Land commons – a relic or a model for managing communal assets?

Rural sources of common assets

Tangible and intangible common goods or assets and the forms of their management constitute an important element in the debate on the organization of space and society. In our part of Europe, the spectre of the region’s socialist past does not allow researchers to go beyond perceiving common goods as a relic of the past system that is ill-adapted to market realities, therefore analyses of them take place in relation to the processes of nationalization and collectivization. We often look for the early seeds of common goods in rural areas, but we mistakenly assume that the provenance of this phenomenon is limited to the post-war period. In today’s Poland, the most expressive form of communal asset is land commons[1], which have been in operation continuously for over two hundred years and are not the product of obligatory sharing (such as the collectivization process and the resulting agricultural cooperatives); instead, they can be identified as models or blueprints whose origins illustrate the desire for self-organization of local communities that are closely related to a specific area. “Such areas are estimated to cover approximately 5% of the territory of the European Union (EU), but this figure goes up to 9% when non-agricultural areas such as forests, coastlines, etc. are also taken into account”2. Land commons are not a post-socialist relic; they exist in all regions of our continent: in Mediterranean countries, in mountainous areas (in Austria, Switzerland, Norway), and in countries where pastures have played an important role, such as Great Britain, Ireland, Iceland, but also Germany and Central and Eastern Europe.3

Commons in Europe can be defined as land to which many people have rights of use, although none of these people owns it. Often, these areas are owned by various types of public entities, local government bodies, or institutions, including parishes. Separately established common rights allow a group of people to use an area for their own purposes, such as grazing animals, collecting firewood, or access to water. The English term

“commoner” means a user of such a community property. The existence of European commons is based on servitudes, that is, the rights of peasants to use the meadows, forests, lakes, and rivers belonging to a manor estate. On the one hand, the survival of the population depended on them as they provided the opportunity to graze cattle, cultivate crops, harvest the fruit of the forest, and fish; on the other hand, they were the cause of numerous conflicts, requiring the peasantry to constantly fight to maintain the rights granted to them, and to struggle and resist the mounting tendencies to build fences.[4] In other words, the history of commons in rural areas is also a chronicle of models of opposition against modernization processes that “triggered survival and coping strategies among peasants, often of a collective nature and on an impressive scale”.[5]

Over-exploitation versus inefficiency

The greatest doubts about common goods arise from their excessive exploitation. This problem was described in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, who illustrated it with the example of a shared pasture. He stated that if a community using common resources is not exposed to negative external factors (such as war or plague), tragedy cannot be avoided.[6] The said tragedy is caused by shepherds: in order to maximize their own profit, they graze more and more animals on common pastures. This leads to resources being depleted before they can be renewed.

The example of a pasture clearly illustrates the essence of common assets: “it is not possible to exclude them from consumption, but there is competition in the consumption”.[7] Economists also call the tangible and intangible resources that are accumulated in common assets common-pool resources, or shared-pool resources. Therefore, the most essential question regarding the theory of resource management concerns how to regulate the use of these resources. We decided to find examples of other “pastures”, namely those where, thanks to the self-organization of communities who have co-created land communities, it was possible to develop mechanisms of self-limitation in the use of the shared resources and thus avoid the Hardinian tragedy.

The leading researcher of the theory of managing the commons is Elinor Ostrom, an economist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. The research results she presented in 1990 in the book Governing the Commons8 refute the myth of the tragedy of the commons. The rules of community organization she describes allow for effective and sustainable management of the assets in the common pool. Examples from many countries, including Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, and the United States, concern rural areas and various resources: meadows, forests, reservoirs, and water systems (intended for fishing and irrigation of farmland). The motivation of the community gathered around such an asset is tangible and measurable. The spatial, historical and anthropological properties of rural areas allow for deeper integration of a community focused around the given resource, which is not only an area of residence but also a source of subsistence.


The formation of land commons

Land commons are one of the last legally sanctioned forms of collective land management in Poland.[9] According to data collected in the 2009 report by Najwyższa Izba Kontroli (Supreme Audit Office), 5,126 properties in Poland can be considered to fall into the category of land commons.[10] These manage over one hundred and seven thousand hectares of land (6 per cent of the country’s total farmland area).[11]

Land commons are not popular; they operate according to a complicated model that stands out from all other types of real estate (it is interesting that in this context the term “common” or “community” refers to the property, not to the persons entitled to use that property). Perhaps this is why this issue is mainly dealt with by lawyers.[12] To put it very simply, land commons may be former landholdings (possessory estates) or resources used by a specific community, therefore they are linked to royal endowments or decrees of the occupying states. Therefore, we are dealing with a closed resource of land with a long history of shared use by the peasant community. Of course, in the turbulent history of our country, many of these areas did not meet the legal criteria required by subsequent laws and were ultimately privatized or nationalized.


Fourteenth century

The roots of the commons date back to royal grants or endowments. Probably the oldest of these is the Piwniczna Szyja land common, which manages the forests in the vicinity of the village of Kosarzyska. It was established in 1348 by the endowment of King Casimir the Great. The king wanted to secure the border areas, therefore he decided to give the land to the settlers for their common use.[13] It is possible that Kadłub Wolny has the second longest history as a land common in Poland. It was created as a result of peasants purchasing land from knights’ estates, and “this kind of transaction required the emperor’s approval. Lo and behold, Emperor Rudolf III issued such an approving document in 1603”.[14] The identity of these commons is built on the durability of place and tradition. Members of Piwniczna Szyja proudly point out that their existence was noted by the chronicler Jan Długosz, whereas the inhabitants of Kadłub Wolny, thanks to the tradition of keeping the Tsar’s document, saved their land commune not once but twice from being taken over by the authorities: firstly, by the Germans, and later by the Polish People’s Republic. Both cases illustrate the lasting tradition of self-organization and fighting for one’s privileges.

Most commons were established later, during the partitions (occupation by neighbouring states), at the time of the liquidation of feudal property. Apart from commons so created, others were established on land acquired by peasant companies – a type of peasant cooperative created at the beginning of the twentieth century on properties used by gromady (communities – former units of administrative division covering several villages) of petty nobility, or communities established as a result of the division of manor estates.


Nineteenth century

The enfranchisement processes carried out in the nineteenth century were associated with systematizing the legal status of land communes. In the areas under Prussian rule (under the Prussian portion of the “partition”), the authorities decided to eliminate common land as quickly as possible; in the Kingdom of Poland and in Galicja, the legislators’ policy was to maintain and regulate land communes. A source of conflicts between manors and villages was the existence of these land communes, which prevented or hindered building inter-class communities; as such, it was in the interest of the occupying states to preserve these land communes, although this also deepened the bonds between the oppressed groups.

Andrzej Stelmachowski describes the turbulent history of four land commons in the Western Tatras.[15] Wspólnota Leśna Uprawnionych 8 Wsi w Witowie (Forest Commune of 8 Authorized Villages in Witów), probably the most famous land community in Poland today, experienced problems with purchasing land from the Austrian invader. The priest who conducted the transaction inflated the purchase price and squeezed an additional payment from the peasants. Then he appropriated the forest and forced the peasants to perform servitude, thus their efforts ended in failure. The other three communities were better organized and they resolved the situation with the invader. Since there was no category of land commune in Austrian law, co-ownership was established on their shared lands. As a result of this decision, the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic treated them as private owners and nationalized the land, despite lawsuits brought against this decision by Wspólnota Sołtysów Podczerwieńskich (Commune of Podczerwne Village Heads). Over time, the Forest Commune of 8 Authorized Villages in Witów managed to establish a land commune in their shared area; today that land commune covers most of the Chochołowska Valley. The highlanders run a tourist business there, which is heavily criticized for overly intensive forest management.


The interwar period

In interwar Poland, an attempt was made to unify and standardize the status of land commons. The Act adopted on May 4, 1938 defined in detail the types of land considered a common resource and provided for the division of real estate.[16] Although exceptions were allowed (in precisely defined situations, commons were not divided among those entitled to them), the authorities assumed the ultimate liquidation of the collective form of land use. However, they ran out of time and new rules were not implemented before the outbreak of the war.


The post-war authorities followed entirely different assumptions. As part of accustoming rural residents to team production and supporting collective forms of management of agricultural areas, the new law prevented privatization of the existing commons. The most important legal act from that period is the Act of June 29, 1963 on the development of land commons.[17] It is based upon the primacy of the indefinite duration of common rights and the impossibility of dividing resources between entitled persons; it even banned keeping land and mortgage registers for land commons. The right to use common land belonged to those who actually used it, but they had to establish an appropriate company to manage the resource. To this day, this Act has the greatest impact on the organization of land commons.

Persons entitled to participate in the land community may sell their shares, but only to other entitled persons or persons taking over their farm (as a result of sale or inheritance).

According to data from 2009, only 1,080 land communities had incorporated (i.e., established) their companies, of which 1,014 have been approved by local government bodies.[18] In other words, of the 5,126 land commons in Poland today, only about 20 per cent operate in accordance with the regulations.

The authors of the 2016 amendment wished to facilitate the establishment of companies that would manage land commons.[19] Previously, it was difficult to determine who was entitled to participate in land commons, so the amendment legalised the actual situation: people who had used a resource in the period preceding the adoption of the amendment would still be entitled to use it. Such a law facilitates the self-organization of local communities that actually operate within land commons. Additionally, the amendment abolished the ban on establishing land and mortgage registers for land real estate belonging to land commons. Importantly, although by no means obviously, the legislators did not assume the liquidation of the existing model; instead, they upheld the possibility of maintaining the current way of functioning of those land communities that do not wish to change their status.

Before we delve into examples of specific communities, we must emphatically state that most land commons do not seem to be functional: they do not meet the requirements set by law, nor do they conduct business or any other activity. Our opinion is confirmed by the above-mentioned report by the Supreme Audit Office from 2009. On the other hand, research clearly shows that those few operating communities feel responsible for their common area, whose rate of resource exploitation does not exceed the rate of renewal. Piotr Gołos’s research [20] on forest land commons demonstrated that “in forest communities in the years 2003–2005, the share of forest regeneration was much higher than in private forests and was similar to the level observed in state forests”.[21] Kamil Rudol also confirms that, in the activities of land communities, “the exploitation of the community’s resources does not exceed the rate of their renewal”.[22] He noted that the role of land communities has changed significantly since the 1960s. The main purpose of the 1963 Act was to improve land management. Today’s communities are not limited to agricultural functions; they also conduct social and even cultural activities. Each community has different mechanisms for controlling or managing its common resources, but all these forms of self-limitation are created as a result of democratic processes, determined in the by-laws of individual companies managing land commons.

Operation of communities

Alina Daniłowska and Adam Zając analysed two examples of forest commons. The first one, the Land Common in Gąsawy Rządowe, was established in 1864 on the basis of the Tsar’s decree. It ceased to operate for a period of time: from the introduction of martial law until 1998. Only the real and imminent threat of land takeover by the State Treasury motivated the farmers to establish a company, which was approved by the Municipal Board in 1999. 210 farmers are entitled to use the communal land. The community has over 70 hectares of land, 55 hectares of forests, 10 hectares of pastures, and 7 hectares of arable land. The second, the aforementioned Forest Community of 8 Authorised Villages in Witów, has existed since 1819. Members consider its history “an example of the attitude of a highlander, a Polish peasant in striving to protect his property and personal freedom”,[23] which is evidence “of the privileged classes taking advantage of their position in subjugating and exploiting peasants as a class deprived of basic rights”.[24] The community operates on the basis of by-laws approved by the district authorities in 1966, therefore it is a land community in which the self-organization of members and the continuity of their residence in one place allowed for the regulation of their legal status shortly after the introduction of the Act on the management of land communities. It is made up of forests covering an area of 3,083 hectares, of which 2,230 hectares are within the Tatra National Park (TPN), and the remaining part is in its buffer zone. The community consists of over two thousand inhabitants of eight villages in the Podhale region, each represented by one person on the board.

Despite their different origins, both communities have developed similar forms of using resources, including self-limitation tools developed within the structures of companies managing land commons. Forest commissions have been established, and forests are cultivated on the basis of forest management plans. The community in Gąsawy Rządowe spend the financial surplus generated by the company on renovation works and construction of a parking lot for the local parish, a football pitch, and a village community centre. They decided to exclude some land plots from their ownership and donate them for the needs of the Health Centre in Gąsawy Rządowe.

The Witów community spend the acquired funds on current activities, administration, and maintenance of mountain trails. Budget surpluses go to public purposes of individual villages: construction of roads and rural bridges, purchase of equipment and construction of Volunteer Fire Department stations, as well as supporting the activities of schools. Both companies are united by a strong sense of community, thanks to which they operate efficiently.

Many other communities function similarly. The construction of the Cultural and Recreation Centre and the Volunteer Fire Department station was co-financed by the Forest and Land Community “Nadzieja” in Mierzęcice. Many land communities support their municipalities and individual villages with donations to schools, parishes, and social initiatives. A ski resort was built partly on the areas of the forest community in Jurgów, which had been stripped of trees by an exceptionally strong halny wind. It is managed by a company of local owners of plots in the area.

It is also worth taking a look at communities that do not meet the requirements of legislators; after all, informal activities can be excellent examples of cooperation, especially since compliance with complex regulations, in particular identifying all persons authorized to use the resource, requires a lot of time and titanic amounts of work in the discussed model. Adam Zając examined two such communities. The community of the village of Myślakowice, despite its legal obligation, has not established a company.[25] This does not mean that it has not established informal rules of operation. Village meetings are chaired by the village head (sołtys), and the land is contractually distributed among authorized persons. The plots are exchanged every year: this rotation is intended to offer equal access to more productive land. The Forest Community of the Village of Domaniewice has not developed any mechanisms for managing the shared resource, and the residents freely use the hundred hectares of forest growing in its area. They take wood for firewood and to produce pallet boxes. However, no one cares about the regeneration of the forest, so its condition is getting worse every year.

The problems of self-management

The history of the Forest and Land Community in Siewierz dates back to 1523. Initially, the community managed the lands under customary law. In 1964, in accordance with the requirements of the 1963 Act, the Siewierz Community established a company to manage the community’s resources: 1.1 thousand hectares, mainly forests. The most important public facilities and workplaces were built in non-forest areas: a sanatorium, a railway line, a primary school, recreation and health centres, a community centre, and even a municipal office. The company bought Siewierz Castle from a private owner and donated it to the municipality.

As much as 90 per cent of the community’s land is covered with forest, which, according to members, is not particularly profitable.

“Forest management, as a rule, does not bring income in our circumstances. This is related to the nature of the substrate on which the forests grow (it is sandy soil). […] For several decades, the forest stand has been rebuilt towards more valuable species synchronized with local conditions. In the long run, the costs of silviculture are balanced with the revenues from the sale of timber. The company employs a professional forester. […] Forests constituting a land common in Siewierz, despite their private nature, are generally accessible. They are of natural, ecological and historical significance to the company’s members as they were planted by their ancestors; to a lesser extent, they are of economic importance, too. In the opinion of the forest district authorities, our forests are maintained in an exemplary manner”.[26]

The company derives its main profits from the lease of non-forest land and occasionally receives compensation for the expropriation of a portion of its land, such as for the construction of a bypass. Decisions regarding the budget are made in the form of an open vote or a secret ballot. About four hundred people are entitled to vote, and although decisions are almost never made unanimously, the company has so far allocated most of its income for social purposes. The range of supported causes is wide: a volunteer fire brigade, two local parishes, a pigeon breeders’ association and a hunting club, and schools and hospitals. The land community selects entities that are important to its members, which – we should remember – constitute only about 3 per cent of the municipality’s inhabitants.

In 2021, after a change in the company’s management, a conflict arose between the members. A dozen or so people had established an association that monitors the activities of the management board on a continuous basis. The disputes concern the president’s remuneration, accusations of leasing plots at underestimated rates, employing persons based on nepotism, and connections with the municipal authorities. One dispute even ended in a court case: the entitled person called on the company to pay a small amount – four hundred zloty. This case shows how difficult and time-consuming democratic management processes are, especially in institutions with a complicated legal model.

A relic or a model of good practice

Even before the amendment to the Act, lawyer Izabela Lipińska, a researcher at the Poznań University of Life Sciences, wrote: “The existence of land commons is contrary to the assumptions of a free-market economy and the assumption of rational action by farmers and business entities”.[27]

Such thinking remains at odds with the way the countryside functions today, where only 12 per cent of residents are professionally engaged in agriculture. Kamil Rudol noted that despite the continuity of their history, the functions of land communities, understood in 1963 as a socialized model of agricultural production, “has evolved along with ongoing legal, political, economic and social changes. […] Communities perform or may currently perform significant pro-environmental, socio-economic, and cultural functions that are important for modern agriculture”.[28]

In areas that escape market pressure – due not only to the complicated legal situation but also to the low quality of soil – organizations have emerged that operate for the common good. Sometimes, the low level of potential profits has created mechanisms opposite to the “tragedy of the commons”. An individual person using a shared resource receives little benefit, but when all these profits are added together in a common budget, it is possible to create infrastructure that will benefit both the individual and the entire community.

The self-organization of land communities has often been forced by the fight for sovereignty and granted rights – a class war waged against the masters – but also against any subsequent authority (foreign invaders, political parties, even local governments), or under the pressure of the market economy. The strong identity thus built leads to communities implementing the ideas of local patriotism. The mismanagement (manifested by a lack of proper management or planning of the use of these lands) which is present in some areas should not be assessed only from the perspective of financial loss; sometimes it results from the exclusion of part of the land from the operation of speculation mechanisms. At the other extreme of the processes that shape space, we find equally unorganized and uncontrolled but rapidly progressing urbanization of rural areas. The possibility of going beyond the rules of land commodification and assessing it through the prism of profitability has survived as a relic. Between industrialized crops and animal farms, single-family buildings stretching to the horizon, and spaces devoted to logistics centres, we have few meadows and pastures left. At the expense of financial profits, land commons can function as a good practice model that offers a chance to preserve the natural rural landscape.