Good Question: Who Owns the Commons?

Conflicts over resources involve questions of citizenship, geography and the environment

Michaeline A. Crichlow.  Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke University Photography
Michaeline A. Crichlow. Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke University Photography

Question: Who should have a right to the "commons" in a post-colonial world?

Michaeline A. Crichlow: Questions about who should hold a right to "the commons" -- access to social, natural and political resources, or even historical memory and belonging -- are fundamental problems for all social groups. There are particular problems for those that live in the ambiguous political space of the post-colony, who often are also wrestling with the effects of resource loss and insecurity due to global climate change.

The environmental losses entailed with climate related hazards throw into sharp relief the potential future crises of the "commons." People with past claims to shared spaces and resources become environmental refugees. Who should and could claim rights to the "commons" is likely to be an even more explosive problem than it has been in the past.

Fiji is one such place for this conflict. Debate festers between ethnic Fijians, who are predominantly Methodist Christians and make up over half of the population, and a Fijian-Indian population originally brought to Fiji as indentured servants in the 1870s by British colonialists to work on sugar plantations, who now make up about 44 percent of the population and are mostly Hindu. Fiji gained independence from the British in 1970, but since then democracy has been interrupted by military coups and civil unrest, and rights for Indo-Fijians have been continually contracted and expanded by the ethnic Fijian majority.

Further complicating Fiji's quest over rights is its relationships with foreign tourists, environmentalists, and other forces of globalization. One small but telling example of this was an incident in 2007, when planners of a Methodist Church conference killed 82 critically endangered turtles to be eaten by attendees of the conference. Environmental activists and foreign tourists were angered, leading an unknown activist group to print t-shirts reading "Save a Turtle, Eat a Methodist."

Native Fijian groups were offended by the t-shirts on multiple levels. First, they defended their right to cull the turtles from common fishing areas ceded to the ethnic Fijians by the state. Second, many perceived the slogan as indicating that western tourists view native Fijians as being of the same worth as turtles.

Third, the t-shirt slogan "Eat a Methodist" hints at a history of cannibalism from which Methodist Fijians would like to distance themselves. There was swift outcry to ban the tourists and groups involved from the country.

While this story may appear to be a simple clash between modern and traditional ways of life provoked by an ecological controversy, it's really quite telling about conflicts of "rightful place" both in Fiji and around the world. As Fijians author a narrative over time of what is a "Fijian way of life" -- from the turtle incident to the military coups to stripping rights from the Indo-Fijian minority -- questions are raised about the larger issues of citizenship and access to what is common, or should be held in common as a long standing right of place, in a shared and contested space.

One is hardly likely to find black and white answers to this question. In post-colonial countries around the world, competing claims by different ethnic groups for disputed resources, spaces, and homelands are often as violent as they are complex. People struggle for territory and place, heritage and language, as well as rights to environmental resources.

For more about Michaeline A. Crichlow, click here.