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  • Special Issue on Latin American Commons: An Introduction
  • Jim Robson and Gabriela Lichtenstein

A ‘commons’ can be considered any resource (environmental or otherwise) that is subject to forms of collective use, with the relationship between the resource and the human institutions that mediate its appropriation considered an essential component of the management regime. Like public goods, common resources suffer from problems of “excludability” (i.e., it is physically and/or institutionally difficult to stop people from accessing the resource). Like private goods, they are also “subtractable” (or “rivalrous”), whereby resource use by one person diminishes what is available for others to use. As Ostrom (1990) explained, conventional wisdom assumes that the sustainable management of common resources can only be achieved through centralized government or private control. Yet empirical evidence (garnered from both real world case studies and laboratory work) has challenged this assumption – to show that alternative forms of property can work effectively if well matched to the “attributes of the resource and users, and when the resulting rules are enforced, considered legitimate, and generate long-term patterns of reciprocity” (van Laerhoven and Ostrom 2007: 19). As the same authors go on to note, “many people, ranging from policy makers, donors, practitioners, and citizen activists, to scientists from different disciplines, have begun to appreciate that there is a world of nuances between the State and the market”.

This issue

Latin America is a complex region in socio-cultural, economic and environmental terms, where natural resource commons play a significant role in the livelihoods of millions of people (Robson and Lichtenstein, this issue). Secure access to such resources is considered critical to regional and global environmental sustainability efforts and for helping marginalised groups escape hunger and poverty, and move towards greater self-determination (Sen 1999; Alden Wily 2011). Yet our knowledge of how Latin American commons are currently used and governed remains limited. We know little, for example, about how individual country experiences compare, or the degree to which commons regimes are struggling to persist or transforming to endure in the face of globalization and other contemporary challenges

In order to fill some of these knowledge gaps, in January 2011 we organized a double session on Latin American commons at the 13th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC), held in Hyderabad, India. The purpose was to provide a platform for commons researchers, whose work was based in the region, to discuss their findings and experiences, to connect researchers, thematic foci, resource type and disciplinary backgrounds, and to provide impetus for future commons research. As part of these interactions, the potential for research to influence policy in the region was raised.

The event proved very successful and, consequently, we felt it was important that some of the lessons learned made it into print and reached a wider [End Page 1] audience. It is therefore with great pleasure that we are able to present, in this special issue of JLAG, a series of articles that shed light on some of the important issues of the day affecting commons and commoners in Latin America. Some are borne out of the papers presented at the IASC conference and others build upon more recent work and thinking. All focus on natural resource commons; a bias that reflects both the types of commons predominantly studied in Latin America, as well as our own interests. Some of the articles focus on individual countries and others take a more regional approach, while some focus on one particular resource type and others encapsulate multiple resource commons.

The first of our articles, by Robson and Lichtenstein, sets the scene by looking at the state of commons research in Latin America, through an exploration of communal land tenure systems across the region and an analysis of the research conducted since 1990 and subsequently published in international journals or presented at international conferences. In doing so, the authors show what Latin American commons are being studied and by whom, and to discuss the implications of these findings in terms of future research direction and government policy-making.

Following this Latin America-wide review, we move to the first of our papers based on country-level...


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