ROMANIAN MOUNTAIN COMMONS PROJECT
Romania features a high number of commons spread across the Carpathian Mountain range. Commons are woodlands and grasslands owned and governed independently by communities, which can be territorial villages, kinship-groups or groups of descendants, legally organized as 'associations'. and officially called 'historical associative forms of ownership'. Membership in such communities of rightholders is defined differently, according to various historical developments in the different provinces. The independent commons are not to be confused with municipality/administrative units' (U.A.T.) land, run by mayors and municipal councils.
Two major types of commons and systems of rights holding can be found in Romania: 1) place-based systems of equal rights and 2) inheritance-based systems of unequal rights.
1)The equal rights system, place-based, 'pe fumuri', on chimney smokes, in which rights to the common lands are vested in the village as a unit and the homestead/household (not in the person, as defined by kinship, as in the other systems). In this system, every household has a right attached, and the family that lives in the household holds the right. If a new household is founded in the village, it receives a right. This system is more atypical in Romania, mostly to be found in the SE part of the Carpathians, in Vrancea country, and also in 11% of the commons in Transylvania. Yet, this is a much more common system to be found across Europe and the world, in which inhabitants of a local community hold equal rights to the territory that surrounds them and on which they make a livelihood. In Romania however, the interference of state policies complicated matters and forced the communities to institute systems of right holding akin to liberal ideologies of property, stemming from Roman law, in which the individual was the basis, and not the community.
2) In most areas, the rights to the commons that resulted from the historical formalization processes were personal rights. A community of rightholders held together rights to a mountain commons, and formed together a community-based institution, yet within the community each person had a certain number of shares. Shares were called rights, parts, quotas, keys, sheep, dram, and expressed a proportion of use-rights, a quantity of benefits, expressed in abstract measures, which would give the right to put a certain amount of stock on the common range, or derive a certain amount of payment from the leasing of the forest to loggers, for example. Such rights and shares were unequal within communities of rightholders. The rights were inheritable by descendants, with rights split among children, and it was possible to sell the share/ the right only to insider co-members. They were not tied to owning private property in the village – thus similar to e.g. the Swiss (St Gallen) feudal common rights system. In this system in which the right expresses a quantity of benefits or uses, the rights are not enclosable as a piece of land; nobody knows that they have a certain piece of land in a spot, for their exclusive use; rather the whole common land is held and used by all rightholders at the same time; individual enclosures are punishable, considered damage to the commons. The rights can be retained after the rightholder moves away from the community, a difference to what has been described in the literature as usual institutional arrangements for common-pool resources, by Elinor Ostrom for example, where out-migration usually implies losing the right. Despite the presence of individual shares, the commons is owned and governed jointly and the community retains a large amount of rights through the commons assembly. The rule of inheritance is usually partible inheritance, although occasionally the heirs achieved all sort of arrangements so that one heir who stays in the village gets the right to the commons. Because of the rule of equal partible inheritance, splitting up the shares in the long run can generates increasing fragmentation. Within this main category, there are multiple other differentiations to be made, according to historical provenance, size, systems of participation, etc.
All commons as a category of property regime are called in Romania ‘traditional or historical associative forms’, forme asociative traditionale sau istorice, referred to in local language mainly as obște (pl. obști), composesorat (pl. composesorate) and asociație urbarială (pl. asociații urbariale). From a legal point of view, they are considered land in private property of ‘juridical persons’.
How many. How much. From our research in the present project, by piecing together information from different sources, it can be said that there are around 1500 forest and pasture commons located in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains and along the foothills, counting 873.000 ha of forest, 14% of the total forested surface of the country. This official figure is presented for ‘traditional associative forms’ by the Romanian Court of Accounts in a report from 2014; other sources indicate other figures, such as 788.694 ha (year 2015), source official report filed by the Ministry of Forest and Waters.
In addition, our estimations show that the commons have about 300.000 ha of pasture.
The resources are owned and managed by over 400.000 commoners.
The commons on the exterior arc of the Carpathians, in the historical regions of Wallachia and Moldova are generally larger (on average above 2000 ha), and the ones situated inside the Carpathian arc, in the historical region of Transylvania, are smaller (on average around 600 ha). Their size depends on historical conditions at the moment of their legal recognition, more than 100 years ago.
The commons across the Carpathians account for very different biophysical characteristics, some counting large plots of high-quality old forest, others small young forests, yet others owning more grazeland, lower pastures close to the villages or alpine pastures (see Statistics section for more detail). Currently, strict state directives regulate the harvesting of forest, vested in forestry specialists. Each commons forest has a detailed management plan, which states how much can be harvested, where, what kind of work needs to be done in each patch of the forest to allow for healthy growth and regeneration, according to scientific forestry conceptions. Recently (2018) pastures management plans were introduced as well.
The commons researched by our project have socio-economic value for their members, generating benefits and some also yielding monetary proceeds, mostly from grazing and logging. The areas that are included in national parks and are prohibited from wood extraction generate income from monetary compensations. Yet, there are also an important number of commons which do not yield any financial profit, being only able to survive and pay expenses with forestry services, which in some areas are very costly. This is mostly the case of smaller commons (up to 200 ha), present in the western part of the Carpathians.
Benefits from the commons. Commoners perceive their primary uses of the commons to be firewood, grazing and liquid proceeds from commercial leases and enterprises. The forest commons are a mixture of broadleaved species in the lower areas, predominantly beech (Fagus) trees, hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), used as firewood, and also oak (Quercus) and maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), and sycamore (Platanus orientalis), and at higher altitude coniferous species of commercial value, which can be leased to timber entrepreneurs; Norvegian spruce (Picea abies), silver fir (Abies alba) some are spruce plantations, some are natural forests.
From the commons, firewood is extracted and distributed towards commoners, for heating and cooking, for which there are no local alternatives so far. In some areas, the common property institutions are oriented mostly towards providing individual revenues and cash dividends derived from commercial logging and subsidies. Research findings suggest that the individual revenue derived from liquid proceeds made on the commons are, on average, not significantly high for households, they do not constitute a primary source of livelihood, but an additional income. Commoners can also graze animals for free and receive a quota of firewood at half price. Animal husbandry is generally a declining practice at household level, however firewood is very necessary, being the only fuel for heating and cooking. The commons also sponsor young families for building houses, offering up to 20 cubic meters of wood; or sponsor funerals of poor families, village festivities and Christmas presents for school children. A few distinctive groups of commoners might have more benefit from the commons. For example, in some areas, the large sheep owners are provided with free pasturing; in other areas, the local timber entrepreneurs are given preferential access to forests if they are commoners; in the touristic area of Rânca, members of the commons can lease the land to build touristic cottages for half the market price; in all of these cases, commoners can benefit from the common if they have the ability to do so.
In many cases, the commons provide collective community welfare, especially so in the Eastern area of Vrancea, and the eastern Transylvanian counties (Harghita and Covasna). Here they contribute to reparations of infrastructure, public buildings, schools, and roads. Churches are often sponsored, as they are important community buildings, in which the commoners take a lot of pride and wish to invest. They also offer stipends for students, supporting education, mostly in the Transylvanian eastern areas. Traditionally in these areas, the commons (composesorate in Harghita county) sponsor local groups of musicians, football teams and other youth activities.
Governance. The commoners elect a commons council (consiliu), usually formed of five members, and, among the members of the council, a president. They also elect an auditing committee (comisia de cenzori), formed of three members. Councils are temporary (2 to 5 years). the normative framework is provided by the local bylaws, a document containing rules and regulations legally approved and upheld. Theoretically, the bylaws can be modified at any time, provided that the general assembly of commoners ratifies the changes. However, in practice this is difficult to achieve because there is usually a threshold of participation of 2/3 of members to uphold the changes, which can almost never be met. Most decisions regarding the commons are expected to be taken by the assembly of commoners. The general assemblies of commoners, gathered at least once a year, have to decide on the budget, on investments, on new members, on new rules introduced in the by-laws, and so on. The assemblies elect the council and the president, also a committee of auditors, who control the ruling committee. The assemblies are legally valid with 50% +1 of the members, or of the shares. While in theory such assemblies and decision-making processes seem to be highly democratic and are strongly regulated by the bylaws (statut), in practice village meetings rarely happen according to the rules. Often it is difficult to gather enough people to reach decisions, because most of the young population works abroad, and most of the elderly members are not interested in participating. Sometimes, even if the meetings can be held, the decision-making is contested or manipulated by interest-groups and power struggles.
In the process of their creation, a good amount of conflicts and mistrust rose around the commons. Restitution was often a contentious affair, involving protracted court cases. In 40.4% of cases across the county, commoners fought in court for their restitution claims, frequently against state institutions – which delayed procedures of recognition and titling.
It is important to keep in mind that these commons are in continuous transformation, being an important node in the relationship between Carpathian settlers and their environment.
What did our project do? The extensive research of contemporary Romanian land commons is unprecedented. Our database includes 329 surveyed cases of commons. We collected data from 20% of the existing number of commons in Romania, accounting for nearly 1/2 of the forests owned by the commons and nearly 1/3 of the surface of pasture owned.
The structured interviews were applied face-to-face by members of our research team, each taking on average 2h; the interviews included approximately 100 questions, both closed and open, to allow for more in-depth discussions on several topics. The topics approached were: the historical pathway of the commons, the restitution process, the bio-physical characteristics of the resource, the systems of distribution of rights, issues of membership, governance, participation, resource management, environmental issues, and others (for more detail please see section Methods).