Can Communities un-Tragedy the Commons?

What do Albany, Albuquerque, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park have in common ('politics is an impenetrable jungle' is not the answer)? All are communities grappling with how to balance economic health with human health, community livelihoods with ecosystem livelihoods - and an answer to the question: who gets to decide?

Indigenous Communities and Local Resources: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda): The mountain gorilla is a wondrous animal to behold, if you're lucky enough to get the chance; it's estimated there are less than 1000 left in the wild. Bwindi National Park was created to provide a sanctuary, but doing so resulted in the displacement of the native Batwa people from the now-regulated area. An unsurprising result: poaching, as the Batwa community had lost their original sources of livelihood. A more surprising one: the move affected the well-being of both humans outside the park and animals within, due to unregulated sewage and the resultant spread of infectious diseases.

Wendee Nicole, the first recipient of's Special Reporting Initiative contest series, chose Bwindi to explore a (to some) controversial theory of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom: that local communities can in fact sustainably regulate their common resources, given clearly defined rules and effective community monitoring.

Ostrom identified eight principles that can lead to effective local control over common pool resources, highlighting as critical collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process, effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators, a scale of graduated sanctions for violators, and self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities.

In the case of the Batwa, studies showed that the one forest with Batwa living inside its borders experienced less illegal harvesting by locals, who were allowed to harvest forest products once a week. Working with communities on accessing more hygeinic alternatives to open sewage also led to a drastic reduction in gastrointestinal-related illness.

But how much local control is necessary for effective resource management? What if the affected community took a more proactive stand?

Something Smells Rotten in the State of Hazardous Substances Regulation: Albuquerque: Almost 80% of Mountain View's approximately 4,300 residents are Chicano/Mexico, nearly 40% of the families with children are so poor that they would have to triple their income to climb above the federal poverty line, and all live in walking distance from more than 25 junkyards, 5 gravel/concrete companies, 7 petroleum bulk terminals, and dozens of other industries. Sadly but unsurprisingly, this community has also suffered from higher-than-average rates of cancers and respiratory diseases, echoing the nationwide correlation of poverty, proximity to polluting industry, and disease. If you want more information on related national statistics, also check out this amazingly comprehensive series of maps.

With support and determined advocacy, the Mountain View community decided to change some of their statistics: residents and members of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice and Los Jardines Institute (The Gardens Institute) organized to address the water contamination and toxic smells coming from the Southside Water Reclamation Plant’s use of chlorine gas to treat wastewater. Community advocates brought this issue to the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency, which found the wastewater treatment plant in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and issued an order for the plant to eliminate chlorine gas.

And what about local decision-making and enforcement when that local regulation has national implications?

Can the Local help manage the National? Albany: Oil - specifically crude oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota and Canadian tar sands oil - is the issue sparking debate in the Empire State. Government agencies, residents, businesses, and environmental groups are at loggerheads as to whether companies operating in the Port of Albany should be allowed to transport and refine this new highly flammable oil, particularly in the existing out-of-date railcars.

However, railroad transportation is almost exclusively under federal jurisdiction, as are hazardous materials safety regulation. And with good reason: if every state and municipality had different rules for roads and railroads, interstate transport would be even more of a mess than Chinese rush hour (the actual traffic, not the movie)!

In a report released last week, Governor Cuomo's office attempted to define the parameters of state versus federal control of the transport of Bakken oil in New York State. The good news (for some) is that state agencies do retain the ability to monitor and inspect, while the Department of Environmental Conservation has significant permitting control. Municipalities also have the power to regulate construction within their borders.

What if, following Ostrom's thesis, communities surrounding Albany, and other areas where the oil was stored and transported were also able to monitor, inspect, and participate in the application of penalties? Would that help or harm our economy? Our ecosystems?

Of course, this is a blog, not an academic analysis or a hard-hitting expose. It doesn't have definitive answers, and possibly a lot of cliches: the battle between local or large certainly isn't new news. But it is good to think about, and seriously ask ourselves, whether the role of communities should be larger in our regulatory world, and if, rather than making things more confusing, communities could tailor existing rules to local needs, and then better monitor and enforce them. Because our commons really shouldn't be a tragedy.