A Welcome Focus on Latin American Commons

The Journal of Latin American Geography has dedicated an entire issue (vol. 12, no. 1) to surveying the state of commons on that continent. The special issue (in English) consists of nine essays, the first of which provides a helpful overview of the state of Latin American commons and commons research. (A listing of abstracts here.)  This academic treatment gives some welcome visibility and depth to the study of the commons in that vast region of the world, much of which is besieged by aggressive neoliberal policies that seek to extract vast natural resources in the name of "development." 

The Journal focuses on a range of commons-related themes in various countries, including the effect of rural out-migration from Mexico on commons there; new efforts in Costa Rica to treat biodiversity as a commons; the struggle of indigenous peoples in Brazil to secure tenure rights to their communal resources; and use of commons by marginalized people in Argentina to manage wild guanacos, a large, llama-like ungulate valued for their meat, skins and fibers.

The overview essay on current trends in Latin American commons research, by James Robson and Gabriela Lichtenstein, shines a light on the development agenda of oil and mining industries while noting the many legal and political changes that have reinstated communal property regimes.  Many countries, such as Brazil, Honduras, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have formally recognized the communal rights of indigenous communities to their traditional territories.  Overall, there is a “upturn in communal land tenure over time,” write Robson and Lichtenstein. 

However, they note that there are different definitions of what constitutes communal management, and indigenous peoples in some Latin American countries still face significant obstacles.  Some countries have instituted land reform but not institutional reforms that could help people use the land more productively. 

Throughout Latin America, “three or more decades of neoliberal reforms that have sought to link rural sectors in Latin America more closely to global markets….have provoked a major restructuring of the region’s economies and societies,” the authors note.  It is no accident that “the total number of rural poor has increased in every Latin American countries since the 1970s,” except for Brazil and more recently, Chile and Mexico.

It’s great to see a focused scholarly treatment of the commons in Latin America (if a bit disappointing that the journal is not available on an open access basis, but only through a university library or payment.) 

A helpful complement to this special issue of the Journal of Latin American Geography is Professor Maristella Svampa’s keynote talk (in Spanish, starting at 30:37 in the video) at the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin in May.  She focused on the “neo-extractivist” agenda in Latin America, describing how massive mines, mega-dams and oil drilling are devastating hundreds of communities and destroying the environment.  Svampa also noted the role that the commons could play in combating this destruction.