The Rise of the Commons in Latin America

The commons appears to be gaining a stronger foothold in Latin America. A few days ago (December 7-9), I attended a landmark conference in Mexico City on “Citizenship and Commons,” hosted by the Heinrich Boll Foundation. The spirited event drew more than 150 activists, academics and others from countries throughout Latin America. While the commons was a new concept to many participants, there was a palpable enthusiasm for exploring its political and strategic value.

People in Latin American countries are only too familiar with the abuses that unfettered markets are inflicting on their lives. They know how corporations are plundering genetic resources that have been sustained by indigenous communities. They are being hurt by corporate privatization of scarce fresh water supplies. By global warming that affects the countries of the South with more intense weather changes. By copyright and technology controls that lock up culture and prevent normal sharing. By trade agreements that undercut local and regional economies, limit development and subvert the sovereignty of nations. And so on.

While it is not entirely clear that the words “commons” and “enclosure” will be adopted by Latin Americans, there is little question that the basic concepts resonate. Participants seemed to relish the way that the commons brings together a wide variety of issues that are not usually seen as connected (biopiracy, trade policy, water privatization, free culture, etc.), and how the commons helps people assert a trans-national solidarity in fighting market excesses and corporate domination.

One of the key truths about the commons is the differences among them. Each commons bears the stamp of its local culture, the nature of the resource, its history, and other factors. So while I approached the conference with some general ideas about how commons work, it was an education for me to see how other people describe and emotionally connect to their commons. Some of the most moving moments in the conference came when indigenous activists from Oaxaca and Chiapas spoke about their struggles to assert control over their economies and their lives. Since social communities tend to be richer and more dynamic in Latin America than in the U.S., I think many people there intuitively understand the idea of enclosure. That may be why the commons may take hold among more Latin Americans — it helps name something that does not otherwise have a good name in official government and economic discourse. I think indigenous peoples may have a lot to teach us about the commons, in particular: they live it more intensely than most of us.

Inevitably, people at the conference had disagreements about how to define and analyze the commons. But many of these discussions were rich and provocative. For example, one person pointed out that the commons should not really be regarded as a noun, but as a verb, because a commons is what we do socially; it is not merely a physical object. A commons is as a commons does. Another person pointed out how market enclosures are fundamentally attacks on the social fabric.

Still another person suggested that we need to learn how to talk “heart to heart, and not just mind to mind.” To me, this was one of the most heartening developments of the conference — the willingness of people to tolerate differences while pursuing a shared vision. Unity with diversity: it could be one of the major challenges we face in confronting the pathologies of market activity, especially as a planetary crisis looms larger. We need each other. I’m grateful to the Heinrich Boll Foundation for convening this major international gathering on the commons. In coming months, it will be interesting to see how contagious the commons truly is.