Natural Commons

De Remix Biens Communs

Enhancing and supporting “the commons” and ICCAs in Europe—options for major improvements in EU legislation and policies


‘ICCAs’ (Indigenous peoples’ and Conserved Community territories and Areas) is the term adopted since the beginning of the millennium to describe the natural areas, resources, species and habitats conserved in a voluntary, common and self-directed way by indigenous peoples and local communities throughout the world [1].

The concept of ICCAs is inexistent as such in Europe but it can be identified with the concept of communities that depend on collective tenure, mostly located in rural areas. These systems are still alive and widespread in Europe but practically unknown and invisible to the general public and authorities.

Recently the Convention for Biological Diversity recognized ICCA as a new category of protected area (ICCA). While this was originally conceived of the Developing World, commoners within Europe are starting to realise that they also manage such areas and deserve equal recognition

The current common revival seem to be a reaction against the today capitalism rationale that implies the depletion of natural resources and exacerbates an unbalanced distibution of them, compromising democratic principles and the survival of human communities.

Society needs a new sort of “social contract” with new participatory governance rules to face the huge challenges pose by the socio-economic and environmental crises. This recovering of the “common formula” seem to be the expression of a collective search for new democratic and governance systems as a political alternative in the XXI century.


Spain 4 205 593
Cyprus 805
France 750 000
Ireland 422 415
Italy 610 165
Austria 252 872
Portugal 171 351
United Kingdom 1 195 246
Hungary 627 225
Bulgaria 858 563
Romania 1 497 764
Greece 1 698 949
Slovenia 8 221
Norway Unknown
Croatia Not identified
Montenegro Not identified
EU TOTAL (ha) 12 299 265

The extension of the commons in the EU is not known with any precision, but the European Commision estimates in more than 12 million hectareas the Utilised Agriculture Area (UAA) (meaning the area used for farming) under common land (data do not include forestry or marine areas)

Source: European Commission. Eurostat. |}

What do ICCAs in Europe offer in the XXI century?

“Intergenerational sustainability” is at the core of common systems. The unique cultural and natural diversity which we find in Europe is in large part due to these systems based on collective ownership stewardship passed from one generation to the next.

Natural resources are a basic foundation for these communities, so the degradation of the former implies the degradation of the latter. In this regard, the latest report of the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that natural resources remain under very serious threat (Box 11), that “Europe's natural capital is not yet being protected, conserved and enhanced and the long-term outlook is often less positive than recent trends might suggest”[2].

In this scenario, ICCAs seem to have an essensial role to play:

They are reservoirs of biodiversity that harbour crucial ecosystems for the functioning of the natural cicle, carbon storage, nature interconnectivity, risk prevention and the provisión of other of ecosystems services basic for life on earth. They are also key providers of public goods crucial for the viability of associated rural communities. A large number of most valuable areas in Europe (such as Natura 2000 and High Nature Value Areas) are common land.

They are reservoirs of governance systems, with their own institutions and regulations, based on real community participation and empowerment. They have generated and maintain rural areas of great cultural diversity, as well as mosaics of inter-related farming systems and ecosystems.

They are reservoirs of immense collective knowledge, accumulated, adapted to local conditions and tested on the ground for centuries. This makes of common systems a crucial ground tested cutting-edge tool for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

They are essencial elements for a robust food security and sovereignty as they provide local food, reducing dependence on imports, maintaining local skills and resources and making society less vulnerable and more resilient to uncertainty and volatility of agricultural international markets, concentrated in the hands of a small number of big agro-industries.

They help to comply with several EU policies and strategies (CAP, Birds and Habitats Directive, Biodiversity Strategy, etc) and international legal requirements (the Three Rio UN environmental Conventions: biodiversity, climate and desertification).

Also, in the current world socio-political scenario the “commons” seem to be the expression of a collective search for new democratic and governance systems as a political alternative in the XXI century.

ICCAs and EU Policy.


Traditional small farming has being progressively displaced by an intensive industrial export-oriented model that exerts high pressure on both internal and worldwide natural resources, triggering simultaneous processes of intensification and land abandonment, resulting in pollution, resource overuse and biodiversity decline. This has also been costly in social terms where the number of small farms has been dramatically reduced (2,5 millions disappeared in the period 2003-2010)[3].

The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has been the main facilitator of this silent European agriculture restructuring, by discouraging small farming and difficulting access to land for them. According to some studies just three per cent of landowners have come to control half of European farmed land[4].

Although the CAP does not directly prevent common land farmers from receiving payments, it is single-farmer oriented and was not designed with common tenure in mind; it is not even mentioned in the CAP Regulations. In practice, each Member State has its own way to entitled ‘commoners’ to receive CAP payment but this is generally on an individual basis and with more administrative obstacles.

A good example is the impacts on common grazings. It seems clear that the current CAP may have detrimental effects on pastoral ICCAs and transhumance, specifically on ‘semi-natural pastures’. These systems can be still found across Europe, from the semi-nomadic Samis of Scandinavia to the Balkans, and especially in the Mediterranean. Due to the new “eligibility CAP rules”, pastures with specific vegetation density may be not entitled to receive CAP payments. This rule is simply based on “finantial corrections”, against any ecological or agronomic logic and in contradiction with EU nature regulations.

The implementation of these rules can also have knock-on effects on ancestral practices such as transhumance, highly dependent on common grazing. Despite being the most efficient livestock farming system in terms of use of resources, with an outstanding contribution to sustainability, transhumance has no direct support or even recognition in the CAP and it is seriously threatened in the EU. The approach adopted in applying the new CAP elegibility rules could be a turning point for them or the coup de grâce.

The latest CAP reform for the 2014-2020 period did not deliver the sought ‘Green CAP’ and the final outcome basically continuos to support the previous model. In theory, ICCAs could benefit from Rural Development measures, the so-called “CAP Pillar 2. But this only received about 20% of CAP budget to support 118 EU Rural Development Programmes (that include a long list of measures) and requires co-financiation from the regions (many of them in debt). The majority of the CAP money (80%) is spent on direct payments and market measures (the so-called Pillar 1), mainly benefiting intensive agriculture and agro-industry.

These trends may be even exacerbated in the short term by other factors such as investment fund allocation in agriculture (the so-called “agriculture commodities derivatives” and the TTIP (Translantic Trade and Investments Partnership) which, if approved, it would be of great help for the consolidation of the agro-industry model, clearly unsustainable.

EU civil actors should be involved in facilitating the transition from the “productivity narrative” to the “sufficiency narrative”. After centures of experience in sustainability, ICCAs should be very well-placed to facilitate the shift to a new CAP that only support agriculture systems that provide ecosystem services to society and benefit communities, preventing that those farming practices that damage natural resources and/or have clear negative effects on rural communities do not receive public support.


The main EU policies for biodiversity protection stem from the Birds Directive[5] and the Habitats Directive[6]. Together they aim to protect habitats and species in a favourable conservation status to ensure their viability in the long term.

Member States are required to designate core sites for their protection, which together make up ‘Natura 2000’ the largest protected area network worldwide, wich covers almost a fifth of the EU´s territory. The use of management plans is recommended as a tool for setting objectives and measures in Natura 2000 areas.

However, according to the latest data at EU level, in none of the main groups of habitats ans species protected by the Natura 2000 network was more than 50% of the EU resource in favourable conservation status, and clear deficiencies exist in the conservation and management of these protected areas. Also the mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy indicates that the most serious failures of Natura 2000 are insuffcient financial support, and in various aspects of governance (poor information base and lack of management measures and inadequate community participation; poor coordination with the sectoral policies that cause biodiversity decline).

As well as the pressure from specific economic sectors, two factors seem to be hampering the proper functioning of the Natura 2000 network:

- Firstly, management model established in the Directive is in many cases applied in a way which requires considerable investment of public funds, creating increasing difficulties in the current economic climate.

- Secondly, public participation in Natura 2000 plans is generally low. Although the degree of citizen’s involvement varies across the EU and several factors intervene, the role of competent authorities is crucial in choosing whether to follow a participative process or simply prescribing an, in practice, “top-down” model that local communities perceive as alien and imposed and where their local knowledge is hardly considered.

Often, the conservation status and the biodiversity values that gave rise to Natura 2000 area designation are the result of lCCAs’ traditional management, based on traditional agroecological knowledge (one of the most threatened ecosystem services in the short term) but currently there are no guidelines or legislation for it to inform the policy process and certainly no instruments at EU level. This is an urgent matter to address and it could be an interesting field for ICCA to explore in Europe.

Involving ICCAs in the process of designing and implementing Natura 2000 plans seems then crucial for success. Empowering local communities to share responsibility for their homeland management is not only an exercise of democracy but also may offer a very cost effective alternative system for Natura 2000 implementation.

Traditional common systems are organized local entities with genuine local knowledge and proven on the ground experience, where even small investments and effort could produce significant positive results for biodiversity protection. The recognition of registered European ICCAs as another effective area- based form of conservation[7]could be a way forward for the EU for meeting its own Natura 2000 obligations and Biodiversity Strategy, as well as contributing at international level to achieving the goals of the UN Biodiversity Convention.

Inland water.

The basic legal instrument for water management and protection in the EU is the Water Framework Directive (WFD), but according to the latest assessments of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Commission, more than half of Europe´s surface water bodies are in less than good ecological status, about 25% of all groundwater bodies are in poor chemical status, pressures from agricultural fertilizers are continuously high and water scarcity is a widespread problem due to over-abstraction, especially in the Mediterranean area.

These issues are of clear importance ICCAs in rural aeas, with the risk of severe consequences in terms of limited water availability, water pollution and restrictions on activities.

A key factor is WFD poor governance where, although required by law, communities do not have a real participation in the decisions. This is one of the main reasons behind the growth of social movements in the last few years defending water as a common and vital resource against ‘commoditization’ of water rights and pressures from the financial sector for water services liberalization in Europe.

Another issue relevant for ICCAs is the lack of integration between WFD, Natura 2000 area management plans and Rural Development Programmes. This should prevent, for example, negatives impacts through the CAP mesure “modernization of irrigation” on common traditional irrigations systems, that generally result in dismanteling or neglecting them. This is an urgent matter to address, where local communities should be involved from early stages.


Marine water.

European seas have been subject of intensive explotation, and as a result around 75% of European fish stocks are overfished and the EU fleet shows overcapacity.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)[8] reform in 2014 encourages Member States to allocate fishing opportunities based on economic, social and environmental criteria. These can also be oriented to grant preferential access to fishermen that use low environmental impact fishing gear and techniques, or contribute most to local economies and to the recovery and conservation of marine natural resources. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)[9] is another instrument of interest, which requires Member States to achieve good environmental status of European marine waters by 2020.

The participation of stakeholders and local community actors (such as traditional fishermen´s guilds) will be crucial for a successful implementation of both the CFP and MSFD. Participatory and co-management models (such as the Marine Protected Areas) offer an attractive formula for innovation in marine and coastal governance, allowing local communities to participate in the decision making process and implementation, and, giving way to a new sort of “marine ICCA” in Europe.

EU Economic and financial policies.

The current EU’s economic and financial policies have implied dramatic budget cuts with grave consequences for jobs, public goods and services and social investment, raising a wave of civil protests throughout Europe. The financial discipline is accompanied by a process of deregulation, privatizacion of public resources and recentralization of power, in the name of efficiency and economic austerity. These actions infringe the “proximity principle” of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which states: “public responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizen[10]”.

Rural communities seem to be most vulnerable to these effects, specially those thinly populated areas where the share of population at risk of poverty is the highest in the EU[11]. Consequently, rural community governance is being seriously undermined through financial instruments such as the European Central Bank (ECB) Excessive Deficit Procedure and the European Commission assessments for Stability Programmes.


The impacts of EU policy on natural resources and traditional knowledge and practices are generally detrimental for ICCAs.

A growing concern of the appropiation of public goods and spaces has provoked civil society reaction in Europe, and numerous civil platforms and entities have emerged to join forces in the search for alternatives and solutions. Among them communal tenure systems and community rights issues seem to have been revitalized and their extent and importance in the EU is gradually being (re)discovered. Initiatives have emerged at national level (eg, ‘Iniciativa Comunales’ in Spain) but there is also growing interest at European level, eg, in common grazings. The interactions and connections of the different groups involved increase synergies and their capacity to reach wider society.

Key findings, key ideas.

Common tenure systems might play a crucial role in the current circumstances in the EU, because:

- They offer a new (or renewed) socio-economic rationale, based on a participative democracy mechanism, to a European society in search of new democratic models based on the principles of economic, enviromental and social justice.

- They are built on the concept of collective ownership and/or use, which entails greater complexity than simple private or public ownership. This complexity can act as a “firebreak” to halt or discourage privatization proceses where attempted

- They offer one of the most cost-effective management and governance systems which can be alternative or complementary to established models, for example, for Natura 2000 areas.

- They have a huge potential for building up a critical mass since an extensive community network can be built and alliances with other civil actors can be stablished, in order to consolidate a big civil society group with its own lobby actors influencing real changes in society.

Some recommendations and initiatives for ICCAs in Europe.

  • Gathering data and informationabout the present state of communal tenure systems in Europe.
  • Creating an “ICCA Europe network”.
  • Both inland and marine water commons should be further explored in order to agree new management systems that enhance stakeholder and local community involvement.
  • Efforts should be made to promote the recognition of community-based conservation and governance areas in the EU, with the possible inclusion of European Communal Systems in the Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas Registry as an interesting first step.
  • Regarding the CAP:
  • The new CAP shoul respect and promote economic, social and cultural diversity and community based and tailored solutions, and harmonization of European agriculture is not done at the expense of “simplification” (elimination) of social diversity and cultural heritage.
  • Elaborating solid economic arguments to support communal systems and their role in the face of the current economic crisis and environmental challenges. In this sense, “ICCA Europe” groups should propose a CAP for the next period that clearly supports the provision of ecosystems services and public goods, and the recognition of collective tenure systems as one of their providers; this should be funded through outcome-based measures and designed ‘bottom-up’.
  • Forming or consolidating alliances with other civil society groups at all possible levels (national, European and international) to push for a radical agricultural and rural community policy change, including a debate of a more balanced CAP Pillar budgets or even if agriculture should be one element within a Common Rural Development Policy.
  • Elaborating full proposals for communal systems to be presented at the next CAP programming period, for which the background work should be starting now.
  1. For full information and definition see
  2. European Environment Agency. 2015 . State of the Environment of Europe Report 2015. Executive summary. EEA, Copenhagen.
  3. See
  4. See Land concentration, land grabbing and people’s struggles in Europe at
  5. Directive 2009/147/EC, 30 November 2009 (codified version of Directive 79/409/EEC as amended)
  6. Council Directive 92/43/EEC, 21 May 1992 (consolidated version 1/1/2007).
  7. Such as the Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas Registry, advised by The ICCA Consortium and supported by UNEP-WCMC,
  8. For more information about the CFP
  9. Directive 2008/56/EC, of 17 July 2008, establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive).
  10. Art. 4.3.
  11. About 70% of all people at risk of poverty in the EU-12 in 2011 were living in thinly populated areas.

European Commons Assembly/Policy Proposals