Governing the Commons: Reviving a commons in Japan

Working in the Rice Paddies in May

Elinor Ostrom‘s great book Governing the Commons describes how one community in Japan managed its common mountain forestry for hundreds of years using local traditions instead of government rules. But can government rules help revive commons farming in Japan?

A recent BusinessWeek article introduced me to Yabu, a farming village about 375 miles west of Tokyo. The farmers in Yabu are aging and there are no young farmers to take their place. In rural Japan, the average age of commercial farmers is 66. From 2005 to 2010, the number of people engaged in commercial farming declined 22 percent, leaving 1,500 square miles (396,000 hectacres) of arable land abandoned.

People from outside Yabu might buy farms and continue the traditions, but a council of local farmers controls the purchase of land (one clue to the commons aspect of farming in Yabu). Prospective purchasers often become discouraged by the drawn-out process imposed by the council.

On the other hand, companies might want to purchase or invest in land, but they are subject to laws requiring formation of special agricultural corporations subject to complex rules.

It’s a losing proposition for those interested in joining the Yabu community.

Using Ostrom’s analysis of self-governing commons, it looks like the layers and regulations in Yabu have become inefficient. Land purchase is often conducted at a person-to-person level, but here it’s been moved up to a town level. Corporate participation in the commons, which might be more effectively decided at the town or regional level, is controlled by national laws.

(I can see how corporations might want more national laws governing their rights and practices. One set of national laws is easier to negotiate than numerous regional or town-based systems.)

To help revive Yabu, the Japanese government has designated the area as a special economic zone where, as BusinessWeek describes it, “the regulations and laws governing farming, commerce, and land can be loosened or removed to attract investment and workers. If these experiments succeed, they might be applied nationally.”

Two parts of designing a successful commons are an organizational structure that delineates what activities are governed at which level of organization, and how rules are changed and by whom.

To me, it sounds like this Japanese experiment is trying hard to effect change through the national government, and not doing enough to restore the local systems that have previously worked. Supporting and improving the existing council process for land purchase might be a more sustainable way to help revive farming in Yabu.

Farming communities in the U.S. could benefit from observing the Yabu experiment. Many rural farming communities here are facing the same pressures of aging populations, urbanism, and corporate farming. As is the nature with experiments, only time will tell.

(Governing the Commons and other books mentioned in this blog are available in the bookstore.)

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