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Aerial directly overhead view from a plane's height of agricultural farms in american midw

Enclosure to Consolidation

A new epidemic is spreading among us: more and more people are infected by the recognition of our unity. The fragmentation of human communities, the separation of man and nature, were but an interlude in human history; and that interlude is now coming to a close. We are … moving toward a cooperative world that could be, and should be, initiated by the worldwide consultation of people representing no interest other than that of the species itself.” 

~ Ervin Laszlo

Today the largest 1 percent of farms globally which form the core of the corporate food system operate more than 70% of the world’s farmland. The largest 1 percent of farms in 15 Latin American countries own more than half of all agricultural land while the smallest 80% of farms occupy less than 13%. Globally, just four corporations control 65% of agrochemical sales, another four control 50% of seed sales, and finally another four control 45% of farm equipment sales


These trends of consolidation are not stopping, with experts forecasting a reduction of global farms from 616 million in 2020 to 272 million by the end of the 21st century, with average farm size doubling. As the next generation of farmers retire, over 400 million acres of farmland will trade hands over the next decade


Yet not too long ago much of the consolidated farmland was held in commons, belonging to and stewarded by local communities. In these systems, communities organized locally appropriate rules, norms, and punishments dictating how resources were utilized and shared.


Image from page 28 of the RAÍCES Institute Report

Commons and Cooperatives in Today’s World

Aerial view of a forest with a productive agricultural field to the side.jpg
Aerial directly overhead view from a plane's height of agricultural farms in american midwest.jpg

Starting in the United Kingdom in the early 1600s, commons were privatized and land was forcibly transitioned from commonly shared to privately owned. Between 1604 and 1914 over 5,200 enclosure acts were enforced, privatizing 6.8 million acres. The notion of privatized land ownership was exported around the world in often violent and genocidal ways. Traditional commons from around the world succumbed to the spread of capitalism and colonialism leading to the state of consolidation today. Yet even with this expansion, there are still vast swathes of commons and a vibrant movement to expand on these areas today. While private ownership of land may feel ubiquitous and all encompassing, yet there remains a rich undercurrent of commoning and groups working to expand commons around the world.


Dr. Elinor Ostrom was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her exploration of how commons operate in the real world. She showed that communities bound by social bonds and shared interests find ways to deal with conflict and overexploitation based on

culturally appropriate means of stewardship. The tragedy of the commons – the idea that overexploitation of resources by rational economic citizens seeking self promotion and profit is inevitable – applies less to resources stewarded by communities and more to corporations who have a systemic obligation to shareholders and profit that cannot account for environmental and social externalities. 

Through numerous examples, Ostrom showed that resources held in commons can be managed sustainably based on certain criteria determining how they were cared for. These criteria are summarized broadly into 8 rules:

  1. Commons need clearly defined boundaries

  2. Rules should reflect local circumstances

  3. Participatory decision making determine social adherence

  4. Commons must be monitored to hold accountability

  5. Sanctions should be graduated to prevent resentment and exclusion

  6. Easy and straightforward conflict resolution ensuring

    problems are solved quickly and cheaply

  7. Legitimated commons by a higher authority are taken more seriously

  8. Commons function better when set within larger networks that require broad cooperation

To learn more about the history of the commons and enclosure, we recommend reading The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology by Derek Wall. To learn more about commons in today’s world, we recommend this comprehensive guide – “A Commoner’s Guide for Changemaking” outlining a wide variety of projects and approaches to commoning as well as rich historical and philosophical examinations of commoning practices.

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