Common property and power - the theoretical commons literature

We now discuss the establishment of common property regimes in the five regions analysed and try to establish connections with the theoretical commons literature. In addition to the importance of collective action emphasised by Ostrom, we argue that the power constellations play a key role in the emergence and development of the commons (see Section 10.3). We emphasise the role of local elites and the importance of the market integration of common-pool resources to explain the development of long-standing commoners’ organisations.

Rule formalisation processes before 1800

Institutions for the management of common agricultural lands, alpine pastures and forests were formalised between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries in all the regions analysed, and included two elements: first, the definition of members (mostly called citizens of the respective commoners’ organisations) and the boundaries of the commonly owned areas; and second, the establishment of rules regulating access, timing and members’ duties and responsibilities. Apart from common land, farmers often had private plots of arable land as well as meadows used for hay production. In the case of today’s Korporation Uri, called the Land Uri before the nineteenth century, the big commoners’ organisation managed to install its authority over the many sub-organisations by legitimising their written rules for using resources. Similarly, in the Early Modern Period the commoners of Chur defined ownership and use rules of forests, common fields and pastures that were bought in Arosa. Sarnen, in the canton of Obwalden, saw the development of four commoners’ organisations, which adapted their regulations according to different environmental and social settings. In Val d’Anniviers, the ownership and management rested for a long time in the hands of nobles and the church from the Rhone valley downstream. The codification of common property and management rules applying to forests and pastures, as well as village life, occurred in the sixteenth century. At that time, the adoption of the cantonal statutes led to the rapid codification of previously unwritten village rules, together with the increased freedom of commoners in the valley and the six villages. These institutions were also sanctioned by the bishop. Belonging to an autochthonous family in a village was a key condition in order to obtain rights to common pastures and forests, as well as vineyards. Finally, Olivone, located in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, enacted a common property' union between several villages, established in written documents. These documents indicate that alpine pastures and forests were bought or taken from other communities and noble landlords during the formation of the commoners’ organisation. As in the other cases, informal rules of membership and access rights to the common pool resources were codified in later centuries. The current term patriziati, used for the Olivone commoners’ organisation, is of very recent history and stems from the nineteenth century. It thus reflects a newer phenomenon, but is a denomination stemming from the existence of century-old collective rights on communal resource.

One could argue that these developments are soundly within Ostrom’s design principles, especially those where the transaction cost argument is concerned (clear membership and boundaries, monitoring and graduated sanctions). Most of the cases show that the formalisation and codification of these design principles took place during the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. In particular, the location of most boundaries was clarified, rules of membership (or citizenship) were defined for a commoners’ organisation, and conflict resolution, and mechanisms for monitoring and sanctions were implemented. These changes are not only the outcome of internal local processes. Rather, all cases show that local commoners were embedded in the supra-regional markets around urban centres, especially those in northern Italy. The export of resources related to pastures (cheese and meat), as well as timber from these areas, started to increase, and the pressure on common-pool resources rose. Boundaries and related conflict resolution mechanisms therefore had to be codified, as did measures for monitoring and sanctioning. Land Uri is a case in point, where market-related interests (livestock trade) went hand in hand with a kind of conquest of new territory, first of all alpine pastures in neighbouring regions. The interests of the elite had a forceful effect in these developments. Often, but not always, they were also the driving forces behind political self-determination processes, when commoners’ organisations tried to become independent of the nobles and the church. Many of these organisations used changes in the structures of rule to progressively buy themselves out of the feudal contract. They became more self-regulated, obtaining titles and communal rights to resources. In places such as Uri, Chur, Val d’Anniviers and Olivone, local elite families would try to take over leadership after breaking away from feudal control. Such processes are of interest, as the bargaining power of these elites was rising. From an internal perspective it is important to say that although the local elite had more power than normal commoners, they were still accountable to the other members of the commoners’ organisations and were not able to fully control the resources. This analysis of a negotiated political process as the basis of common property institutions is a central feature of all five commoners’ organisations, despite their differences. Further, production was not just for subsistence, but incorporated into emerging market contexts. These elements echo institutional approaches which, in contrast to Ostrom, include the notions of external changes and power of different actors in the model. Such processes were also exacerbated by the generally lesser extent to which the feudal order pushed through in the mountain areas of Switzerland. This, however, did not prevent commoners’ organisations from conquering other areas. A case in point is Land Uri, which invaded the Leventina region in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland towards the end of fifteenth century and controlled the region until the end of the ancien regime. Generally speaking, however, these processes of self-regulation were the historic basis for the creation of diverse resource governance modes, each of them adapted to a specific local ecological, political and economic context, and at the same time - by introducing and adapting resource use institutions (rules and regulations) — they also shaped what we call the cultural landscape ecosystems through several forms of transhumance patterns and the continued use of pastures and forests.

Changes in bargaining power in the nineteenth century

The liberal-radical spirit brought to Switzerland by the French Revolution favoured a unitary conception of the state and a political system supporting individual rights against pre-existing communitarian rights. Later, the Federal Constitution of 1848 was a compromise between the progressive parts of the country who had won the civil war (Sonderbundskrieg) and the conservative cantons as its losers. As a compromise, the cantons were allowed a high level of self-organisation, which in some cases strengthened the position of the commoners’ organisations. In some cases — as in Uri - they were given a high level of autonomy. In others, local elites had to include new members and adapt the rules of access to resource areas. Such changes were particularly visible in Chur, and slightly less so for the French-speaking and the Ticino regions. In the canton of Valais for example, municipalities replaced commoners’ organisations in their function as local authorities. Consequently, commoners’ organisations lost most of their political competencies. While the formal rules still remained intact, informal inclusion and exclusion rules had to be negotiated internally in order not to be undermined from outside.

Regarding the notion of property' and forms of organisation, the case studies show that on the eve of major political and economic changes in the nineteenth century, there was a very heterogeneous picture of commoners’ organisations. The cases analysed refer to different denominations, such as Biirgergemeinde, [Corporation, bourgeoisie or patriziati, with different levels of centralised rules (higher in Uri and Chur), and specific forms of decentralisation in Sarnen, Olivone and Val d’Anniviers. This phase is of interest, as all the commoners’ organisations analysed could, in one way or another, maintain the common property institutions of forests and pastures. The legal form on which most of the commoners’ organisations are based today', however, stems from the time in which all these areas became part of the cantons of the Swiss Federal State, after 1848. This time is characterised by discussion about whether the commons should be divided into individual ownership or not. In all the cases, the outcome of the debates was the maintenance of the common property institutions and organisations. However, these newly formed commoners’ organisations were then excluded from the political governance context, which was dominated by' the cantons and the municipalities. There were differences regarding the bargaining power of the commoners’ organisations in relation to the power of the state organisations: the commoners’ organisations of Uri and Chur seem to have maintained more bargaining power than the ones in the other case studies. This does not mean greater independence, however; on the contrary': the Biirgergemeinde Chur and the [Corporation Uri secured their influence precisely through their close ties with the municipality of Chur, respectively with the canton of Uri. Moreover, in the upper valleys of the cantons of Ticino and Valais the number of inhabitants was so low and the villages were so small as to make it often difficult until the end of the nineteenth century to make a real distinction between political communities and commoners’ organisations, precisely because these institutions were composed of, and managed by the same families.

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