“Common lands can serve as a model for addressing ecological challenges”

28 August 2021


A group of leading individuals, including former ministers Delphine Batho and Corinne Lepage, highlight, in an Op-Ed published in "Le Monde", the contribution of common lands and regret that recent legislation tends to eliminate them.

Op-ed. Common property rights are an original form of land ownership at the crossroads of private and public law, the individual and the community. In France, each system (e.g. “sections de commune”, “consortages”, bourgeoisies, etc.) user rights or access to benefits of these properties are held by rights holders while they do not have property rights. 

Despite the absence of official statistics, the number of common lands remains high in France. For example, the “sections de commune”, one of the most important type of commons property rights, are numerous (about 26,000). This system of ownership represents an important heritage (forests, agricultural and pastoral land, buildings). The exercise of user rights is the result of collective governance in order to meet the needs of all (water, heating, construction, food).

The commons promote sustainable development in a variety of ways: support for farmers, social cohesion, places of leisure, ecosystem services, preservation of the environment. France has signed many international treaties that recognise the action of local communities in favour of sustainable development: the UNESCO convention on cultural heritage (1972), the Rio declaration (1992) or the convention on biological diversity (1992). Furthermore, in application of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, France supports the actions of local communities worldwide to help them protect their access to the commons and facilitate the sustainable development of natural resource management. Finally, the role of communities has been promoted by the Paris Climate Agreement (2015).

Sources of inspiration

On the other hand, within its borders, it is paradoxical to note that these commons lands are not taken into consideration, even though they are at the heart of the functioning of French countryside and have helped to forge its identity. While other European countries are adapting their legislation to recognise the functions of the commons (the United Kingdom in 2006, Italy in 2017), France is pursuing a dated policy of administrative rationalisation that eliminates these forms of collective ownership. The law n° 2013-428 of 27 May 2013 prohibited the creation of new “sections de commune” and undermined their management by local communities. Recently, a bill was tabled in the Senate with a view to promoting the dissolution of these “sections de commune” (proposal no. 182, 2019) without any reflection on their contribution to the French regions and populations.
“Commons right holders have a proven track record in environmental management.”

Condemning these systems with the simplistic argument that they are an “outdated form” of collective ownership or management is not the way to express forward-looking political visions, especially at a time when looking for ways to respond to ecological and social challenges. With regard to these challenges, these practices are sources of inspiration, as commons right holders have a proven track record in environmental management (many commons are implicated in Natura 2000 areas, natural areas of ecological, faunistic and floristic interestICCAs, or located in natural parks). In particular, the importance of their forests appears to be a major factor in carrying out activities in the general public’s interest: forestry production, prevention of natural risks or the creation of carbon sinks to combat climate change.

Common lands can serve as a model for a society in need of solutions to ecological, social or health challenges. Combating global warming or restoring biodiversity requires measures that can involve various actors (states, local communities). This is why the commons can contribute to the implementation of “other effective conservation measures” that the Convention on Biological Diversity supports and that France is piloting.

By not including common lands in public policies and action, France is depriving itself of assets to meet both the objectives of their ecological transition and those of the international agreements it has signed.
The following are among the signatories of this op-ed: Delphine Batho, former Minister of Ecology, President of “Génération Ecologie”, Member of Parliament for Deux-Sèvres; Nicolas Girod, national spokesperson for the “Confédération Paysanne”; Olivier Hymas, a right holder to the common of Mourex (Ain), anthropologist, University of Lausanne; Jean-François Joye, professor of public law, Savoie-Mont-Blanc University; Corinne Lepage, former Minister of the Environment; Kristen Walker-Painemilla, member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; Gretchen Walters, a right holder to the common of Mourex (Ain), anthropologist, Lausanne University. Here is the complete list of signatories.