Prior to the communist regime declaring state ownership over Albania’s resources, the country had large amounts of pastures and forests that were communal. In many ways, their governance very much resembled a large scale example of community-based commons, found across the entire country. The pasture or forest that was collectively owned could not be appropriated or taken away from the local residents. It was shared and managed with experience and local understanding of sustainable practices so that all people who used the resource could benefit. Both the use of firewood and grazing were monitored and restricted to ensure that all could benefit for generations to come.
During Enver Hoxha’s regime and in the period of state ownership, the forests and pastures began to suffer from overexploitation and degradation. When the regime collapsed, some Albanians took to looting the forests and common resources. They dismantled irrigation systems, destroyed cooperative buildings, cut down fruit trees and sold the expensive wood to nearby countries. Inter-communal feuds occurred, with some communes trying to appropriate resources from other villages as their own. With elders still remembering some borders of previous, historical family rights to the forests, the informality of ‘possessing’ or managing these resources rose. (Sikor, 2009)
The traditional rights to the forest were enforced in some areas, specifically in the Northern Alps, by the ‘Kanun’, a code for the ‘customary rights’ of the people which were part of the local tribal law. The Kanun dates back to the 15th century, introduced during Ottoman times, and it was practised in many aspects of social life, from dispute resolution to marriages. It was a spoken tradition for many years, until the 1920s-1930s when it was written down on paper. Since then, many families passed the knowledge down to the new generations, and it survived up until the 1990s. (de Waal, 2004) The Kanun specified rights to the forests and identified two types of ownership: private and common. The users had access to the forests and management responsibilities. The common forest could not be alienated and its was access was restricted to a certain amount of people, who could exclude access to those from outside. They could not alienate the common forest because it belonged to everyone. (Toto, 2017)
The locals in one Northern area had taken control over the forests based on the Kanun even prior to the fall of Enver Hoxha’s regime, but much of the forestry activities were done in secret, within the historical boundaries of the clans. When communism collapsed, the rights to the forest were ‘given back’ to the community based on traditional rules, for example, some property was reserved for a group of brothers, further than those areas laid the common forest of the village, and then of the district. When problems arose, they were settled by several layers of authority, such as village elders, heads of the clans, and the people themselves. The official land distribution was ignored by locals in this region, with the customary rights being restored. Unlike in the cases of the destruction of collectivised property such as orchards, vineyards, and some buildings, the forest was regulated by these customary rights, even though the state’s ignorance still led to havoc. (de Waal, 2004) Some tried to protect the common resources from the anarchic looting, but ultimately, the pastures and forests suffered from further extensive degradation and overexploitation.
This negatively impacted on the forest resources, and the Albanian case was quite drastic within the context of the collapse of communism. From 1991 to 2001, the amount of dense forests decreased from 31% of the total area to 25% with only around a third of the extraction being legal. It is estimated that the damage to the forests peaked in 1997, in the times when anarchy descended onto the state. After this period, authorities tried to legislate the forests, but the idea of transferring them into state ownership caused severe discontent from local administrations. With most people in rural areas then living under the poverty line, they relied on firewood for basic needs, such as heating and cooking, while many families also tried to earn money from collecting medicinal herbs, fruit, and other forest produce that could then be sold. On top of that, the corruption had also grappled the forest service, who had by that point been engaged in large-scale illegal logging activities, by taking bribes and turning a blind eye or partnering with the looters. (Stahl, 2010)
With time and pressure from the international community, the newly democratic state had to address the issue of forest and pasture ownership and began a slow process of introducing laws which returned to similar management models as in the early 1920s: state-owned, private, and communal. Since then Albania has become an example in which forests and pastures have been returned to local communities to manage collectively. Projects at the national level, with support from international stakeholders, sought to decentralize ownership of forests and to provide functional institutions for private ownership and commons management of the village forests. (Avdibegović, Herbst and Schmithüsen, 2008) Elements of the traditional rules were maintained, while many projects addressed women’s participation in the new governance models. It is notable that the commons aspects were triggered by international programmes more than a national government policy. (Toto, 2017)
Over 60% of the pastures and forests have been legally transferred to community management. The rationale behind the legislation was motivated by various factors, some previously discussed. In rural Albania, poverty is highly present, and the fact that the formal right of families to manage and use these resources can provide security and the possibility for income generation was acknowledged and taken into consideration. During the early 1990s, local residents living in the vicinity of forests were limited and what they could do to protect these resources, and the state also had little capacity to stop the process since even the authorities were involved the illegal exploitation. Relying on the locals to manage these resources and ensure their sustainability, was key in the process. A working system of governance in which local actors will be responsible for the management of the Albanian forests and pastures is still being developed. Key players in the process will be local municipalities. Together with forest users’ associations, they will be in charge of decision-making and management of the communal forests and pastures, for the benefit of the community members. At the regional and national levels, federations of communal forests will represent the local users’ associations and provide among others, guidance and technical support to regenerate the resources and ensure further sustainability. (SIDA, 2014)
When considering the management of forests in Albania, we can find two types of commons: 1) the village commons 2) license rights given by municipalities. The latter comes as a result of state institutional frameworks, but the local government can assign rights to locals, or using Ostrom’s terminology: ‘appropriators’. In 2015, the Ministry of Environment took over the task of implementing a project aiming to support land management efforts by boosting communities’ capacities to use forests and pastures sustainably in the long term, by providing grants and other forms of support. (Toto, 2017)
The Albanian model of community governance over forests and pastures clearly emphasises the benefits of transferring the right of use and decision-making to local actors as it had been done traditionally but perhaps with more involvement of formal local authorities. In itself, the approach was recognised as being preferable to large-scale state ownership or privatisation. What the Albanian experience also teaches us, however, is the importance of structures, clear boundaries, a definition of roles, conflict management, locally established rules and decision-making, as well as strong elements of governance. The 1990s situation is indeed a tragedy as Hardin explained in his economic theory, but not of the commons, but of a system of ‘free for all’ access, anarchy, and state ignorance, coupled with severe resentment towards the collectivisation of property that occurred during communism. The anarchic, free access to the common pool of resources did result in a very unfortunate and tragic situation. Despite the fact that the reforms concerned with transferring these resources into community management have been slow, complex, problematic, and still not finished, another important lesson for the commons is the role of governance in the process and the scale at which this can be implemented. Undoubtedly giving community ownership over the common pool resources to one area would have been less problematic, but at the national level, it has been a long-term and complex affair. Despite the fact that the commons of the Albanian forests are not yet recognised in legislation, the memory of the customary rights keeps them functional.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
- Avdibegović, M., Herbst, P. and Schmithüsen, F. (2008). Legal Aspects of European Forest Sustainable Development. [online] Scribd. Available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/55835887/Legal-Provisions-Regulating-Communal-Forests-and-Pastures-in-Albania-61300-Sarajevo08 [Accessed 5 Jul. 2017].
- De Waal, C. (2004). Post-Socialist Property Rights and Wrongs in Albania: An Ethnology of Agrarian Change . Conservation and Society, 2(1).
- Sida.se. (2014). One million farmers given the right to cultivate forests and pastures. [online] Available at: http://www.sida.se/English/where-we-work/Europe/Albania-/examples-of-results/One-million-farmers-given-the-right-to-cultivate-forests-and-pastures-/ [Accessed 5 Jul. 2017].
- Sikor, T. (2009). Special issue: The politics of possession. Oxford [u.a.]: Blackwell.
- Stahl, J. (2010). The Rents of Illegal Logging: The Mechanisms behind the Rush on Forest Resources in Southeast Albania. Conservation and Society, 8(2), p.140.
- Toto, R. (2017). River basin as a viable space for natural common-pool resource governance – The Case of Forests Commons in Albania. [pdf] Available at: https://www.iasc2017.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/12C_Rudina-Toto.pdf [Accessed 5 Jul. 2017].