The commons are a fundamental safety net for many rural families. However, communities all over the world face involuntary loss of commons due to increasing pressure on natural resources, land grabbing, urbanization, and user conflicts. So, how to secure the rights of these communities? Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington advocated for collective action as a way to secure individual or communal property rights to natural resources, which can strengthen rural people’s livelihoods. Collective action means that a group acts together to form a voluntary institution. Meinzen-Dick, who developed a research framework on the prerequisites for community-based natural resource management, emphasised these points during a public talk on „Collective Action and Property Rights for Natural Resource Management” at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) on 28 July 2014.

Collective action

The role of the government to decentralize power is key to creating effective authorities at regional level. However, “often the responsibilities are handed down but not the rights”, criticised the researcher. The ownership and decision-making power in most cases are shared between governmental institutions, local elites, and customary leaders, whose claims to power roles lack respect and legitimacy. Meinzen-Dick commented that “power has been missing in not only the commons but also the international development debate”. Inclusive systems in which locals are not undermined, and have a voice in the design of policy and resource management systems, are an effective way to strengthen people’s livelihoods. Both the adequate access and sustainable use of natural resources are safeguarded.

Property rights

To make the division of rights between local communities, user groups, and state authorities clear, Meinzen-Dick suggested the concept of ascribing bundles of rights to groups and individuals. She acknowledged that states should also recognise communities as legal entities with a legal right to tenure. The presentation was followed by a lively discussion on the applicability of the framework in complex settings, for example in the case of power imbalances and overlapping systems of formal and informal tenure rights. Participants also discussed the issue of assigning property rights to commons, resources that are characterised by collective use, management and/or ownership. During the discussion, Meinzen-Dick emphasized that the legal recognition of tenure rights serves not only as a safety net for livelihood security in rural areas, but encourages long-term planning and sustainable resource use.


As part of the work on land and soil governance, the IASS takes these considerations further in its work on the Technical Guide on Commons. The talk was followed by a two-day workshop on “Strategic Guidance to Strengthen the Commons” where Meinzen-Dick and other Sounding Board members of the Technical Guide on Commons met to discuss ways of how to recognize, protect and support the commons by using the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT).


Charlotte Beckh
Global Soil Forum
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS)

Phone: +49 331 28822 380