Monday, July 2, 2012

Visiting An Alpine Managed Grazing Commons That Inspired Elinor Ostrom

Two days ago I had the privilege to visit the Alp Bach Cooperation (Bergschaften) above Grindelwald, Switzerland in the Berne canton in a valley above Interlaken and across from Mounts Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau, which was visited by the late Lin Ostrom in 2007, hosted by those hosting my group (participants in a conference on New Frontiers of Forest Economics, held at ETH in Zurich).  Ironically, this was the day after her 92 year old husband, Vincent, died, following her death by a couple of weeks (for anybody not knowing it, she was the first, and so far only, woman to receive the econ Nobel).  These alpine grazing commons were first written about academically by the late anthropologist, Robert Netting, between 1972 and 1976, and were among the first writings that Lin cited on managing the commons, which she first began studying in water management in LA in the 1960s and was her premier topic.  Besides being absolutely visually spectacular, this was an extremely interesting visit.

Our hosts were Hans Schlunegger, secretary of the local Taleinungskommission, the body of 8 of these cooperatives that sets their rules in meetings of them about once a decade.  Each of the cooperatives meets annually to deal with their own specific issues for the year.  Dr. Schlunegger is an electrical engineer, retired from working for the Jungfrau railway.  Our other host was Rudolf Zumstein, who is the Chief of the Forest Service for Eastern Bernese Oberland, which includes the forests of these 8 cooperatives in this Taleinungen.  This particular cooperative consists of 120 "hearths" (households), who own land near the village of Grindelwald at about 1000 meters elevation, down in the valley.  As one ascends one passes through land owned in common, first forests, and then higher up are the pastures, where 130 cattle are currently being grazed for this coop.  The land is open to anyone to walk through or hang glide off from (an increasing use), although apparently there are some restrictions on hunting.

Rights to graze cattle are labeled as "kurechte," cow rights, and are allocated to the hearths.  Traditionally the cattle are grazed in winter in the valley and then moved to the upper pasture in late spring through the summer.  We got out at 1700 meters and walked down, being shown various things as we did so.  Managing the grazing commons has traditionally been the more difficult matter than managing the forest, where members of the coop also have firewood rights to several trees per year for their hearths. 

The coop dates to 1404, with Hans showing us a copy of the original agreement.  This came about when the locals managed to gain ownership of the alp from a monastery in Interlaken further down.  These are indeed feudal land ownership and management arrangements that have persisted into modern times, although with changes over the centuries, the last revision of the Taleinungen rules being in 2002.  As late as the late 19th century there would sometimes be skirmishes even involving weapons over the grazing access, but more recently things have been peacefully managed, with monitoring being fairly easy.  If anything, they would like to have more cattle grazing up there than they have now.  Other animals have a ratio to the cow, with 2.5 goats equaling a cow for the kurechte calculations.

The forest was once able to be fully open access, but there was major deforestation during the 19th century, since replanted.  Indeed, only 42% of yield is now harvested, generally done through careful cuts made laterally.  The major value of the forest is really environmental "catchment," to prevent avalanches, rockslides, flooding, and so forth, although when wood is cut for timber, it gets sold.  Although this coop does not have any of it, increasingly some of the coops in the Taleinungen are getting into tourism with restaurants and skiing and so forth.  It was interesting to hear how Rudy discusses planned changes for the forest with coop leaders, these being done only after there is a mutual agreement.

What makes money on the pastures is Alp Chesse.  The cows are large and shaggy and yellow. When we arrived at the pature, a herd of them came ambling over with their large cowbells clanging.  Various people even patted them.  I cannot resist noting in this system where cows are a standard of value that "capital" is from the Latin for a herd of cattle. 

Needless to say, such arrangements have not been followed around the world for many commons resources, but I now understand much better how and why the late Lin Ostrom was so inspired by this particular ground-up example that must be labeled successful, despite all kinds of peculiar details involved with them.


Unknown said...

I wonder what the oxytocin / testosterone levels of the 'hearth' representatives are. Have there be any external threats to these co-operatives?

Barkley Rosser said...

Funny you should mention OT given that Ernst Fehr is at Zurich and studies such stuff and is s fan of cooperation and social preferences and all that. I got the impression that for these guys, there is an element of "cooperation is its own reward" (or part of it anyway) in what they do.

They are mostly freed from outside pressures due to their relative isolation and altitude. The real issue is outside market forces possibly inducing coop members to bail to get deals. One element for this may have been higher timber demand in the 19th century when the railroad came in. But they survived that. Maybe the rising demand for tourism may do it now, although so far they seem to be managing that as well.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Sounds like a great place for a holiday.
My home town in rural New South Wales has a 'commons'. It's an area of shared pasture land along the banks of the Murray River on the southern side of the town. The only problem I've heard in relation to its management was about community objection to the expansion of the town's golf course onto it.

I've read Ostrom's book but I must admit that I did not find it an easy read. I need to locate it again.