heterogeneous crowd trying to reach consensus. We elected not one, but two presidents, a man and a woman, from two different continents. We also formally elected two secretaries, in charge of writing up the entire thing, and to take extensive notes of the debate, but we simply relied on the two people who where already there when we got there. We kept the document that the facilitator (one of the two secretaries) put together following the month long contributions on emal as the working document from which to start the discussion. This allowed us to have a basis with which to highlight disagreement among ourselves, ways to define common points and identify important things left out that  needed to be included. The discussion indeed begun and proceeded in a way and with a spirit that I can only judge as a refinement of the knowledge we gained in dozens of international encuentros where documents where the result of consensus among participants. The time at our disposal was not much. Yet, in less than three days of face to face discussion for each of 17 mesa, it was possible  to produce a coherent final document. At the end of each session, the presidents and the secretaries of each mesa met and shared their results. Their work was coordinated in such a way as to avoid repetition and inconsistencies among the tables, as well as allowing each specialised table to reach the conclusion of its competence, and possibly, integrate the general points of these conclusions in other tables’ documents if necessary. This method seemed to work well and to make sense, allowing for both the “sovereignty” of each table of work on specific topics, and at the same time allowing for some degree of cross-fertilisatin.

Participants came from diverse background, from scientists to mainstream NGOs activists, from members of autonomous groups, to representative of indigenous communities, Bolivian MPs, trade unionists and soldiers. Yes, soldiers, and soldiers in real uniforms, not those of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army! I asked an officer from the Air Force why they were there, and he looked at me as if I was out of space: “because we are also part of the people!” If I did not see his uniform, the words in his interventions would have been taken as pretty much standard global justice radical speech. True, the lower ranks where ordered to participate, but they where students in a military school, and this is no different than me “ordering” my students to come to class (via the bureaucratically enforced monitoring of attendance).

The final document was painfully crafted and went through three drafts, each one debated and refined by a new session of the working group. Obvious differences in working methodologies occured, and tricks were attempted, like when some people tried to put in their favoured words at the end of an exhausting section when agreement was already taken to leave them out. Fortunately, as it is often the case,  common sense prevailed. The final documents of all 17 mesa where then debated in a final plenary session in the colosseum of the Valle University and finally formally aproved. A resume of 2 paragraph for each table of work was then collected by the chairs and reported back on the final day to the mesa “dialogo pueblos-gobiernos” attended by two presidents (Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez), and a string of other official state delegations from vice-presidents (Cuban Esteban Lazo) down to some obvious Junior state officials from Europe. The event, that I could only see streamed life in the press room, had all the architecture and feel of an official coupling between social movements and states, in which activists’ lay-backdedness and state formality lived together around a huge square table covered in white drapes. The  report back of the presidents of the mesas was then followed by speeches of the higher state authorities present in the room, namely from Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. The speeches had their boring rhetorical moments, but there also were fine moments, like when the Ecuador representative announced that in “retaliation” for US withdrawal of $2.5 million in aid to Ecuador because Ecuador did not sign the Copenhagen agreement, they would offer $2.5 million to the US if its government is willing to sign the Kyoto agreement. Or when Hugo Chavez proposed to institute a fund to allow activists, especially from the South, to participate in the protests at the UN meeting on climate change next November  in Cancoon and to fund a global campaign, and jokingly turned to the Ecuadorian representative asking for some million.

But I think that one cannot better convey the feeling of being witnessing a quite unique contradictory moment than with the image of an indigenous woman wearing a large green via campesina handkerchief on top of her traditional clothing while she sit on the same large table with all government delegates and argues that the indigenous and campesinos ways to produce food is the only one compatible with the preservation of Mother Earth. The final document of the “peoples agreement” combining all tables of work can be found here, while the conclusions of all the 17 working groups are here,2-

Anti-capitalism and Mother-Earth

Evo Morales was definitively right in saying that the difference between the meetings in Copenhagen and in Cochabamba is that we were debating here the causes of the climate change, and not only the effects, and that the causes have a lot to do with the system of boundless accumulation we know as  capitalism. And when boundlessness is acknowledged, it is as easy as 1+1 = 2 to say that finite earth is threatened by such a system. “Either capitalism dies, or mother earth dies” or “either capitalism lives or mother earth lives”, as Evo put it in his speech. No, there is no much room for playing the postmodern game here and denounce the polarity. As the newspaper Opinion titles in its resume at the end of the conference (25 April), “everybody against capitalism” seem to be the clear common ground at this conference, a sentiment so strong, that even the representatives of mainstream NGOs did not dare to question it.

But there is more to this common ground than simply an opposition to capitalism. There is the question of earth conceptualised and discursively constructed as mother, as Mother Earth. I assume this will be a hard thing to digest among many Western activists and, in general, socialists with excessive “scientific” leanings. Or, if not hard to digest, at least easy to avoid dealing with. I am already seeing reports in which the term “Mother Earth” is only left in the title of the conference, while in the discursive description references are made to “nature” or “environment” only.  Let us see how many Western socialist newspapers will use the terms substantially like the indigenous here, or how many will try to conceptually translated it. To me, the terms Mother Earth  is undoubtedly a very important term, because it constructs a framework within which we can conceive both the opposition and the alternatives to capitalism, while at  the same time bringing into revolutionary politics the dimension of the sacred (i.e. of the limit) — with the bonus of not having to deal with a religion, whether hierarchically organised or not! The expression “Mother earth” was apparently chosen instead of Pachamama for better conveying the message to non Andean people, but I was told that the two carry similar meanings. When one French-Indian activist suggested in a meeting to use other expressions such as biodiversity to make it more appealable to other cultures, the objection he received is that the term “Mother Earth” has now been accepted even by the United Nation, that - following the proposal by the Bolivian Government last year — has instituted Mother Earth day on 22 April. Which made me think that perhaps this conference has been on planning more than few months!

Mother Earth is different than expressions such as “earth”, or “environment” for at least three interrelated reasons. First, it defines a common genealogy shared among all living beings (as well as a common telos, in so far as our bodies will all dissolve into earth basic elements and will be re-articulated into its processes when we die).  Second, it defines a set of relations and processes (ecologies) that comprise humans and other species, but also water, mountains, seas. In this sense, the slogan often repeated at the conference is well pointed: “the earth does not belong to humans, humans belong to earth.” Third, it defines a relational field and a set of processes at a scale that comprises and bounds pretty much everything, including the human processes that goes under the name of capitalism. If this boundary is not accepted, if we do not socially enforce it, if we do not give it the character of a taboo, than this is it, “mummy gets angry”, and fights back.  The planet will exist after us, as it existed for million of years before, but there will be nobody to call it “mother” or anything else.  If we needed to find a limit to capitalism, well we didn’t need to look further than our own condition of existence and reproduction, i.e. what is called here Mother Earth! We have now simply to become its voice, as another slogan puts it. [Note: while I am writing this I run against a newspaper article reporting just the opposite view. The Feministas Comunitaris de Bolivia  “denounced that the understanding of Pachamama as synonym of Mother Earth is ‘reductionist and machista, and that makes reference only to fertility in order to keep women and Pachamama under patriarchal domination’”. The argument claims this on the basis that instead Pachamama is a “whole that goes  much beyond the visible nature  . . .and that includes life, the relations established within living beings, its energies, necessities and desires.” But this holistic and relational meaning is precisely the one that I gathered was given to the notion of Mother Earth in pretty much all interventions I heard and references to it, and not, as it is alleged, “as something that can be dominated and manipulated at the service of ‘development’ and of consumption.” (Feministas dicen que concepto de la Madre Tierra es machista, Opinion. 27 April 2010, p13A).  If it was the latter, the entire workings of the conference and the final document would not make any sense!]

But Mother Earth does not only serve as a boundary, as a limit to capitalism. Its conception as a living being, as a set of balancing processes and flows, rather than simply as “resources” to be capitalised, also implies that our own activity as humans is constituent part of the balancing processes. Hence, we need to somehow align the type of activities, goals and set of relations we construct in our economic activities, in other words, the modes of our production and reproduction, to the balancing processes of Mother Earth. And this especially now that we have reached a gigantic level of social production. This alignment however is not possible in presence of social injustice, because social injustice is itself both the result and the source of imbalance. This alignment also is not possible through development, since development as we know it is a source of social injustice. Hence the conundrum is generally resolved with the conception of Bien Vivir, a notion that has found its way into the Ecuadorian and Bolivian recent constitutional changes and that frames pretty much the broad horizons of alternatives.

Bien Vivir

In our working table we had a round of opinions of what bien vivir meant to different people. Here is a list of basic terms I have collected: to live in harmony, to breathe good air, to “be concerned when my brother or sister does not have food to eat”, to live together:  convivir, to share: compartir, to live in harmony within the family or the community, to problematise how to live together. There is a general correspondence with the understanding of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and bien vivir. Indeed, the idea of bien vivir  moves from the rejection of an anthropocentric idea that human beings are at the centre, and instead moves from the recognition that we are part of a system, and we live in complementarity with one another and other life forms. In other words, bien vivir is definitively not classic socialism with its fetishisation of progress and faith in the endless human capability to control nature. Hence, the notion of reciprocity is crucial in bien vivir, as is symbolised in the Andean cross balancing the giving and taking of life processes. Reciprocity here applies to both relations among humans within a community and between humans and other forms of life (and indeed beyond).

Bien vivir comes from sumak kawsay, a Quechua word. In Aymara it is suma qamaña. The conception is intrinsically tied with the type of commoning of these and other indigenous communities, who organise in aillu, practice reciprocity and organise their unwaged community work as Mingas and Ayuni. Thus what is attempted through this conference is to translate this conception for social movements beyond the Andes, in such a way as to provide a framework within which to conceptualise social relations of production that are alternative to both capitalism and traditional socialism. And indigenous people here have some legitimacy to propose this framework. As put it by Boaventura De Sousa Santos (Democracy Now,) “the original people  . . .  have been excluded by all the Western modernity, but kept alive their lifestyles. And their lifestyles now, . . . show the world some signs of the future. They are not a part of the past; they are part of the future. It is no coincidence that 70 percent of the biodiversity of the world is located in the indigenous peoples’ territories.”

Thus, when we are talking about bien vivir, we are talking about commons, in that bien vivir is ultimately a set of relations and processes that can only be actualised as commoning, since you do not have “harmony” or “reciprocity” in capitalist markets or top down state relations. However, bien vivir is an open problematic of commons, and not a model of commons. In this sense, one thing that I think is not problematised sufficiently when this conception is used, is how to understand bien vivir in the context of state policies of development which ideologically embrace bien vivir (such as the Bolivian government) but then at the same time needs to develop  integration within the global economy (i.e. play the game of life-threatening competition) in order to gain cash and to meet the needs that cannot be met with domestic production. How is this entering global markets and drive to export oil, gas and minerals compatible with bien vivir?
Mesa 18
This aporia between bien vivir as relational field of commoning outside capitalist markets, and the process of development that the Bolivian state has to engage with in order to survive within the global political economy — which sees the development of exports, especially of extractive industries but also the development of manufacturing capacities — is a contradiction that has been manifested in the mesa 18, the so called “rebel mesa” that was not authorised to be inside the conference by the official organisers and that has been set up by CONAMAQ (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu,, to highlight the socio-environmental conflicts that the process of Bolivian development is sparking in spite of the anti-capitalist rhetoric. Its conclusions however are linked in the official site and can be found here ( Last accessed 25 April 2010).
The government dismissed the mesa on socio-environmental conflicts as only being relevant to a national audience, and justified by self-referentials NGOs and foundations. However, the international relevance of socio-environmental conflicts in Bolivia is obvious, in that the nature of these conflicts here are quite similar to what is happening in other parts of the world (for example, communities struggles against mine companies destroying water sources and polluting rivers) and it would have been crucial to problematise these conflicts in relation to  processes of political change and constitution of alternatives,  as it is the one that is supposedly occurring in Bolivia.
On the other hand, the mesa proponents seems to me are making too rushed  parallels between the Bolivian government policies and developmentalist policies of the past. In their final documents, proponents of mesa 18  explained that the mesa “was established as a necessary space for reflection and denunciation. . .  with the goal of deepening the reading on the local effects of global industrial capitalism.  We take responsibility to question the so called popular Latin American regimes and the predatory and consumerist logic, the logic of death of developmentalism and neo-extractivism.” In this sense, the role of the mesa is to denounce that “the development plans of these governments, including Bolivia, only reproduce the developmental pattern of the past” and argue that “to address climate change humanity must meet with their communitarian collective cultural roots; this means building a society based on collective ownership and community management and rational use of natural resources, in which it is the people who decide directly the fate of natural wealth according to their organizational structures, self-determination, their own rules and procedures and its vision of integrated management of their territories.” The means through which this path will be carved is through learning the lesson of history: “History teaches us that there is only one effective way to transform society and to build a socialist alternative to capitalism: social mobilization, learning and linking our struggles.”
Now, we can broadly share the vision, a society of self-determined commons in association with one another, if this is the society that meet Marx’s dictum of a society in which “the free development of one individual is the condition for the free development of all”. And we can also share the accent on the “need to make visible the contradictions” of current “popular” government development policies as “reflected in the socio-environmental conflicts.” But I think it is a bit too early to accuse Evo Morales government of being “reproducing the development pattern of the past” and “based in industrial development and consolidation of translational corporations, based on private property, individual profit and consumerism.” Just because oil and minerals are extracted and some form of industrialisation is part of the government agenda, does not mean to go back to the forced endless industrialisation of developmentalist governments. Especially if we consider that many of these programmes of industrialisation — like the development of lithium in the South — is something that campesinos communities have been demanding for years. In the short term, the real test will be the new law on mining that the government promised will soon substitute the existing neoliberal law of the late 1990s. If the new law will embed the right of consultation and participation of communities in defining the mining projects, as the new constitution (february 2009) promises, and whether these rights are interpreted as giving communities decisions and control powers, rather than simply as a way for them to negotiate compensations for decisions that have already been taken centrally, then we may have a situation in which both the development of the mining industry and communities enforcement of a limit to this on the basis of social and environmental considerations will coexist.
One of Evo Morales reaction when he was asked about the issues around mesa 18 was this:  “they’re telling me that I should shut down oil wells and gas wells. So what is Bolivia going to live off of? So let’s be realistic.” ( Being realistic actually implies to recognise at least two things of processes of transformation. First, as the government claims, some “mega” projects and hydrocarbon extraction are welcome by communities and are necessary precisely to give communities more social power. Of course, necessary but not sufficient (the other element being communities participation in their definition and control). This runs counter the principled position that emerges from the global movement such as “leave oil on the ground” or “no to mega-projects”. These slogans do not allow “flexibility”, they do not say: “the greatest polluters must leave oil on the ground while the other are allowed to use (and/or extract more) as long as we reduce the overall amount of oil extracted”. They do not say “we must stop the growth of extraction and reduce it to a substantially lower level”. They do not say “this mega project is socially necessary as well as welcome by communities”, while “this other is a waste of resources and socially and ecologically devastating”. In other words, they do not allow for operational flexibility, something that is not only necessary to capitalist or socialist developmentalist governments, but also to communities with needs and aspirations. Indeed, many of the controversial projects like lithium or hydrocarbon development have been demanded by communities for many years.
Not to talk about the fact that in Bolivia, schools and hospitals need to be built and maintained, that social security needs to be extended, and that all this need access to resources that in current conditions are largely (but not uniquely) dependent on some access to global markets. In the current context, for Bolivia selling on the global markets means selling minerals. In other words, as you could not have  “socialism in one country”, you cannot have today “bien vivir” in one country.
Second, as emerging from the works of the mesa 18, being realistic also means that “socio-environmental” conflicts are also inescapable in any process of transformation, whether these processes are promoted from the top, are developed from the bottom, or both (as it seems to me to be the case today in Bolivia). This because the “class”, the social composition of the agents of transformation, is structurally divided into hierarchies of powers that differentiate the  access to resources, and pluralise needs, desires and aspirations. So for example, in many circumstances, the communities struggling against mines’ uses of water are not the same than the communities of mining workers, especially if the miners are employed by large private and state firms (in Bolivia there are also many coop mines, whose small scale of operation and little use of technology generally does not affect community waters). What the struggles of the former point at is a limit to the operation of mining as this is the only way to limit their use of water. On the other hand, from the perspective of income and employment generation, mineral production and export must be maximised.  Thus, given the structural hierarchy of the class, the question I guess is to problematise how conflict could be constituent of the new, of a new common ground, and not to use conflict simply as indicator that the process of change goes on the wrong direction.
And in four weeks since I arrived in Bolivia, there was no one single day that passed without running across some type of conflict: water community groups demanding more water and resources, parents demanding more teachers for their kids, land-less farmers demanding and occupying land,  trash collectors demanding the payment of wages, trade unionists demanding higher wage increases than what proposed by the government, parents protesting against teachers for not accepting the increase in wage proposed by the government, community groups burning down the offices of a mining company and demanding electrification, social services and that the company stop taking water for free, campesinos blocking a main road to protest against government decisions to build a factory in a bordering areas (they want it in theirs!). There are conflicts among urban and rural teachers, among precarious families and teachers on strikes, among campesinos “colonos” and indigenous pueblos, among cooperative miners and state miners, and so on.
My feeling is that these conflicts, taken as a whole  and in a process-like manner, are a form of a communication among different section of society, still a crude mode of communication in many cases, but one that the government wants to transform in some more constituent process for the formation of a common ground across sections of society in Bolivia. In this sense,  by and large and in forms that are far from ideal, these conflicts are part of the forces governing Bolivia, rather than coalescing as an opposition to the government. But this is just an intuition that may be wrong, there is far more that I need to know about this extraordinary country. In any case, a part for some cases, police repression of these movements seems to me to be “soft”, as it was acknowledged by few government critics with whom I spoke, in that the police is generally avoiding any confrontation and is instead concentrated in defending municipal or other government buildings. The exception seems to be when the struggle deeply divides neighbouring communities, has great social and economic effects on the public, and it appears to be used politically by right wings infiltrators and “agitators”. For example,

I have witnessed two large opposing demonstrators in the centre of La Paz, of the teacher striking for wage increases higher than those proposed by the government, and one by parents against the strikers, and in both cases, police presence was inexistent. The only presence I saw was of few riot police protecting the anti-governement demonstrators against parents in front of the “teachers house”.
But it must also be said that if the government where to flatly and abruptly decreed  the principles proposed by mesa 18 of “community management and rational use of natural resources, in which it is the people who decide directly the fate of natural wealth according to their organizational structures, self-determination, their own rules and procedures and its vision of integrated management of their territories”, then large urban areas would have big problems feeding themselves and would be ridded with conflict of all types: bottom-up, top-down, bottom-bottom, middle-bottom .  . .and so on. This because they have little natural resources to decide for, and they have largely lost the self-organisational capabilities that here are instead rooted in the countryside and practised by indigenous people. The “association of free producers” must be constituted through a historical process, with preconditions that are shaped by the objective and subjective detritus left in different circumstances by capitalist relations, and cannot be proclaimed by government decree, however leftist and radical that government may be. Thus  we have to keep in mind that as this process of constitution unfolds with its own rhythms and times creating the conditions for some communities to self-produce bread and roses, some other people instead are only in the condition to demand bread and roses. Thus, at any time before the constitution of the “association of free producers” as a totality, demands may clash with one another even horizontally and at the bottom, and the illusionary community of the radical state must bring some form of reconciliation among them if the struggling subjects cannot find a common constituent ground.  How is the state going to do so, is obviously crucial element of our final judgement on its role, but it has got to do it nevertheless. Ultimately, the acknowledgement of this necessity is a basic element of being “realistic”.
Bien vivir is ultimately a process that obviously depend on bottom up struggles and a project that can only be actualised through people’s empowerment and autonomy. However, the hypothesis I want to put forward here is that given the conditions we move from,  the state of social fragmentation,  the urban aggregations, the structural hierarchy of power and access to resources, the degree of alienation of people from one another, social wealth and nature, implies that to start from, the development of empowerment and autonomy require some means that are developed outside of empowerment and autonomy, namely within the alien socialisation modes of states and markets. Just as capital developed from not only enclosing commons but also from coupling (and subordinating) commons to accumulation (as in the case of domestic labour or, indeed, any moment of formal subsumption of labour), thus the development of alternatives requires access to means of socialisation that, from the perspective of singularities in structural isolation from others, can only be achieved through existing dominant modes of socialisation, i.e. states and money.
This statement is not a movement away from autonomy  and commoning, it is simply a recognition of some basic preconditions for their development. It also requires us to travel full circle, from commoning to the state, and from the state to commoning, and in so doing embrace the big problematic posed by the need to increase the scale of commoning. So for example, Bolivia’s history shows how commoning struggles (like the water war, but also the 500 years indigenous resistance) has developed through the phases of protest, proposal, and political power. But this is not the end of it. Not only Bolivia is at a moment now that requires the problematisation of the relation between internal socio-ecolgical struggles and the government project of “bien vivir” — project that has its roots in processes of transformation and commoning. Also, the scale of current socialisation of labour and global warming, makes this political power even more insufficient and ineffective as a source of transformation, unless it is coupled more strongly to commoning of greater scale, that is beyond its borders. This commoning of greater scale with which political power needs to couple with in order to bring about change in Bolivia has at least two sources. One, is the global social movements (and the coupling has started right here at the cumbre). The other, is the missing commoning that we absolutely require to develop in the global North, if there is any hope to contrast the “shadow of the future” cast by capital and global warming. Let me clarify this by returning to the results of el cumbre.

Results of the cumbre and consequences of the results:  commons o muerte (or dictatorships).

Four main ideas provided the co-ordinates of the conferences, which where then discussed and provided fine details. First, a universal declaration of “Mother Earth”, i.e. that Mother Earth should be granted rights to preserve the integrity of its processes; second, a “Climate Justice Tribunal”, making those countries, companies and individuals who violate those rights facing legal consequences; third, the acknowledgement of “climate debt”, i.e. that poor countries should receive various forms of reparation not tied to aid for a crisis they are facing but had little role in creating; fourth, the idea of a “World People’s Referendum on Climate Change”, as a way for people around the world to express their views on these issues.

Within these areas, particular demands are that the countries of the global North should respect the Kyoto protocol, which means to put into practice 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and limiting the global temperature increase to a maximum of one-degree Centigrade, as opposed to the devastating 2% target agreed in Copenhagen last November. Demands are also for shifting the resources now spent on military and death (about $1.7 trillion) for life and nature; to set up substantial reparations for countries of the South, to share knowledge and technology with relevance to climate. The final document reporting on these results is here (

Now, to put it simply, it is clear that if we apply the results of the Cochabamba cumbre, there is some hope to save the world. However, one thing that the conference has not debated sufficiently, are the consequences of its demands, especially for the Global North. The document requires the North to take responsibility and a) Pay up climate debt; b)  substantially reduce carbon emission and c) do this without the help of technologies such as geoengineering, biotechnology and nuclear, i.e. reduce emissions without breaking the social movements’ imposed taboo on the use of technology that mess with the earth dynamic equilibria and processes by bringing in irreversible risks. Personally, I feel all these demands are legitimate, and should be complied. However, it is also true that if these demands need to be met, it is not only the governments of the global North that need to be “convinced”, but also, and especially, its people. And at present, there is no grand narrative that can convince anybody that substantial reduction of greenhouse gasses (i.e. GDP) and massive debt repayment are something that is compatible with maintenance not so much of “life-styles,” but of “livelihoods”.

These demands, if met within current social relations of production, will have a drastic adverse social impact in the livelihoods of millions in the developed countries, simply because they de-facto imply a reduction in economic growth, and in the North, our livelihoods heavily depends on economic growth. What need to be spelled out clearly and worked upon by our movements, especially in the global North, is that we also know that economic growth and people livelihoods do not have to be the same thing, and people will pay the price only if the existing dominant modes of production and distribution driven by profit and articulated by capitalist markets is maintained. Therefore, unless we want to face our demands for climate justice with green fascism and austerity, we must accompany the struggles for these demands with the massive promotion of commons, that is with the construction of radically different practices to reproduce our livelihoods, at all scales of social action, including at the level of the state. Because this is the only way we can seek bien vivir at the same times as we promote a massive de-linking of our reproduction to market circuits, especially those markets that fuel global competition and that reproduce dependency on agro-industrial circuits. And in this way, we can also link up with the socio-ecological struggles in Bolivia, not only by creating the condition for reducing climate change and limiting the destruction of water sources and ice caps that is already happening there, but also by drastically reducing the demand for minerals and hydrocarbon and develop other forms of solidarity and grand commoning.

El Cumbre has definitively provided legitimacy for countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela (and other Alba countries) to talk tough at the next round of UN negotiation on climate change. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez among others, will be arguing that people have spoken, and it is now time to “feed a strategy” (alimentar una strategia) (Chavez) on the basis of what they said and what they want so as we start implementing what has been decided.  But in the midst of all flag weaving and enthusiasm for el cumbre, and even in anticipation that the governments money promised by Chavez will bring thousands from the global south to put pressure on empire to comply, I cannot avoid to think that the turning point will happen only when we, in the Global North, decide it is time to face up the true conundrum of our time and do the right thing: shall we go on with our dependence on capitals’ circuits or reinvent new commoning practices outside capital in order to reproduce our livelihoods?

Water (commons) Fair

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Commons, understood generally as the autonomous institutions and practices of people self-organisations and self-help, are the backbone of people livelihoods all around the world. Especially in the global South, without commons people would die, because they would lack access to the basic resources like food and water necessary for life. When we hear the often-quoted statistics referring to the 40% of world population living on less than a dollar a day, we in the North tend to see only victims. We do not see self-reliant and dignified subjects from whom we have a lot to learn. Indeed, how could they live on such a low level of monetary income, if not through the fact that they pool their resources and labour together and build commons, thus overcoming the scarcity that they face as individuals? But to the external and untrained eye, commons are either invisible or opaque, because they are relational fields among a group of people that constitute itself as community, hence build some sort of wall or border around them which obscure its workings or indicate its presence to the outside only as an amorphous cluster.

Obviously, one cannot demand transparency to a commons, unless its activity create negative externalities on other commons, because a commons is not a public institution, and the borders around it — in spite of the different degree of porosity and possibility for an individual to go through — have generally a rational kernel: they represent the contextual limit of the sphere of its activity. On the other hand, we can legitimately demand transparency to a public institution because such institutions ought to benefit all of us, and not only a part of us, ought to be our commons. Hence our demand for transparency in this case implies a demand that we should all be part of its relational field and be able to exercise control over it, whether by sending people reps to its board of directors, or as social movements contesting the effects of its managerial and top-down administration. This is the same as regarding public institutions as distorted commons, i.e. to regard them in an aspirational way, as what, from the commons perspective that understand commons through the lens of commoning and grassroots democracy, they ought to be.

Now, if commons transparency and visibility is not a given property of commons, when commons become visible and invite you to see how they work and what they do, when in other words they come out, celebrate and share among themselves and communicate with others, we know there is something going on, we know that we are in the presence of a social movement that is not made of individual “citizens” or “civil society”, but of . . .commoners.

A social movements of commoners is one that seek to extend the scale of commons, extend the social power mobilised by commoning. In this sense, the struggle undertaken by this social movement is not only one that manifests itself in cathartic street demonstrations, but is also hidden in the daily reproduction of livelihoods. Actually, it is this latter activity that gives this movement both strength and its rhythmical presence into the streets. I do not think we can measure a commoners movement with the yardstick of traditional social movements where we correlate the presence on the streets with the strength of the movement. When we talk about commoners movement, strength seems to be, if not the cause, definitively the material basis of the presence in the streets. While the presence in the streets is produced through events, the strength is reproduced in daily processes, and there is an obvious lag between the time of productive contestation and the time of reproductive commoning. So for example, 500 years of indigenous resistance is not 500 years of daily street battles, but 500 years of value reproducing commoning activity that sustained and reproduced itself in spite of the massive wave of murderous enclosures deployed against it. Commoners movement is a type of social movement and social struggle we should hope to see growing and develop in the next century if any change to our conditions of life and living must occur.

One such a social movement is the one I saw at the III Feira del Agua in Cochabama. And indeed, if anybody had any doubt about the existence and relevance of commons to people lives and livelihoods, well a Fair like this should help dispel any such doubt. Spread along the four sides of a large football pitch and beyond, dozens of community water associations and cooperatives like the one of Flores Rancho that I visited the other day (see previous post) are making their own showcase, with the help of hand-made posters and polystyrene models, to mark their presence and to exchange information, knowledge and technology.

From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua

Associations like these form the largest bulk of the third Feira del Agua, held in Cochabamba during the days of 15 and 18 April, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the water war that forced the then Bolivian government to repeal its water privatisation law. Among other participants in this feira del agua, noticeable presences besides some international development NGOs, some associations proposing waterless bio-toilets and some documentation centers, are also Semapa, the municipal water company that is highly controversial for the allegation of corruption and ineffectiveness in providing water, and Misicuni, a consortium of national and international companies that is building a large dam in the mountains North of Cochabamba and that promises to fill the water deficit of the region.

From feira de l’agua

Cochabamba is indeed a region with a water deficit. In spite of all the amazing self-organisation efforts that community groups are doing, they cannot offer water to all the communities. The area of Cochabamba mostly affected is the South, the vast suburban area where about 200000 people live and water provision is poor. In the 1980s and 1990s, a large migration from rural and mines region into cities like Cochabamba occured, this putting pressure on water provisions. Three distinct realities in this region then developed with respect to water. First, the market reality, that is the reality of those who lack access to water, don’t organise and thus depend on private providers. This generally occurs in unsafe and unregulated forms. Water is delivered at home by private suppliers who drive cistern-trucks and is poured in “turril” , i.e. large 200 litres open canisters that households generally keep outside. Here the problems is not only the astronomical cost of this water (up to 30 bolivianos, £3, for a turril, and think that this is not just drinking water, but water for all household usage), but also the water contamination as a result of storage in old and rusty containers and exposure to the elements.

The second reality is of those who self-organise themselves and are lucky to live in areas in which there is water and community wells can be dig. Now, the work they are doing here is quite impressive, since community build from scratch entire water systems, dig deep wells (up to 100m), construct water deposits and connect pumps, lay the pipes for home distribution, monitor the water quality which in this region is always threatened by waste contamination, and manage the entire system. Not bad as a form of commoning! Interestingly, it is generally recognised here that the initiative to dig for water emerges in a population that has recently migrated from the countryside, and therefore has a memory of self-reliance and a relation to nature that is empowering. Rural people always go close to water sources and get their act together to use water. This is not a trivial fact, and I am starting to consider that indeed a crucial aspect of the countryside subjectivity’s everywhere in the world is such a self-reliance and autonomous spirit, one that is lost through successive waves of urbanisation which add mediations between people and nature in the form of money and bureaucratic and legal codes. A point here to be considered in the future: if we do not have the need for one revolutionary subject any longer, we may need a composite one, and one of its crucial components can be found in the self-reliant spirit of indigneous and campesinos wordwide.

From feira de l’agua

The third reality is of those who self-organise themselves but are not lucky to live in areas with water. The commons self-organisation in this case occurs through a system of water collection by cistern trucks. The water is generally purchased from the municipal water company Semapa at far lower prices than those of the market, and distributed in the community. Generally, the community associations also establishes systems of distribution through deposits from which water is piped into the houses. In one case (the Asociation de Produccion y Administracion de Agua y Saneamiento APAAS, a community based organisation set up in 1990) water is fetched 7 km away, and to get the water the community has set up pipes, pomps and deposits along the crest of a mountain down to their suburban neighbourhood.

From feira de l’agua
From feira de l'agua

The different community organisations seem to function in different ways according to different conditions, but all heavily rely on community work besides self-funding and some access to external funding. The need for some socialisation of production in some functions — and therefore of greater scale — is met with associations of the second level, i.e. associations of associations.

This is for the example the case of Asica-Sur (, one of the main organiser of this feira de l’agua.

From feira de l’agua

Asica-Sur pulls together about 90 community organisations of the second and third category discussed above roughly split in half among those which have access to a well and those that do not. Asica-Sur offers 4 types of services to their members: it offers community associations a platform of organisation and negotiating power vis-a’ vis the state and municipal water authorities; it strengthen the capacity of these water systems by facilitating information and sharing knowledge; provides technical assistance and services, for example through its cistern trucks that it provides to the communities without wells, but also enabling smaller community groups to access government and NGOs funds; and it offers help in the management of water resources, infrastructure and equipment. Its function seems also increasingly to mediate and find political solutions to problems encountered by larger water community systems.

For example, the case mentioned above of APAAS, is now encountering some problems due to recent human settlements along the 7 km pipeline, problems unknown 20 years earlier when it was established. The recent dwellers are allegedly stealing water and pretending that APAAS give them water for free as payment for the fact that the pipes are passing through their territory. Obviously, this water war among the poor need to find some solution, and political processes, rather than abstract recipees, are here fundamental. What situations like these also reveal is that the building of commons in a context ridded with socio-economic trends typical of capitalist systems (such as the continuous migration of the poor) is far from those studied as typical models in the West under the influence of neo-institutionalism. Unlike those cases, here the problem of access to a resource like water is never circumscribed to a given community, and although there is is an appeal to traditional forms of administrations or forms of convivir [living together] “based on ancient cultural rules and customs where the prevailing collective work and active participation in the deliberation and decision making on the assets and affairs concerning the community is under the principles of reciprocity, solidarity, justice , fairness and transparency” (from an Asica-Sur pamphlet), these forms have to deal with a reality in progress and a web of bottom-up and bottom-bottom conflictuous situations that continuously challenge the forms in which these basic principles apply. Here we have a major challenge of commons and commoning as a political paradigm, a challenge that is not envisaged by the many who while subscribing to this paradigm, offers static models as panaceas. The reality is one in which the commons and commoning perspective must embrace the new and the challenges of the times, while at the same time valorising and reclaiming the old and the ancient. The solution is not inscribed in written handbooks of given knowledge, but in the art of negotiation and political and organisational inventiveness of communities. In a seminar I attended I heard a Columbian activist referring not only to Mingas (community collective work) to build and maintain water systems, but also of Mingas of social resistance. And to this what we may add the need for Mingas of inter-communities relations and solidarity. In other words commoning of all types is really the ultimate material force of transformation of our realities.

One thing that it is clear while talking to the many associations and their collective organisations like Asica-Sur is that they all want to do more than what they are doing — whether it is a question of access to water to more members of the community, or of sanitation and water quality. We could say that in these days and age, their social movement is a social movement for growth (not so much “economic growth”, but growth in access to water and the betterment of its quality). This however implies that they all need more resources, i.e. to mobilise more social power. When we look into this more in details, we find that the question of resources and scale necessarily leads as to problematise the question of the construction of commons in relation to markets and states.

A “resource pool” is the first constituent element of a commons, the others being a community and commoning. Pooling resources address a specific need, the need of power to, that is to extend the scale of social production that a given community is able to mobilise for its own reproduction. Now, from the perspective of a community, and given its conditions of material and financial wealth, what are the sources of a resource pool or, which is the same thing, in what ways a community can increase its power to, or extend the social power it is able to mobilise? I think there are two general cases here to be considered. One, that applies to a community, say of fishers, who decide to manage their common fishing waters but in which production is organised by the individual fishers themselves. This is the case dealt with by a large bulk of neo-institutional commons literature, where much emphasis is put to confute Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. The commoning you need to refer to in order to make this confutation is only with respect to decisions and rules and not with respect of working together: the herders still go on the field with their own cattle and in their own time. There is in other words some equity principle at work (“now it is my turn and then is your turn” or, “not more than 5 cows each farmers”) and not some community sharing (“let us share the cows and the work on the field”)). The second case, which interests us here, is one that applies for all those resources that are required to engage in some form of common production.

If I am not missing something, I believe pooling of resources at this level can only occur in one or in a combination of the following ways — leaving out robbery of peers from other communities: a) the members of the community all tip in from their own material or financial savings; b) donors (like NGOs) are found; c) the community subscribe a debt; d) the state pour resources into the community; e) the community expropriate property, occupy, squats (like in the case of brazilian landless movement, MST).

Each of these sources represent challenges and limits from the perspective of scale and social justice, because themselves need to have “sources” and in particular sources of power. The first one, is of course limited by the degree of material wealth of the community, as well as complicated by the division of wealth within the community and the degree of cohesion in spite of wealth difference. The second one, a part from being limited by the money available and the work and know-how necessary to bid for the money, also may require to align local project to international NGOs priorities. The third one tie local community to repayment plans and therefore to markets. The fourth one bring with it the alignment of local communities to the state priorities and may favour their cooptation. The fifth one bring in the threat of repression. Talking to people from different water associations present in this Fair, I had the impression that all of these options have been used in one way or in another, a part from debt. For example, APAAS participated in a competition and won money from the World Bank to fund the purchase of pipes running 7 km. Some community organisations pull savings and buy the land upon which they dig the well partially funded by an NGOs. In another case, the state pour in money for a community water deposit as part of the “Bolivia Cambia Evo Cumple” campaign, and in others some foreign development funds are channelled into community organisations.

From feira de l’agua

In other words, it feels like that in order to grow commons cannot escape development, whether we are talking about transfers from states, supranational institutions such as the World Bank or NGOs, or the need to access money from the market in order to pull savings. In principle, we could of course imagine an alternative process that does not use any state nor markets, i.e. one based entirely on point e) above. In this case, all extension of commons occurs by means of all communities expropriating resources from the wealthy and simultaneously forming direct relations of association among themselves, giving rise to associations of second, third and upper level controlling all forms of social production and distribution made possible by the recently expropriated resources that extend the “pool”.

Obviously, this solution is in principle conceivable not only in moments of intense social revolution, but moments of intense social revolution that do not require an extension of the role of the state, neither in terms of its apparatus in defence of new property configurations against threat of restauration, nor in terms of extension of socialised functions that at the moment of revolution cannot be organised by communities nor by existing markets. Allowing for the state indeed simplifies enormously the problem of transition to a socially just society, as through indirect expropriation (case d) it is possible to fund organised communities of commoners and give rise to an increase in scale of commoning without the use of capitalist markets. This seems the avenue taken by Morales government, although timidly. As I was told by some community associations activists, the government has started to give money directly to grassroots associations and not to local authorities, and this is seen as a great improvement. However, this has happened significantly in areas where there is more opposition to the govenrment — such as Santa Cruz — while in area like Cochabamba — the stronghold of MAS, the party in government — there has been only timid disboursements. However, it may well be the case that the existing power relations and configurations of needs of the people necessitate the state to operate also for the development of market themselves — including capitalist markets — in which case the problems of transition becomes even more complex and risky. This is also the case here in Bolivia.

In any case, ultimately, the “socialist” principle to be a transformational principle must be articulated to the anarchist principles of individual freedom, and the communist principles of community constitution of values through commoning. The extent to which the measuring and valuing mechanisms of capitalist markets overpower the measuring and valuing mechanisms of commoning is a crucial factor to decide whether the “socialist” state is functional to a process of capitalist development or a transformational process towards the development of social justice. In Bolivia I think it is still too early to tell, and the process seems a very interesting process to study. The general question posed by the problems of access to resources becomes how can development be instrumental to the extension of commons, without the latter becoming in turn instrumental to the extension of capitalist development?

The 5 cases listed above apply from the perspective of an association of producers which aim at mobilising more social power than what they have at their disposal, and hope to internalise the means for such a mobilisation. But if we scale up and reach higher levels of association, we discover that there are other ways to extend the social power of commoners. One for example is posed by Asica-Sur with the question of cogestión — co-management. The question of co-management with Semeca is not yet defined clearly, and it raises several eyebrows among some community activists who are afraid that the messing up with the organisational forms of the municipal company would irreversibly contaminate the community organizational values. This would be a case in which the quest for extension of social power would backfire. But the rationale is obvious: to have access to more resources now available to the ineffective and corrupt structure of Semapa. The question is really to find a form that articulates community forms of organisation with this greater urban scale organisation.

Another issue posed, and it is perhaps linked to the question of comanagement, is that the state must allow organisations and firms that have at their disposal means of production and equipment to make it available to smaller organisation who do not have. This is perhaps a type of mild form of temporary “expropriation” that does not damage anybody really, but would give community associations access to fundamental resources and increase the scale of their operations. It is also evidence of a conception that sees the need for private and public property to be communalised, not so much in its formal ownership status, but in terms of the forms of its access and control, allowing us to move beyond old dichotomies.

But mega-projects are also on the horizons and bring new challenges. Misicuni, is a consortium of public and private companies that is building a dam higher up in the mountains around Cochabamba and that promises to fill the water deficit of the area. It is a project that has been in the pipelines for some decades now, but that only in the last few years started to move on. There is some controversy surrounding the project, whether a mega project of this scale was really necessary and whether alternatives could not be found. However in general, all the association representatives I have talked to where happy with the promised water availability promised by Misicuni. I was told by one of the Misicuni representatives present at the Fair, that it will be finished by 2012, a date however that raised some eyebrows of incredulity given the past history. I asked Carlos Oropeza, a dirigente of Asica-Sur, if this development would reduce the need for grassroots associations, but he did not seem to be concerned. “Local coop will buy water and distribute it themselves”, he told me. Asica-Sur is apparently already building the deposits and strengthening the infrastructure for local distribution.

water umaraqa

Monday, April 19th, 2010

The community of Flores Rancho is about 50 minutes drive South East of Cochabamba. It is a rural community where 120 families (or about 480 people) live and manage their common water system. This community was at the forefront of the water war 10 years ago, when in a couple of months of street battles, they forced the then Bolivian government to make a U turn and repeal the water privatisation laws. In this way they also opened the political process that brought Evo Morales to become the first indigenous president in South America.

From flores rancho

I meet people from the Flores Rancho community in the occasion of a visit organised by a network of organisations that are preparing the 3rd feira de l’agua, few days of demonstrations, seminars, workshops and exhibition to talk about the many problems that still are afflicting water systems in Bolivia ten years after the victorious water war and share information and commoning practices. We meet with men and women from the community in the middle of a half built house, the building of what will be the escuela de l’Agua.

From flores rancho
From flores rancho

While we sit around the open walls, workers are busy on what will be the roof doing their shift of community work. The building is partially funded by Yaku, an Italian NGO, and its purpose, according to different people, seems to be a mixture of community centre, cloth washing center, education center, dorms, place to host public meetings and a node in the future tourist infrastructural network of the area. But the general point to have this building seems the need to have some structural reference point in an international network that aims at valorising the “Andean vision on water”. The building is built with a mixture of traditional (mud bricks) and modern material (cement and bricks), as evidence of a compromise within the community among those who prefer tradition and those who would like to leave traditions in the past. It is built on common land, purchased by the community, next to the other piece of common land in which the community has its water well. (For a short video see

From flores rancho

Don Abdon is an articulated and proud man, and he has got reasons to be proud. His name is written next to the well that he wanted the community to dig to find water. Before the community well, each family had their own small well, which was sufficient for human consumption, very few animals and no irrigation. Don Abdon returned from Argentina with a degree in Agronomy and in 1982 convinced the community to pool the little savings available together, purchase some land and pay for the drilling of 84 meters deep well. It costed 18000 bolivianos (£1800), but they found abundant water. Three years later, in 1985, at a cost of 45000 Bolivianos (£4500) they built a 20 meters high tank for drinkable water. They spent a further of 18000 Bolivianos to bring in electricity on the land (cabling, erecting an electricity pole, etc.). With the help of a Spanish NGO they paid for the pipes and the bombas. When the community water well was installed and started working, given its depth, all the private family wells run dry. But the community choice offered a good pay off. All families could now have access to more water than before, allowing to increase the amount of animals they kept as well as increase the quantity and increase the variety of crops produced, thus improving both income and the quality of food available to families an the community.

From flores rancho

A part from the very specialised work like that of drilling, all the other construction and maintenance work has been and is carried out by the community itself through what here is called umaraqa, the same as in other regions of the Andes is called minga or minka, i.e. non waged community work. The tank is regularly cleaned, water is piped into the houses, and problems fixed by a group of 10 people drawn from the community. Actually, there are 10 of such groups, and each year one group takes over the responsibility of the administration and maintenance of the system: in other words, a shift of one year every ten years.

From flores rancho
From flores rancho

Don Abdon however stresses that those like him who have expertise and experience are always available to help those who have a shift and lack the knowledge. The work of the team of 10 is of course all gratuitous, something that contributes to keep the price of water very low. Each community member pays 1 Boliviano (10 pence of a British Pound) for each square meter of water, that is 8 times less than the price paid by costumers of municipal water in Cochabamba. The community also meet on the 5th of every month, to discuss all matters of regarding the water system. However, as it is generally the case with these community meetings, water becomes only the occasion to discuss and organise around all types of issues. Participation is taken quite seriously. If one family representative does not show up at a meeting without an acceptable justification, they have to pay a fine: one working day for the community. Conflict, I was told, is generally dealt within the community, and very rarely is solved outside it by appealing to the police or the state courts. I also discover that indeed there is a system of penalties as retribution for what are regarded as offences to the community. With respect to water for example, one receive a 3 days water cut if found “wasting” it, i.e. using water in measures and forms that run counter those decided by the community itself. Other penalties are also issued if one is found selling the community waters to the outside (which, given the relative scarcity of water in the Cochabamba region, especially in the South, I suspect is a quite tenting thing). Many of the communities around the areas have had an experience similar to Flores Rancho, where they built their own community water system. And we can understand how in 2000, people in a communities like Flores Rancho got really pissed off at the government! They pooled resources together, they managed water, they organised their work together to get water out and distribute it, and then comes a law that allow a multinational company to put their own meters next to the infrastructures that the community built and maintained so as to charge you for the water: thank you very much! The threatened enclosures on water was truly a robbery on a form of property, of community property, i.e.not just an enclosure on an abstract “resource”, but on a system of autonomous and self managed control and community work. We also learn that from the perspective of a grassroots association like this the need for external funding like NGOs and some degree of access to markets circuits — whether for specialised services like drilling or access to income for families — is an obvious necessity (I have not heard of any funding by the Bolivian state). But it is also the case that the practices of community work and commoning reduce the dependency on markets. The substantially lower price for water paid by the community with respect to the market price, together with the system of community rules for its usage which defines its upper limit, represent — given all other conditions constant — a substantial lowering of the income necessary to pay for reproduction and agricultural water needs, while at the same time allowing more use for water to individual families. This represent a substantial loosening of the knot tying the community to the necessity of money for its own reproduction. Obviously, the question becomes not only what will communities like these do with the freedom gained, but also in what form they will be able to increase the scale of their resource pool.

Water minga

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

I met Carlos Perez in Cuenca, South of Ecuador. He is a dirigente of the Junta de Agua of the area, the  organisation for the community administration of Water. Carlos is a lawyer, and I meet him in his small office on the first floor in a central road. On the walls, there are a couple small posters with  an eclectic collection of maxims: one concerning the profession of the solicitor (the one that stroke me said:  as a solicitor you have to defend rights, but if you see that rights conflict with justice, then  fight for justice), and one listing some Buddhist maxims of good living (the one that hit me was: every year visit a place you have not seen before).

The Junta de Agua was involved in a long struggle to defend community water rights. In 1996, a municipal law threatened  traditional communal rights on water. The municipio of Cuenca prentended to usurps the right of communities greater than 150 families to self-manage water provisions. The argument was based on rationales such as these: people are incapable to administer water provisions, they cannot make the sufficient investment, they are ignorant, they are inefficient. In 2003 a national  law is discussed that attempts to nationalise community water as a first step towards privatisation. The bills spark a long season of struggles, large mobilisations and of civil disobedience that in the end succeed in winning a U turn from the government.

From cuenca junta de agua

Instead of the law expropriating communities of their water commons (and water commoning),  the Junta de Agua manages to draft and push a law in which community autonomy is fully recognised. As Carlos proudly show me,  article 2 of the 2003 ordinance of the canton of Cuenca aknwoledges the right of community systems to participate to the planning, construction and administration of water systems, while article 3 states that by community systems it is meant self-managed community systems as well as those in which the community co-participate with other institutions.
But the troubles are not finished. Today the struggles are not only for the defense of water and water self-management, but also against mines, as the two issues are increasingly going together. Carlos shows me a coloured map around the area of Cuenca, where large areas of mine concessions signed in by the government are clearly indicated. The question of the threat posed by mining to water commons and water commoning is increasingly urgent and controversional.  Not only  because mines need a lot of water for their operation and, also, pollute water sources, but also because they are responsible for the 20% of climate change.

From cuenca junta de agua

The struggle against new mining therefore is not just a struggle to defend local commons, but also global commons. Struggle against mining are quite on the rise in the region. In North Ecuador, there has been a series of successful struggles against mining and in the defense of community forests among other commons in the region of Intag. In North Peru, in the region of Ayabaca and Huancabamba, there are strong conflicts against mines and in defense of water commons.

Returning to water, Carlos  insists that what people want is administration autonomy with no external interference, where it is community assemblies and not some manager or bureaucrat who decides what to do with the water and how to do it. He also makes an economic case: “In community management”, he says, “each family pays $2 a month for water in order to collect the fund necessary for the maintenance of the supply. In cities like Cuenca one pays $10 a month. Why? Because of the highly paid bureaucracy. In the community instead, the president of the water committee does not earn anything. In Cuenca the managers get $3000 a month”.

However the payoffs for the communities in keeping control power over their water commons, is not simply monetary. Water here is a commons not just in an ideal sense, a principled sense. The water-commons Carlos is talking about is a commons because it is resource truly pooled by a community who must engage in commoning for its administration and utilisation. Hence saying here that water is a common, it is saying that it is an organic expression of the life of the community. If you have taken away their right to administrate water, you have taken away some important aspect of the life of the community. To better understand this, I could mention the fact that as I am writing, there is a struggle in Italy against water privatisation promoted by the Berlusconi’s government.  Also here the movement argues that water must remains a commons. But in this case, water commons is identified with the “public”, i.e. with the right of the local councils — not directly of the communities — to administrate  it. The difference is essential and resides in water commoning.

When I naively ask Carlos to help me to understand what in involved “administering water” he explains to me that water management does not only serve the functional objective of administrating water, but it is a crucial moment of commoning within the community. In administrating water, the individuals may well get a monetary pay off (say, the $2 paid instead of  $10), but the community also exercise power and autonomy, and this is a value on its own  terms with its consequent benefits. This is a value that no rational choice theory is able to capture with its models. For some of these theories, especially those influenced by the Nobel Laureat Elinor Ostrom, commons are justified uniquely in terms of their greater efficiency and payoffs, but little or no study of the value created by commoning is studied. For example, Mingas are traditionally used to take care of maintenance of infrastructure. Minga is a quechua word used by various ethnical groups throughout  the Andes and refer to unwaged community work,  in which  men, women and children all participate in pretty much convivial ways and generally ends up in big banquets.

From cuenca junta de agua

Children, women and man, young and old, all participate in the water Mingas which, as Carlos reminds me, “are also Mingas of ideas, of desires and imagination.” Hence, not only pipes are laid, stones are moved, metal is bent,  food is shared  by the entire community, but also through the administration of water people meet and discuss other important things besides water, other things of relevance to the community. “There is no hierarchy in Mingas” says Carlos, “children, women and man all participate in Mingas”. And the things that the managers of capitalist companies will  not get, is that there is an other sense of measure going on in Mingas. The search for efficiency is not the absolute value. To dig a hole and put up a pole could be a heavy work if only few people have to do it so as to minimise cost and maximise productivity. But if the entire community is involved, you do not feel it (although the “efficiency” obtained in this case is quite low): “in the Minga you do not feel the work because everything is cheerfulness (alegria) and distraction and in the end it is participation.” In the Minga, as you are sharing (compartir), you are also living together (convivir).” The “law of Ayni” — another word for Minga, referring to a system of  work and family reciprocity within the member of the ayllu — “is reciprocity”. And while he is saying this, he crosses his arms and shows me the Ande’s cross, one in which one hand gives and the other receives.

From cuenca junta de agua

Ayni consists in labour help in agriculture or construction that will be reciprocated in equal form by the family helped today. As a say puts it: “hoy por ti, mañana por mi”, “today for you, tomorrow for me”. The “retribution” is generally food and drink for all.

There is a connection between the laws of reciprocity within communites upon which the patterns of sharing and commoning are constituted, and the community’s government of power. This in two senses. First, the government of power in the Weberian sense of distributive power, relational power. The “convocatoria”, the “Minga” — what we understand as community sharing –  is grounded on reciprocity. Reciprocity seems to be a measure for its re-occurrence in time.  Which implies that the principle of community sharing depends in turn on some principle of equity, hence of obligations, hence (taking equity and obligation together) of justice. The measure of things is justice, and ideas of justice can only be culturally defined (or culturally challenged). Thus, sharing and justice are intertwined. Second, the government of power understood as collective power to do. “Reciprocity  is power” says Carlos, in the sense that it is this dance of life at the rythms of reciprocity cycles and Mingas that involves that generation of obras, of works, but also that generates cheerfulness, and give rise to unity among the community. Minga is also the context for the nurturing of the powers of the new generation, as in the atmosphere of conviviality and cheerful practical jokes (like when Carlos’ mother put a frog behind his back, as he remembers with a smile), as when the youth begins to learn new experiences, explore sexuality, recognise the cultural limitations or begin to challenge them.

Measured against the values of the Minga’s form of commoning, the Western model of capitlaist production seems to come from a different planet. Carlos uses a metaphor to convey his point. “In the north”, he says, “you use the North Star to find your direction, to orient yourselves. In the South we have the Southern Cross. While you use one star, we use four of them. Even in this case we have a principle of solidarity and multiplicity at work. In the Western model, everything is capital: human capital, social capital, financial capital . . .For the Minga, everything is solidarity, it is not a question of little effort (efficiency) but of living well.”

Branding + Mingas + Coops = Salinas

Friday, March 26th, 2010

It was not easy to get to Salinas. Only 90 km North-West of Baño, nevertheless it took us several hours of various detours, some crazy driving on the opposite lane of a road under construction (apparently the only way to get where we wanted to get), and a long wait on a queue at 3000 meters due to a bad accident in front of us. We arrived in Salinas at 10 pm, but in spite of the fact that we felt to have arrived in the middle of nowhere, we were greeted with pizza and beer, few smily faces and one of the last rooms in the hostel.

Salinas is a small town (well, actually a village) at 3500 meters in the Ecuadorian Andes, very close to that amazing volcanic giant that is the Chimborazo (6267 mt).

From Salinas selection

The Salinas area is much larger, and comprises 32 communities ranging from 600 to 4500 meters above sea level, thus representing a huge variety of climate and ecosystems (and resources as we will discover later . . .an area comprising the perfect climate for producing coco beans as well as the perfect climate to process the beans into fine chocolate).

From Salinas selection

There are about 6000 people living in this area. A middle aged man working in the youth co-operative that manages the hostel where I am staying with my family tells me with some pride that 95% of the population is part of the “organisation” (the other 5% apparently choose not the be in it, but they are benefited by the organisation nevertheless, since they sell their produce to it). The “organization” is in reality a quick name for several associations, foundations, consortia and cooperatives, ranging from cheese producers to textile, ceramic and chocolate making, herbal medicine and trash collection, a radio station an hotel, a hostel, and a “office of community tourism”. To have a general idea of the scale of this, watch the video (in spanish) at

When we woke up early in the morning, the small town buzzed with life.

From Salinas selection

From the higher planes, women were coming down with donkeys and lamas carrying milk into the town and to the cheese factory. From the lower planes instead 2 coaches brought teenagers of the technical institute of the town of Guaranda in a study tour. The youth were buzzing around the main square, playing volleyball and hanging around in bands, before learning the biochemistry of cheese production at the local cheese factory. One thing that you could not fail to notice is that everybody you run across — whether a woman carrying a baby and pulling a Lama, or a man walking with tanks of gasoline, or a teenager passing by with a baseball cap, were greeting you with a smile and a “buenos dias”.

There is something intriguing in Salinas, and that is that you do not know when capitalism ends and commonism begins . . .and viceversa. You feel definitively the presence of both and this is unsettling and make someone like me nervous. But I promised myself to keep an open mind, I am travelling to understand commons, the mechanism of their coupling with capital and the limitation of this coupling, as well as the lines of struggle and power relations that emerge in various context of commons.Forty years ago, this was a very very poor town. A salt mine still visible from our hostel room, was the only source of employment. A Columbian family, the Cordovez — who reached the area few centuries earlier with guns and strange pieces of paper with stamps from the Spanish crown saying the common land around Salinas belonged to them — was the only boss employing the locals for miserable wages and forcing them into a state of servitute and semi-feudal dependence. Now, all that land that we could see belongs to the community by means of the “organization”: 33000 acres of it, taken from the church and from the Cordovez!

But it was taken “nicely”, that is it was bought. Forty years ago, in the early 1970s, in an age of land struggle and land reforms, the Cordovez family could not believe their luck when the newly formed credit coop — the very first cooperative to be born here — offered to buy the land. The coop was formed to contrast the money sharks who were preying on the people in times of need like funerals, weddings, emergencies, with the lending rates of usury. Behind the origin of the coop that inititated the cooperative movement in this far away province, and indeed behind the origin of several other coops comprising the “organisation”, there is an Italian priest, who arrived in Salinas 40 years ago for a 3 months mission helping building a community house - and he is still there.

From Salinas selection

Antonio Polo, an energetic 72 years old Padre Salesiano, is a type of “commons entrepreneurs”, someone who is in the business of triggering and promoting commoning processes that sustain and consolidate themselves in some types of commons institutions.

I met Antonio in his house next to the church.

From Salinas selection

The window of the kitchen faces the square, so it is possible to see all movements down below. The kitchen seems to be in itself an open house, people coming in and out, someone waiting for dinner and another selling eggs at a good price. Antonio explains to me that the original choice to buy the land from the Cordovez, rather than taking it, in spite of the fact that the locals had really all the reasons for reclaiming their own land from the Cordovez who effectively stole it from them, was moral and economically rational. It was moral, because it was an anti-violent choice. And it was economically rational, because when people buy land they have an invested interest to make it productive for them (at least in the sense that they have borrowed money to buy it and they have to repay the loan with interest). I have my doubt, as the reasons given seemed to me too ideological. After some probing it seemed to me that the Cordovez family was interested to sell and selling at a relatively good price because of the broader context of land struggle and talks of land reform, hence of “violence” against the private property of the big land owner. The “peaceful” choice was therefore dependent on the “violent” context, making the moral distinction between the two quite thin, and leaving the distinction relevant only from a strategic point of view, that is contingent to the existing condition and opportunity to pool resources together (whether human political resources or money resources). On the other hand, there are experiences of movements of people reclaiming land by trespassing the gates of the large property owners that has led to the formation of institutions such as school and health centers besides allowing the land to be used for productive purposes meeting the food needs of the people. The landless movement in Brazil is a case in point.

Antonio explains how through the years the different cooperatives, foundations and consortia were formed to give work to the locals after the salt mine was closed. He is definitively an engine of ideas for imagining new productive enterprises.

From Salinas selection

The cheese factory pulls the milk from the surrounding areas (and the cheese from the different cheese factories that are established in local communities). The chocolate factory got the coco beans from the subtropical areas where the climate does not allow to process the coco into fine chocolate.

From Salinas selection

The annexed italian Torrone factory — which regularly export its products to fair trade shops in Italy — allows the use of abundant local honey. The herbal medicine laboratory, pulls together the herbs and plants brought by the locals, and the drying mushroom facilities use the mushroom collected under pine trees that where planted in deforested areas — with some environmental concerns, given the fact that pine trees are not really local plant species. All the “social enterprises” of the “gruppo salinas” — the name that was given to brand the activity of the areas for reasons of commercialisation and export — plus its “strategic allies” employ overall 434 people, but the total producers involved are far more than that, ranging from 1600 to few thousands (depending on different point of view). But it is clear that the cooperatives have a core workers employed in the centre, and a range of other members with a different contractual arrangements. The system at times resembles a textbook case of “putting out” system”, in the sense of a method of production dispersed in the home of workers, who mostly work part time for money alternating it with subsistence agricultural production. The important difference with the capitalist pre-industrial version of this, is that the organising tasks of the “boss” is in the hand of the employed members of the coop, and the paying rates, rhythms and general rules for delivery times of the other members are negotiated in coop assemblies (subject of course to the external constraints set by the market).

From Salinas selection
From Salinas selection
From Salinas selection

For example, the textile coop comprises few full time workers designing sweaters and hats and organising distribution of the wool to be turned into finished product. Obviously, they also represent the middle point between the need of the market and the bulk of knitting workers of the coop. In the room at the entrance of the shop, I witnessed a moment of exchange between the full time workers and the part timers (incidentally, the very fact that this exchange occurs under everybody eyes — including the consumers — and not in some back room, is a plus on “transparency”). Two women pull out some sweaters and huts from of a plastic bag. The woman at the other side of the counter, weight them and check the weight against the numbers in a register so as the weight of the finished product is pretty much the same as the wool originally issued. Then they briefly check the quality of the product, searching for irregular stitches etc.. There seemed to be some discussion with respect to the value of the product, and an agreement was quickly reached and recorded on the register, new wool was weighted, recorded and issued.

From Salinas selection

I was told that there is generally no pressure for a worker to finish a job on a given time, a part from when there is a big commission and the workers agree to commit to a deadline. All the payments in all coops are generally made through the credit coop. Assemblies of coop members occurs every couple of weeks to discuss matters of work organisation, and the one for the cheese factory was advertised with a big hand written poster with the agenda in front the of place to collect milk, as it was the one in front of the credit union. I wished I had the time to attend such a meeting.

From Salinas selection

I asked to be given some example of how the principle of solidarity works within the “Salinas Group”. One example is in the case of the cheese coop. Every farmer who is a member of the coop, is paid the correspondent amount for the milk she brings in for the production of cheese. However, at the end of the year, the monetary surplus is not distributed among coop members on the basis of their milk contribution, but is shared among them for common projects: either buying new equipment, or transferred to community funds. This way, as our guide told us, “the farmer who has 10 cows is helping the farmer that has only one cow”, allowing for some re-distribution. Another example is the use of Mingas. Minga is a quechua word used by various ethnical groups throughout the Andes and refer to unwaged community work, in which men, women and children all participate in pretty much convivial ways and generally ends up in big banquets. Infrastructure work such as road maintenance, water irrigation, planting, digging, but also garbage collection and cleaning up the square are all type of work that calls for a Minga of different size and are used in Salinas. Yet another example is the important use of foundations, that channel funds earned in social enterprises for projects for the community.

We have therefore a mix of organising principles between private and community production, adaptation to the market and its needs for “competitiveness” and solidarity and communitarian values, a mix that would be interesting to deconstruct and study with some more lengthy field work in terms of how power relations are reproduced or diffused, and how the distribution and control conflicts inherent in market-oriented arrangements are dealt with. But the overall basic question in the back of my mind is this: what is co-opting what? Is capital co-opting the commons or the commons co-opting capital? My impression is that taken as a whole, Salinas offers a context in which dignity is definitively at the centre of doing things, and capital is not all, and perhaps — perhaps not yet — not even the most important thing. However, the limitation of the Salinas’ coupling of market and competitive principles with solidarity and community’s ones become more evident, the more we look at this experience from the perspective of scale. Few observations here.

1) One of the largest acquisitions is an old manufacturing plant to turn the abundant wool from the area, into thread, and thus “vertically integrate” it with the artisan production of sweaters.

From Salinas selection

Although part of this plant was donated, other parts of it was bought on credit. Also, the amount of energy it cost to operate is quite high, and the community does not have access to a source of cheap renewable energy. All this and taking into consideration all the other costs, implies that the break-even point (the point at which the plants does not loose money and does not make any) is 10 thousands Kg of wool thread at month. However, the international solidarity fair trade circuit can offer to buy only 5 hundred Kg a month in sweaters at the given fair trade price (which, although higher than market price has an obvious upper limit, because also the fair trade operators have a business to run and a commodity to sell). This implies that the rest of production of wool ( up to 20 thousands Kg. a month, which is the maximum capacity of the plant), enters the normal market circuits and provides the raw material for underpaid and overexploited textile workers around the world. This is one way in which the damned capitalist “law of value” enter Salinas.

2) One of the most recurring themes in conversations, literature and videos with respect to Salinas, is that its experience can become a model to other poor rural communities. It could of course, but the more it will become so, the more the rule of the “fallacy of composition” would apply: you cannot infer that something is true for the whole from the fact that it is true of some part. Not anymore able to use a market niche (i.e. an area of the market which is relatively free of competition), the salinesitos workers would set their products against the products of other cooperatives around the world, thus undermining their livelihoods (and of course, this is already happening to some extent). It is the same for the “success” of fair trade coffees in our supermarkets, which makes the consumer effectively choose which “fair trade” community to help in building schools or hospital, a choice often influenced by the relative price of the different “community brands”. I think the world we seek is different, is one in which everybody should have access to health and education irrespectively of the price of the commodity they sell. The capitalist ideologues solution for this conundrum is the same as the solution for the conundrum that emerges from income and wealth polarisation: the dogma of the necessity of aggregate growth, which implies the search for always new areas of commodification of life and, as by-product, would destroy communities and the planet. At the systemic level, the Salinas experience is not the solution, although within it, there are definitively important aspects of the solution.

3) In the history of the Salinas social enterprises, there is and there has been from the beginning not only a strong reliance on international solidarity and donations — often but not only channelled through institutions and organisations within the Catholic church — but also an important reliance on debt. With the subscription of debt to promote purchases of capital (hence extend the scale of production), comes the need of selling to repay debt, and the process of subjectification of the locals to meet market deadlines. This is inevitable, as to the extent we rely on market mechanisms for our reproduction, we are subjected to its rules and general laws of operation. Obviously, in the history of Salinas there have been some problems with individuals’ and coops’ delays in making a payment, and perhaps some default. For this purpose, one of the aspects that most attracted my attention is the use of the participation in Mingas (an instance of commoning rooted in local traditions throughout the Andes) as one of the criteria for the classification of coop members as “serious,” hence for the extension to them of credit and other coop services (an instance of subjectification to the market through a disciplinary process). (See Antonio Polo. 2006. La porta aperta. 30 anni di avventura missionaria e sociale a Salinas di Bolivar Ecuador. Quito: FEPP, p. 64). I am not sure how and to what extent this has been the case, but what this reveals to me is the cooptation of commoning to promote capitalist market values and not viceversa.

I have mixed feelings about this Salinas’ experience. There is no doubt that the 69 agro-industrial and 38 service communities enterprises are quite a means for the local population to meet reproduction needs in ways that shield them from the most exploitative practices of other areas in the region and make them active participants in commoning processes centred on dignity. But the increasing reliance on, and strong preoccupation with, global export circuits and on the markets seems excessive, with the risk that experiments like these really become the vehicles for commons co-optation. Also, although there is a clear environmental sensibility in the discourse of this community in the brochures and book I have read (for example, there is an awareness that excessive expansion of cheese production has some environmental impact), there is too much concern about finding new sources of revenues by “adding value” to local resources processed into export products, and none at all about the environmental problematization of global production chains and ones own role within it. There is definitively no consideration for “Pachamama” in the celebration of mushroom or snails meet exports towards European and Asian markets, products that both the Europeans and Asians could and should produce themselves if they so much desire them: a basic element of critical food sovereignty discourse.

Actually this opens up to another critical issue, also recognised by Antonio Polo in our conversation. And this is that the process in Salinas has started from agri-industry, rather than agriculture. The discrete amount of common land available could have perhaps been used more for the community, and only now some experiments are conducted with green houses and different types of plants. I wander whether the Salinas reality would be any different today if 40 years ago, priority was put on the generation of food self-sufficiency within the areas. In any case, the Salinas reality is one that deserves more attention and study, because it helps us to pose the big questions we need to pose if we are preoccupied with processes of radical social transformation. Questions such as: how can local commoners be actors of their own social renewal? How and to what extent can they access the social wealth they need for the pursuit of the good living through their commoning as opposed to their work disciplined by the market? How can they access circuits of wealth generation outside their local circuits? What forms of distribution and exchange can they invent with other commons? To what extent the existing market circuits can be safely used as a way to access wealth? How to set up limits?

schools, trespassing rules, and power

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Just imagine any school in Europe during break time (admitting they still have some breaks) , the kids pouring in the yard and playing with that typical noise of children crowd run loose. Just imagine some strange kids wanting to enter from the outside, together with a couple of adults . . .what is the chance the kids  — and the adults — are let in to play? I guess the chance is higher that school “security” call the police, and the police arrives accompanied by social services to check on the parents behavior.

My two-year old son was banging his head against the closed gates of the school complex in Misahualli, in the Napo region of the Amazon forest.

He loves playing balls and he saw quite a few of them on the other side of the gate, together with kids from  5 to about 14  screaming, running and having fun.  His 6 years old brother was a bit more cautious, but clearly would have also loved to share some fun time with the other kids on the other side. My partner and I instead were boringly hushing him away from the gate, telling him the “right thing” : no, come away love, they are at school, we cannot enter, and all the sweet bla bla to transmit to him the “no trespassing rules” that we are accustomed to. Only a couple of months before, our six years old could not play with his own school mates because he missed school in the morning, and this was sufficient to make him an outcast during play time in the afternoon! So, while we were talking and he kept banging his head, a young woman approached the other side of the gate, undid the chain and opened the gate. Unlike us, Ncola did not hesitate and run in. We looked at her and ask with some wonder: “can we get in?”: “Claro que si’” she said.

On what authority could the woman  open the gate for us? She was nothing less that one of the two woman traders who get in the school for half an hour a day during recreation, break time, selling kandies and ice creams.

But her action was subscribed by a care taker who greeted us as nothing had happened, and a couple of teachers walking about the yard and nodding  with a smile to acknowledge our presence. We wandered around the large yard during  break time, the kids playing basketball, handball, and running up and down the slides.

Nicola was a bit puzzled when the couple of hundreds kids around him started to disappear after the bell rang, and kept running after the last kids until the end.

When all have disappeared, he turned the corner to find out that an older boy was still hiding away playing basketball . .we all joined in for a while, until he felt he really had to go and run towards his class. . . .

Transpassing rules are rules that filter access to commons, that define the porosity of borders and therefore the type of relation with the outside world. Without some type of transpassing rules, there would not be any commons, because commons are not open access, but involve some community working out, governing and defining the rules of access. In the nature of these rules as it is revealed when they are implemented, the community show what type of commons they have built, or, which is pretty much the same thing, what types of human beings  they are in relation to “the other”.  This little episode has shown to us how a gate-less school where any body from outside could get in and out is not necessarily the answer to a closed school where nobody from the outside could get in an out. The answer is the power to open the gate exercised by  people of the community, the power of individual judgement (the woman who opened the gate) and  the power of collective control (the caretaker and the teachers observing and, in this case, agreeing with the action). This shared power is really what ultimately enhance our sense of security without at the same time undermining our common sense.

The market as a commons: thoughts after a visit to Saquisili

Monday, March 15th, 2010

We travelled to Saquisili the other day, a small town 80 km South of Quito, where we were promised we would have found an impressive indigenous market, with little stuff for tourists. On the way, we got lost in a small  mountain village, Bolivar, and run across the first example of what in Quechua is called Minga, the work that  communities  put together for a common purpose without being paid for.

My grandfather was doing Minga all the time in the mountains of the Italian Appenines, without calling it that way — and I am not sure whether this working together to build dams and walls, maintaining the country’s roads or harvesting wheat had a special name. The group  of men and women we encountered in Bolivar where moving stones, digging holes and mixing cement to build a community house in the main  square of the village, so as the people could store stuff without being afraid of the “ladrones”. They put us back on the right track toward Saquisili.

We finally arrived in Saquisili and parked our rented car right in front of the market.

There were actually two markets, quite similar to one another, at two ends of the town. They were held under large roofs, and as expected  they were bubbling with life. the first thing we noticed after a while walking around the stalls was that virtually all market traders  were women selling fruits and vegetables and other food — meat, sugar, cheese, bread, fat, lard, ecc.

Most men, on the other hands, where hanging around and talk and eat. Some of them wandered around and sell “junks”: picture frames, household stuff, small toys, etc, while few others where loading heavy stuff on trucks. The other thing we noticed is that nothing is wasted: the fat of the cooked meet is collected in small plastic bags to be sold separately  . . .the crumbles that fall on the wood cutter when the big barrel of sugar is cut in smaller pieces (as large as a bread loaf) are offered to passer by  . . .some are even directly taken without being offered  . . . a man with fish-heads goes around selling them from a bucket  80 cents — they are huge fish heads and they promise a great soup . . .

Few hours in this market makes you realise that the market as a place is definitively a commons, i.e. there is a commons resource, a process of commoning and a community of commoners. There is a common resource, for example the covered square where all the stalls are located. Whether it is actually owned directly by the people or by the municipal council defines the type of filtering mechanism through which use-access of the facilities is configured. This filtering is obviously a site of conflict and power.  In Baños I asked the people selling food in the municipal market there, and they have told me a painful tale to get access to the licence, permits and authorisation to be able to sell in the market building. (It is a similar process in many European towns). But once they got in as individuals, they joined the other small sellers in an association to increase their power vis-a-vis the council, as if once the use-access rights are dealt with, what is left is the battle ground of control powers.

Thus, the precondition of the common resource, is a filtering of some type, which defines use-accss.  Obviously, a lot one can say about the type of filtering mechanism, the processes of inclusion and exclusion, the networks of clients, the powers of control that are exercised in this place, the extent to which the cleaning, or infrastructure maintenance are delegated to the outside world (council or private contractors) or are part of the distribution of tasks within the commons. Then there is the second element of the commons, the commoning. Being in Saquisili, once cannot fail to observe a continuous flow of productive and relational interaction to make the market as it is: like a woman helping another woman to put the bag of potato on her shoulders; like the children buzzing around as if they where a main means of communication among stall tenders. And much of the structure of the market cannot be but the result of past commoning. For example, the fact that al the bread sellers (and makers), and all the cheese sellers (and makers), and all the food makers (and sellers), are clustered together, cannot be but  the result of some decision in the past, even if this decision is the result of some spontaneous process. Because it is obvious to the economically trained eye, that one rationale of this clustering is in the limitation of competition among the sellers, another aspect of market place as a commons. Bread makers and cheese makers for example are all selling the same product — virtually indistinguishable — and the price is the same. A wheel of cheese $1.10. A horizontally split sixth of the wheel $0.25. The price at the beginning of the line of cheese makers, is the same as the price at the end. The same for bread seller. A bag of sweet bread for $1, all along the line.

Competition still exists, as the traders where trying to get my attention making eye contact and waving their products in order to sell their bread or cheese, and not that of their competitors. When I approached one and concluded a deal, the others seemed to talk to one another as if commenting on the ability of that woman to cut a deal, to gossip about it.

The third element of commons, that of community, is thus also evident  as the commnoning in particular forms build relations, waves solidarities but also reproduce hierarchies, and gives form to conflict and to the ways in which the community deals with it.

The Saquisili market has a lot in common to many other markets in Europe I am more familiar with. The key element is obvious: there are buyers and sellers, and prices, and transactions. But because there is so much more that these basic elements, and this much more is so much unfamiliar to me that hits my eyes (the range of goods, the customs, the smell and colour of the buzz), then few hours in Saquisili markets  helps me to understand  there is an important point to make in the difference between the market as commons and the market as abstract mechanism of resource allocation as it is envisioned in the model of orthodox economics.  The  presupposition of this market as commons is not only the type of filtering mechanism that allows these traders to access the market. Also, it is the sphere of the household economy within which the vast majority of these products are produced. And since the sphere of household economy is a commons — indeed, one of the commons at the smallest scale, the market place is a commons at a higher  scale, that is one that has  articulating elements and — as all commons at higher scales –  allow communities to mesh, commoning to weave norms and rules and resources to be pooled. If, at a general approximation, we understand commons as the productive sphere of non market transaction, then the market as a commons is not an oxymoron, but an expression that serves us to point out that the types of measures of market transactions presuppose a lot of non-market life.  It is not in the market in general that we see the disappearance of the commons. It is capitalist markets, and not market in general, that reduce the commons of the markets to only one, what is common between buyers and sellers, that is to be the participant of a valuing process that reduces everything — and I mean, everything — to the common measure of money.

Yasuni, Commons, Pachamama

Monday, March 8th, 2010


I am in Ecuador at the moment, where I arrived with my family 6 days ago for a three months trip in Latin America. I have just came back from a conference on the Yasuni area of the Amazon, where  in the last 30 years, petroleum enclosures have been threatening the common land of the Waorani and some of the last indigenous peoples still living in isolation in the Amazon. We learn that there is no clean oil exploration, that the amount of toxic by-product — even in the case of no spillage — is enormous and very difficult to handle, with toxic consequences for sources of fresh water and all forms of life depending on it. Around the wells used to search for oil,  the percentage of oil in the land was so high to be 20 or 30 thousands times above the maximum level for safe agricultural production.

The aim of the encuentro was to try to counter the ambiguity of the Ecuador president Correa who in 2007 has offered a plan that Ecuador will not allow extraction of the ITT oil fields in Yasuní, if the “world community” can create a compensation trust to leave the oil permanently in the ground and fund Ecuador’s “sustainable development” into the future. I leave aside here the fact that in the recent versions of the proposal this “compensation trust”  was substituted with a marketisation of the Yasuni in terms of carbon credit bonds, a mechanism highly criticizable not only because carbon credit markets have been found ineffective to meet the need of carbon reduction and because they tie the resources destined for social and ecological ends to speculation, but also because they threaten the autonomy of the indigenous people over their territory, since carbon bonds requires the local indigenous to act in the interest of the “monetary value” of the Yasuni carbon bond in competition to all carbon bonds issued around the world.

However, a part from the carbon market replacing the trust, Correa seems to want to master an incredible juggling exercise. On one hand, declared that no further oil exploration will be undertaken in the Yasuni area, while on the other hand and at the same time, he is signing  permits for further exploration. I asked people around, and the reasons given to me  for this contradiction are various, ranging from the fact that he is a very whimsical man, passing through the effect of the oil lobby, and arriving to the fact that the plan was never his in the first place, but of economist Alberto Acosta, who originally proposed the plan and since then he left the government.  (Acosta was at the encuentro, and a very critical voice, calling for a moratoria of all oil exploration, invoking the new constitution,  claiming the movement project as a life project not only for the indigenous or the Ecuador people, but for the entire planet, since Amazonia is the source of water for the rest of Ecuador and Yasuni has the greatest biodiversity in the world). But maybe this juggling is really the manifestation of the fact that to coopt the commons one needs to leave the options open, so as to navigate the contradictions and jump in the moment when opportunity arises.

“The country is yours, power is yours”

The project of commons-cooptation seems to me quite evident walking around the city of the encuentro — Orellana — and the nearby city of Coca — a dusty oil town, the gateway of the Yasuni park. They are both covered in posters that invite citizens to think of their city, their country and their resources as theirs. Posters like “your resources, we handle them well”, or “the country is yours, you have the power” seem to show that wanting to instil a sense of “common ownership” is clearly important from the state/oil companies propaganda’s side. A different sense of “common ownership” instead came up in the Yasuni encuentro, where I have been hearing several indigenous voices speaking, all demanding for an uncompromising end of oil exploration and an end of oil activities in the Yasuni. One after another these voices gave different illustrations of the reasons for this, but all repeated different versions of the same tune: Pachamama.

Pachamama is the deity of Andean origin and refers to “mother earth”, not just as geological earth or nature but also as a set of relations, a deity of reproduction, a protective rather than creative deity or perhaps better, a deity for which human creation is just a moment of a reproduction cycle. In this sense, the discourse is quite distinct from Western environmentalism, that — a part from the gaya hypothesis — sees earth  as simply the context of human activity. It seems to me that paradoxically, the insistence on Pachamana, as the sacred mother earth from which we depend on, is, quite amazingly, a materialist  approach to nature. The idea that “mother earth” is a precondition of our existence  echoes Marx’s notion that earth is the mother of value, that is the precondition for all human activity, an insight often left out in the compendia of Marxist thought.
The deity of Pachamama is a deity of protection, but as all religions, is a reflection of a human cosmological vision that grounds action. It is man and women who must protect earth, if earth must deliver the means for human survival. Otherwise, “la Pachamama tiene hambre frecuente y si no se la nutre con las ofrendas o si casualmente se la ofende, ella provoca enfermedades.” (wikipedia) The story of climate change seems to fit quite well this narrative.

In the Encuentro on the Yasuni, Pachamama is evoked endlessly in all different ways, until one realises there is little mysticism in Pachamama, or at least, the rational kernel of mysticism is grounded on solid material reality, the reality of property relations, of clashing idea of “common ownership”. The indignation of the people whose land is threatened with petrol leaks and toxic waste find in Pochamama a value discourse that clashes with the value discourse of the oil companies and the state, but at the same time enable them to compete with this discourse in terms of seeking alliances and building up the scale of the movement.

Standing on Pachamama allows this rebellious indigenous discourse to reveal three elements of conflct:

First, the question of use and access of land, of who has access and who can use it, the question of the community of commoners.  This claim is made in terms of a basic bipolarism between who will promote life in the Yasuni, and who will promote death in the Yasuni: as it is mentioned in the large banner of the encuentro, Yasuni is between life and death, and speech after speech remind us that the coalition of the Yasuni movement is a coalition that has embraced the project of life. The project of life find its political actors, its “commons entrepreneurs” in those who recognise a basic truth, and that is that the precondition for the reproduction of human life, of human creativity, of human existence, is our relation to Earth, because we and everything depend on Earth. As one man said “we cannot live  without Pachamama, we have to eat, we have to dress ourselves, so we need Pachamama.” That is, we need not just “resources” as things to extract, but the processes that reproduce these resources, because we have also to eat and drink and dress tomorrow and for generations to come. From the recognition of the basic dependence, to the identification of the clash, there is a simple step: “those who do not believe in Pachamama, are sucking the blood of Pachamama”, that is oil and water, and thus also threatening the survival of the people. And since the river connects the various communities, and Pachamama is Pachamama for all, Pachamama also represents also the condition for the preservation of all communities. As put it by another intervention:

“we are here for life of Pachamama, for the life of all nationalities.”

This discourse is actually extended, as around the Yasumi there is a discursive recomposition that exceeds the struggle and the preservation of the indigenous communities, and begin to involve “planetary Pachamama”. Yasuni after all is a planetary lung of crucial importance for global climate and biodiversity, as all the rest of the Amazon rain forest.

The claim over the Yasuni is thus in the first instance a claim over use and access: the people who recognise the importance of the Yasuni for their preservation must have use access to the forest.

The second element that emerge as a clash in ownership is the question of control. Who control the destiny of the forest? Those who have secular knowledge on how to preserve it, to maintain its life while reproducing theirs, or the government? One man pointed this out:

“The government cannot negotiate on matters of the Amazons behind our back”

another one said:

“the territories are autonomous and the companeros tiene da administrar el territorio [the comrades must administrate the territory]”

Autonomous control of the territory by the indigenous community is crucial for the maintenance of the use appropriate use.

Finally there is the question of the overall value system that is able to articulate use/access and define the whats and hows of control, the value system that gives a particular form of property and ownership life and sustenance.  This is a clash between Pachamama (and communal man) vs homo economicus (and earth as a mine).  As a Quechi from Peru told us :

“Pachamama: this is what we drink, we eat, we dress.  . .. It is a lie that we need to work, to earn money, in order to raise children. It is by defending the land that we do this.”

The lie is of course a lie to the extend we see it from outside, from a different value system and value practices, in the case of the speaker, from the value system captured in Pachamama. In our daily life within capital’s loops, the lie of having to run the race to acquire money to get by is a very potent reality, one that blur our vision and hide our ultimate dependence to the eco-system. Thus, this third conflictual element is the most difficult to deal with and recognise in a politically effective way, because in the course of the reproduction of daily life as “homo economicus”, our true “dependence to Pachamama” is structured in such a way that we see only our dependence on money and, therefore, on the social mechanisms that reproduce and accumulate money. How we do disentangle from this is one of the most important question we face. And obviously is not only a question of “false consciousness”, because the dependence on money is real ..

Thus,  we have here a clash between two claims of ownership and the politics of “alliances” around these two claims. One, by the state and oil companies as “representative” of the ecuadorians, for which they administrate their oil resources while preserving the forest (sic — an impossibility). On the other by the Waorani as “representative” not only of ecuadorian, but of humanity as a whole, since the Waorani commoning on the Yasuni is the only way to sustain the Yasuni as planetary commons.  To to put in another way  we have the following points: 1) earth provides food, clothing and all we need — it cannot come from anywhere else! Hence to the community of the Yasuni, the preservation of the forest is of crucial importance. 2) therefore the indigenous claim common *ownership* to the part of earth that give them sustenance, the yasuni - to the jungle, the river, the bio-physical relations therein.   3) a claim of common ownership that almost naturally turns into a claim of autonomy in terms of the administration of the territory, since the *preservation* of the Waorani is one with the preservation of the Yasuni, and 4) Pachamama and homo economicus reveal two distinct and clashing valuing and measuring rationalities upon which notion of ownership (use access + control) are built. Yet, Pachamama is not lack of recognition of pay offs. The indigenous commons ownership also translate in pay offs to the Ecuadorian people (preservation of water sources for the entire country) and the world (through preservation of Amazon sink), thus the Yasuni is also a commons to them, at a different scale, and with different modalities of use-access and control, yet a common nevertheless. Hence, the struggle here also provides a basic general framework within which to devise schemes of compensation and reparation through which not only the Yasuni stay without oil and trash, but also without poverty.

Self-organization and self-government in Haiti to deal with the crisis

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Haitians in makeshift camps organize ‘platoons’ to provide services

By Howard LaFranchi Staff writer posted January 31, 2010 at 11:41 am EST

Small groups have taken it upon themselves to establish security, organize aid deliveries, and maintain a minimum of sanitation in the sprawling ‘tent cities’ that cropped up in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Temp Headline Image


Port-au-Prince, Haiti —As Haitians have accepted the stark reality that the camps that sprang up after the horrific Jan. 12 earthquake will be their home indefinitely, people have moved to get their new communities organized.Enter any camp here, from the sprawling, stewing expanse of perhaps 10,000 people in the capital’s central Champ de Mars, to others on soccer fields and golf courses and inside the security barriers of now-crumbled public buildings, and in most cases you’ll find “the committee” – the small group of men and women who have taken it upon themselves to establish security, organize aid deliveries, and maintain a minimum of sanitation.< ..more..!>

Behind these spontaneous and often basic attempts at self-government is a very human desire to put some order – and maybe even a bit of hope – into disrupted and disoriented lives.

“The first distributions of food here were complete chaos. The groups got out of here before emptying their trucks because it was such a mess,” says Ben Constant, president of the “committee” at the Sylvio Cator soccer stadium camp, a few blocks west of the collapsed presidential palace in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. “That’s when we knew we had to get this thing organized.”

Mr. Constant, a well-known Port-au-Prince DJ who before the quake managed the stadium for the Haitian Federation of Football, sat down to figure out who was living in the camp – about 700 families, more than 2,500 people – what was needed, and who could do what.

Clean-up ‘platoons’

Clean-up and security “platoons” were established – the word “platoon” harking back to Constant’s years serving in the US Army and Vietnam (he’s a Haitian citizen who lived in the US for a number of years). A clinic with what he claims is now some of the best emergency pediatric care in the city was set up – open not just to the camp population but to all Haitian kids in need.

And families were assigned a number – it’s all written down by hand on a neat ledger – so that numbers are called when aid arrives, and the distribution is more orderly.

Constant says he felt compelled to organize day-to-day living at the camp because frustration was building “and something bad was going to happen.” The fact he and his family live at the stadium as well was another motivation. “We lost everything like everybody else,” he says. “We’re just trying to make what we can of this situation.”

In some cases, the camp committee members were involved in neighborhood governing boards before the quake, and simply transferred their skills and social-organizing abilities to their new residence.

Kermly Hermé is one of those people. Active in the Bel Air neighborhood before the quake, she is now the doyenne of at least a section of the sprawling Champ de Mars camp.

A large woman with a colorful muumuu and a massive bun fashioned of tight braids, Ms. Herme says the “committee” of nine she sits on has assigned itself such tasks as keeping the nearby port-a-johns “orderly” and getting the sick and wounded to clinics.

She herself has taken on the job of going to market to buy provisions – with the small “dues” the committee collects of camp residents – to prepare a daily hot meal.

Indeed, Herme suddenly excuses herself from an interview and moves to the bubbling pots a few steps away, where a rather forlorn-looking man holds out a Styrofoam takeout container. Without a word she scoops rice onto the plate and then ladles chicken in chickpea sauce over it. The man thanks her and walks on.

Camps outside of Port-au-Prince

The camp organizing is not limited to Port-au-Prince, but appears to have sprung up wherever Haitians find themselves without a house and obliged to join others in makeshift communities.

In Jacmel on Haiti’s southern coast, the 13 individuals attempting to put some order into the lives of 600 homeless people in the crushed center city have even given themselves a fancy title: Management Committee of the Victims at Toussaint Louverture Square.

As was the case with the stadium camp, impending anarchy prompted the committee’s formation.

“A truck from Doctors without Borders came with kits of supplies to hand out, but it was such terrible disorder they left in a hurry,” says Michelet Jerôme. “That got us going.”

The committee now has a security team – petty theft by “outsiders” was becoming a problem – and food, shelter, and health subcommittees.

Another important committee function is to advocate for the camp with the dozens of international assistance organizations that are bringing supplies and services into the city. “We have a serious lack of tents, but if you go into some of the streets in the higher [up the hill] neighborhoods, you’ll see them lined with red tents because they had good contact with the organization that provided tents,” Mr. Jerôme says. “We need a committee to establish relations with these groups.”

Longer-term housing needs

The camp organizing is taking hold just as the Haitian government plans for the longer-term housing needs of perhaps 1 million Haitians during the country’s reconstruction period. Last week Haitian officials said they had already secured 400,000 tents from international donors, and had so far selected sites in Port-au-Prince for two large camps.

Some of the camp organizers say they expect many of the makeshift camps to remain, in part because they are often close to people’s neighborhoods. Others say they will be happy to turn over management to the government. Some, however, fear any attempt to build camps of several thousand families make things worse. Among the concerns: The new camps will be located far from the city center, transportation won’t be adequate, and distribution of food and other needs – still a problem in the makeshift camps – will deteriorate in camps with more people.

Hermé of the Champ de Mars says she can understand that 10,000 people can’t continue living in the city’s central public space, but she also says that past experience suggests to her that the government will have a hard time getting the new camps right.

“If they organize things well from the beginning, with good services and transportation, it can work,” she says. “But already we only find out about their plans on the radio, so it’s not a good start.”

And at the stadium camp, Constant is even less hopeful. “They’re going to try to do something that is impossible,” he says. “I know what we’re going through here with 800 people,” he says. “Can you imagine what it will take to succeed with 5,000 people living in the same camp?”