Neighborhood forests: this is how some towns take advantage of natural resources while respecting the environment

Between private and public property there is a third alternative: collective property. This form of property has great superficial relevance in mountainous areas in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula.

The neighboring forests in common hands are properties that we can characterize as community (legally they are private-collective) and that are framed in the area of ​​the commons. These assets are within a field of great scientific interest. This is demonstrated by the Nobel Prize in Economics obtained by Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win that award, for her work on the governance of the commons.

Open and democratic communities

From urban areas there is a certain lack of knowledge about this unique figure of property. Therefore, some data and its main characteristics may surprise you.

The neighboring mountains in common hands have a great superficial relevance in the northwest of Spain. The case of Galicia is the most significant: more than 660,000 hectares, which represent more than 20% of the Galician territory, have the characterization of local forest.

On the other hand, participation in the institutions that manage these forests (the neighborhood forest communities in common hands) is directly linked to residence in the place where the neighborhood forest is located. In this way, they can be considered as open entities. Each individual who moves to live in a village that has this kind of collective property can be part of the community, participating in decision-making and in the use of the forest.

In addition, these institutions also have a democratic component. Thus, the most important decisions are made in assembly and each house represents one vote.

Main features

The neighboring forests in common hands, as properties of a Germanic nature, also have the following characteristics specifically collected in the legislative documents that regulate them.

  • They are inalienable assets, so they cannot be bought or sold.

  • They are indivisible, not being able to be distributed among the neighbors.

  • They are unattachable.

  • They are imprescriptible assets, so this class of properties do not lose their characteristics over time and can be recovered by local communities.

In short, the neighboring mountains are properties with unique characteristics. They are goods different from other forms of property, private or public.

A complicated path

His trajectory can be considered convulsive. Local communities lost control of these goods in different historical periods, such as the Franco regime, until the end of the 1970s. Through the State’s forest heritage, massive forest plantations were carried out, so that local communities lost control and use of these forests, which were essential for supporting family economies and the agrarian system.

Traditionally, they were used for their use by livestock, obtaining cereals, wood or gorse, to fertilize farmland. In fact, one of the main transformations of these mountains took place in the 20th century, after the 1940s, from their massive afforestation. This process took place with fast-growing tree species, which meant a sudden change of uses in these properties.

It will not be until the 1970s when the recovery of control and management of neighboring forests by local inhabitants takes place, until reaching the relevant surface figure of today.

Celebration in Couso (Galicia), where there is a community of mountains in common hands.
Community of Montes de Couso

Activities of economic and environmental interest

The neighboring mountains have unique characteristics that enable the use of logics and rationalities linked to the common good and the community. In this sense, although forest exploitation predominates, in recent years interesting initiatives have been emerging with other rationalities directly promoted by the community members. Experiences that use their local resources in a sustainable way, creating economic activity and invigorating the geographical environments where they are located.

These initiatives are part of the multifunctionality of the mountain. This requires a compatibility of the economic, social and environmental functions. In this way it is necessary to try to ensure that there is a certain balance between these three functions of the mountain.

Thus, we can find various examples of neighboring forest communities that carry out activities of interest. There are some that have farms that are certified as organic production. For example, the Community of Couso produces the mushroom known as shiitake. The one in Penamá obtains beef from native breeds of cattle.

Cultivation of shiitake and fruits of the forest in the neighboring mount of Couso. Source: Galician Field.

The neighboring forest of Carballo has a mycological reserve certified by the regulatory body for organic farming. In it, local people and visitors can collect wild mushrooms.

Some of the initiatives have even gained international visibility. This is the case with the recent declaration as ICCA –territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities or territories of life– of various neighboring mountain communities in Galicia. Thus, the collective entities of Covelo, Teis, Froxán and Couso have been recognized within this initiative promoted by the United Nations Environment Program.

Other communities also emphasize heritage issues, such as Paraños, and many also have the support of volunteers, such as Coruxo.

There are also neighborhood experiences that recover traditional activities such as resin collection, a task that they carry out in Baroña. Many of these initiatives are recent and are covering new areas, from a perspective linked to sustainability.

In short, local forests are collective properties located in the rural world and managed by local inhabitants. Due to their unique characteristics, they have the potential to develop sustainable initiatives based on collective action.

Despite the great difficulties they face, in a complex context such as the one that currently exists, various recent experiences of interest have been launched based on multifunctionality and sustainability.

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