the death of an ancient commons?

Vista típica de la Huerta de Valencia.

(Near Tarrytown, NY) The huertas of Valencia, Spain, represent a magnificent example of human cooperation, but I am told they are now doomed. The reasons are endemic to modernity and require serious consideration.

Water is a scarce resource, essential for life. If you can take water for your own crops, basic economic theory says you will take lots of it even if others downstream don’t get enough. The rain and the river can’t be privatized in simple ways. The state can police water-use, but it’s hard and rare to build states that are smart, responsive, virtuous, and just enough to accomplish tasks like efficient and fair water-management.

But, contrary to a simplistic economic model, farmers in Valencia, Spain, have been distributing very scarce water consistently since before 1238. The rules and tools they developed are summarized here. Their tribunals and other processes were already in place during the Muslim period and may have predated the Islamic conquest. They continued more or less smoothly despite the Christian Reconquista, the unification of Spain, its economic decline, Civil War, and fascism.

But, as I am told by Francisco Arenas-Dolz (a distinguished Spanish academic whose own family used to farm in the huerta system), it is now disappearing. Former farmers are moving to high-rises in the city, and suburban sprawl is swallowing up agricultural land.

One cannot blame people for “exiting.” I would not want to be a farm-worker in an arid climate (or anywhere). I suspect that, despite the radical shifts in Valencia’s political and religious regimes over a millennium, one thing remained constant: peasants couldn’t leave the land. Now they can leave, and they are leaving, and I don’t lament that.

But we can lament two outcomes. First, the huertas have aesthetic, cultural, and environmental value that individual participants (as well as outsiders) prize. The individuals’ exit benefits them but destroys something that they love. They would all be better off if somehow the huertas could be preserved. The agricultural landscape could perhaps have evolved into something new and better, an economy that offered higher-skilled and more profitable jobs to a few people still in touch with their traditions. Instead, it is just vanishing.

Second, the heurtas taught ethics, skills, habits, and techniques for solving collective-action problems. Even if we give up on small-scale agriculture in Valencia, we still face inescapable problems at a bigger scale. Climate change is only the most dire example. If everyone exits the huertas and that model vanishes, how will we learn to address bigger Tragedies of the Commons?

(See also “Why Engineers Should Study Elinor Ostrom,” my obituary of Ostrom, and “Albert O. Hirschman on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.”)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.