Barbara Unmüßig: Opening Speech of the International Commons Conference

Barbara Unmüßig

November 1, 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen, Commoners,

It is a very special honour to be your host here at the Berlin home base of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and to welcome you to this working meeting. Thank you for the interest you have shown – and thank you for coming here from near and far to take part in our discussions over the next days.

Welcome to Germany! I would like to start by describing some of the current issues   in our country that are closely related to the subject of this conference:

Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel is probably familiar with the woodland at Templin, a good hour away from here by train towards the Polish border. She must have spent many of her sports lessons in the woods there, as they were near her school. But now the wood – measuring about 7.8 hectares – is in the news because it is to be sold.

The woodland used to be a commons. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it was transferred to the Treuhand. This was the trust agency set up to administer government property and state-run enterprises from the former GDR. The legal successor to the Treuhand now has the task of privatizing the wood. Because there is not enough information in the land register, the town authorities of Templin are unable to claim back this former common land, with its valuable 90-year-old pine trees. So they want to buy it back. But priority has been given to a private buyer.

The inhabitants of Templin have reacted with dismay. Some of them have even turned to members of the German Bundestag – our parliament – with a “Plea for Common Land”. They are objecting to the fact that something that used to be a common resource accessible to everyone is now to go into private hands. Even if the woodland is preserved and remains accessible to everyone – why should the short-term economic profits to be made from felling the mature pine trees not continue to serve the public and finance public community services?

Such controversies can be found all over the world. The question is always “Who does it belong to? Who has the right of access to Griebnitz- Lake, for example? Who do the water resources in a federal state belong to? Who do derelict inner city sites belong to? Or the Internet? The land? The drinking water or the waterworks? Who does biodiversity belong to? Who has the right to benefit from knowledge and culture?  How are decisions made and who decides the fate of our public spaces?  AND: who has the right to decide about these potential commons? Who decides whether something becomes a mere good or a common asset?

It seems to me that local politicians are the most important target group for the issues we are discussing at this international conference. But the commons are not on the local authorities’ agenda. At least not yet! Given the difficult financial situation of local authorities, it seems to me it is precisely at this level that we might find important allies.

We know that when we talk about the commons we are talking about very complex resources. It is difficult to clearly define them and they also raise complex institutional and political questions. Access to knowledge is a hot topic in the UN climate negotiations where developing countries care claiming free use of patented know-how on carbon-efficient technologies. It plays  a decisive role in the UN biodiversity negotiations.

We have known for a long time that we are over exploiting  our natural capital. We are also consuming social capital, for example, when people are prevented by inequality of opportunity in education and job opportunities .

Let me quote Peter Barnes, whose book “Capitalism 3.0” was published in German by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. What we need, he said, is an “upgrade in the operating system”. For me, this means that the commons are not just there – they are not given to us – they have to be constantly recreated and fought for. In other words: We are not just talking about resources; we are talking about how we are to organise ourselves around them!

I am delighted that for some time the Heinrich Böll Foundation has been able to contribute to this process with a wide range of different activities – in particular by organising this conference.

For example we have published the first German collection of writings about the modern political debate about the commons. “Who does the world belong to” by Silke Helfrich was highly successful. A second collection is planned to appear next year.

In Germany we organized an inter-disciplinary discussion as part of the political salon “Time for Commons”. And we are delighted that all these initiatives have provoked a positive response – not only in the press but also in the political party closest to our views – Alliance 90/The Greens. A Green Party position paper on the topic of the commons and commons-based policies is currently being drawn up and discussed.

I have always described this as an experiment – as a step into the unknown. Because developing new paradigms, making sure they take on positive associations – and even communicating them to the public – is always a daring step to take.

I am sure this conference will make an important contribution towards bringing home the idea of the commons to more people and lending it more weight! I hope it will help create a basis for an approach to local and global politics based on the concept of the commons.

Protecting and reclaiming the commons could be more than just a theoretical experiment – it could provide a catalyst for transition to a post-fossil era in which people actively help shape their lives and the environment they live in – as commoners through commoning.

A policy based on the commons does not offer a ready-to-use concept; nor does it allow itself to be ideologized. It has to be constantly further developed and constantly re-appropriated. It is itself a commons. That is its strength.

This conference brings together practising commoners, academics and decision-makers from 34 different countries. I hope you will contribute your perspective and your rich experience towards developing a political paradigm based on the concept of the commons. I hope we will all demonstrate our creativity – but at the same time have fun and show the courage to develop innovative political ideas!

I would like in particular to thank Silke Helfrich and colleagues from the Commons Strategies Group, David Bollier, Michel Bauwens, Heike Löschmann  und Beatriz Busaniche.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Julio Lambing of the European Business Council for Sustainable Energy. We have been working for two years with e5 on investigating the economic aspects of the commons. They have made an invaluable contribution towards preparing this conference and have made it possible for us all to be here today. Many thanks also go to the members of the Support Group, who will help ensure that this conference produces effective results.

In particular I would like to thank Heike Löschmann and her small team with Tsewang Norbu, supported by intern Lena Kunze, here at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. They have made a crucial contribution towards the success of this conference.
My thanks also go to the colleagues in our conference office and also to Elisabeth Voss, who yesterday gave some of you an opportunity to take a look at current commons or hybrid projects here in Berlin.

I am not going to welcome any of you individually, because it would be impossible to single out any of the people sitting here before me. But as one exception, I would like to say that we are very honoured by the attendance of H.E. HORACIO SEVILLA BORJA, Ambassador of Ecuador who got attracted to this conference as two Ecuadorians are going to speak here, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, Minister of National Patrimony and Alberto Acosta, Ex-President of the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador.
I am grateful to all of you for coming. And I look forward to two interesting and exciting days with you.

Thank you very much!

Barbara Unmüßig

From 1996 to 2001, Barbara Unmüßig chaired the supervisory board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and was elected president of the foundation in May 2002. Her numerous contributions to periodicals and books have covered international trade and finance, international environmental issues, and gender policy.