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Durability in Diversity? Illustrations from some Long-Lived Commons in England and Ronaldshay

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Chakravarty-Kaul, Minoti
Conference: Building the European Commons: From Open Fields to Open Source, European Regional Meeting of the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP)
Location: Brescia, Italy
Conf. Date: March 23-25
Date: 2006
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/791
Sector: Land Tenure & Use
Region: Europe
Subject(s): IASC
common pool resources--history
village organization--history
land tenure and use--history
Abstract: "In England one cannot miss the village greens, the criss- crossing of public footpaths and bridle-paths and the meres and heaths all over the country-side. Indeed London itself is a conglomerate of commons! "Despite enclosure there are now 8,675 commons in England and Wales but none in Scotland (Walters, 2005). Indeed, they have withstood challenges from both the exogenous impact of statutory enactments from early times to 1965 attenuating customary usages of the commoners and from endogenous factors like induced changes in patterns of land-use in response to changing technology and growing demand for environmental goods and services. "The fact that the commons have endured in England to the present day, raises several questions for both history and the historians to answer. Were these long-lived commons outside the pale of the manorial system where the enclosures took place? Who were the commoners and how did they resist institutional and structural erosion? Our case studies indicate the persistence of local self-governing qualities which enabled diverse institutional and structural re-alignment of the commons to changing legal and technological environments. "Institutional support to customary usage came from diverse sources both scholarly as from John Stuart Mill and Henry Sumner Maine and from activism like that of Lord Eversley amd the Commons Preservation Society in 1865 which entrenched the value of open green spaces even in urban areas. Even land reforms were contemplated to reverse the enclosure of the commons to benefit the poor! Ultimately, England's commons were formalised by the Common Lands Registration Act, 1965. "But such support to institutions governing the commons could succeed only because there was local institutional and structural re- alignment of the commons to newer aspirations like that of nature conservation and greater bio-diversity beyond just food and fodder. "Dispute and uncertainty still dog the commons and it is to these that we turn - from the various recent research in the forest commons of Epping in Essex (Peter Walsh), Pamber in Hampshire and the Odiham Commons (Alan Albery) and the Ashdown forest, Sussex (Brian Short). And finally my own research findings on the island of Ronaldshay to confirm my hypothesis and a comparision with England's erstwhile colony - India and the forest commons of the North-West Himalayas... "'God made the Orkneys and the people of North Ronaldsay made the island what it is today' (plagiarised from a Dutch saying). The island's rocky foreshore is battered by the strong winds from the North Sea which also throws up sea weeds on to the rocks. The inhabitants turned round this bleak foreshore by excluding the sea from the island with a strong wall which then created an 'enclosed' agriculture and a common pasture land on the foreshore for all the sheep. The foreshore commons not only sustained grazing for the sheep but transformed the animals to a rare breed whose digestives system has mutated in an almost Darwinian sense. Endurance has been built up by a unique set of customary institutions which diversifies and re-aligns the grazing commons and the common wall itself against any threat to either the pasture or the island itself against the ravages of the North Sea or any future melting Arctic ice-cap!"

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