FORUM2015: How FES Unleashed the Power of the Commons

April 21, 2015

At Omidyar Network, we often refer to property rights as one of the world’s most underused solutions to economic empowerment that is hiding in plain sight. Fortunately for all of us, Jagdeesh Rao had his eyes wide open back in 2001 when he created the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES). Last week at the Skoll World Forum on Entrepreneurship in Oxford, England, Jagdeesh and FES were awarded one of the coveted Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship; and, as longtime supporters of FES, we at Omidyar Network know how well deserved this award really is.

FES is one of the best exemplars of the tenets of Omidyar Network’s property rights strategy, which asserts that secure rights to property and resources trigger a multiplier effect of opportunity that ripples throughout a nation by promoting social inclusion, economic stability, better environmental stewardship, and responsible private investment that lowers financial risk.

Fundamental to this approach is the recognition that the concept of property rights is not just confined to private property and securing titles or tenure for individual families and communities. Indeed, viable and healthy community commons can be just as important to the physical and economic well-being of regions and nations. That is exactly what FES has proven in India.

In India, many rural communities rely on publicly-owned lands for their food and livelihoods.  Yet, in many parts of the country, the commons had not been well governed. Local authorities had neither the resources nor the wherewithal to protect these ecologically sensitive environments, which became overused, depleted, and classified as wastelands. With access to few legal rights and declining benefits from use of these lands, local communities also lacked strong incentives to effectively manage common spaces.

Over the last 14 years, Jagdeesh and his team have transformed this commons dilemma into a shining example of Nobel LaureateElinor Ostrom’s theories in action. FES works with community members to form local committees and develop governance mechanisms that mitigate disputes and manage resources through structures like water users’ associations, grazing committees, and forest committees. FES helps communities gain stronger legal rights to common lands, shifting incentives from overuse or misuse towards productive stewardship. It also works with local leaders to build support for community administration.

FES’ community-led efforts are implemented in close coordination with the government of India. They have improved the management of well over four million acres of land, transforming denuded hillsides and valleys into healthier, more biodiverse environments and improving opportunities for locals to grow food, raise livestock, and protect and expand their livelihoods.

The result has been improvements in the quality of soil, water, and biodiversity, leading to improved agricultural productivity and economic security for the rural poor. In addition, FES’ direct community engagements have significantly supported conflict resolution efforts by clarifying boundaries and defining the parameters of village management.

To date, FES has worked with over 8,800 villages and more than four million villagers to bring millions of acres of common land under village management, thereby increasing the productivity of the land and empowering the village itself to determine how best to improve their lives through better management of their crops, livestock, and forests.

For instance, in one study of 19 villages, the percentage of land used for agricultural purposes rose from 46 percent to 100 percent; the percentage that yielded two crops in a year rose from less than half to nearly 90 percent, which in turn translates to increases of as much as $1,400 per hectare in income for villagers.

To showcase Jagdeesh and his team in action, the Skoll team has put together a powerful visual essay. We are grateful to the Skoll Foundation for its support of FES, and we warmly congratulate Jagdeesh Rao on a well-deserved honor.

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