British farmland prices have trebled over the last ten years, new research shows.
This means access to land for farmers and growers, particularly entrants, has become increasingly more challenging. Land is treated as an investment for privileged individuals rather than a precious common resource. Within this context, what models can we turn to as inspiration for redressing the balance?
Elinor Ostrom contends that under a given set of conditions, communities can self-manage the resources around them. This is illustrated for me by the agrarian communities of the Berber in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco.
One of Ostrom’s necessary conditions for a successful common pool resource is that the community managing the resources needs to be clearly defined. The cultural heritage of the Berbers ties them together, defining them as a community. They are the indigenous inhabitants of northern Africa, and resisted both Arab and French rule of the land they have stewarded for hundreds of years.
In order for it to thrive, the common pool resource needs to be user-managed and regulated. Berber tradition dictates that every family is allocated some land for an orchard and vegetables. These parcels of land are distributed and prepared for growing by the community.
In addition to land, water is vital resource in the arid mountains. A sophisticated system of irrigation was designed and constructed communally. It is now managed by the community such that each family has a set amount of hours of water per week.
Ostrom also talks of creating sanctions to varying degrees for all violators and of the importance of low cost dispute resolution when issues arise. In fact, I did not experience rule violation. On the contrary, in addition to thriving land and water management schemes, there were seed exchanges between farmers and a system of beneficence whereby one may help oneself to produce with the farmer’s permission if one is landless. Perhaps this generosity and practice of good faith within the community can be attributed to the Islamic moral code underpinning Berber society.
I found it inspirational to learn from people practising community management of natural resources, wild foraging and other smallholding skills out of cultural heritage rather than out of a need to re-invent these crafts – as it is in our country, where foraging is seen as ‘radical’ and unconventional.
A crucial part of the Berber story was that land could never be bought or sold. This meant that it would never become a commodity, open to the exploits of investment market forces.
Common pool resourcing in the 21st century is ever decreasing due to purposed neoliberal alternatives such as privatisation or government regulation. However, we often do not give due consideration to a solution derived from communities themselves.
Given the neo-liberal land economy in the UK, community farm land trusts offer us a model of re-cognising land as a common pool resource. When farm land trusts buy out land at investment price for long term leases to communities, land is being decommodified. This is a first step in reviving land as a resource rather than a commodity to be exchanged and exploited for profit. Through facilitating and empowering communities to buy or lease farm land, pockets of land are now in common ownership and management. This is the start of communities re-educating themselves and reconnecting to their food and farm land.