The Commons Belong to All of Us
The commons are the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including air, water and a habitable earth, all of nature’s bounty regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together.
The use of the term has its roots in ancient Europe, where it referred to shared agricultural fields, grazing lands and forests that were not formally regulated but were, over a period of several hundred years, enclosed and claimed as private property for private use.
The tragedy of the commons, coined by economist Garrett Hardin in 1968, is a situation where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource.
This is happening at an ever faster pace, not because there are too many of us, but rather because the commons – natural, social, civil, cultural, and intellectual – in the neoliberal era is being plundered via enclosure, commodification, privatization and colonization.
Austerity and neoliberal policies are depleting our shared wealth; our commons are sold off to international corporations and financial institutions. In this way, we are deprived of our common rights. The consequence is a poorer public realm, stunted human development and the diminution of the common good.
The commons belong to all of us, not only to a wealthy or privileged minority. Ensuring that all people, rich or poor, young or old, regardless of employment or disability, benefit from those resources is not charity. We need to establish an income distribution that reclaims the commons and guarantees a livable income for all. Without transformative action, a dark political era looms.
Social Justice and Sustainability
Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The concept is composed of three pillars: economic, environmental and social – also known informally as profits, planet, and people.
This definition reflects the fact that, in order to thrive in the long term, a community must address all three of these pillars of sustainability. Efforts to address these challenges have evolved throughout the decades, and, at times, certain elements can seem to be overemphasized or neglected.
In recent years, the sustainability movement has shifted toward ensuring that adequate emphasis is given to social justice concerns and to ensuring that we do not protect profits, or even the planet, at the expense of people or social equity.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.
They recognize that ending poverty and other difficulties must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality and promote economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.
Mining in Armenia
Mining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the Earth. We are all entitled to our share of the earth’s resources, or at least the financial gain that comes from utilizing those resources. The value must benefit us all.
While the call for a cleaner environment and greener alternative energy is on the rise around the globe, mining is still an important economic activity in Armenia, a country rich in metals like copper, molybdenum, lead, zinc, gold and silver.
According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, mining contributed 2.9% to GDP in 2018. The mining sector’s production comprises about 30% of the country’s total exports. Armenia depends heavily on its mining sector to earn foreign currency.
As with other places in the world, people have been fighting against destructive mining and corporate courts. In the wake of the Velvet Revolution, there have been protests to prevent Lydian Armenia CJSC from proceeding with plans to launch the Amulsar mine.
An estimated 70 tons of gold are expected to be extracted from Amulsar over a 10-year period. However, since June 2018, activists and community residents surrounding the Amulsar mine, and across Armenia, have gathered to take a stand for their water, land and livelihoods.
Armenia’s battered economy is in dire need of the foreign investment and jobs that the industry could bring in. However, the goldmine threatens the country’s biggest source of freshwater, and with it, an entire ecosystem.
Lydian claims it’s safe to proceed with their operation. However, a report recently released has found countless flaws in the environmental impact documents prepared by Lydian. Located within a stone’s throw of Jermuk, a famed spa-town, the mine operations can also turn away potential tourists.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power after the Velvet Revolution by promising an end to endemic corruption and economic mismanagement, has been under increasing pressure to pick sides.
Recently, he called on protesters to end the 18-month-old blockade, saying that their protest is not in the national interest. Hostility to mining, however, is perhaps understandable as Armenia has a long history of environmental disasters related to mining.
As with lots of other countries that are rich with natural resources, Armenia has inherited many problems because of these mines. Lack of legislation and low fines on pollution have resulted in a destructive mining industry characterized by corruption and crime.
Mining in Armenia has, so far, enriched only a few while the benefits that have trickled down to local communities have been meager. Instead, people have been left with land contaminated by toxic mine residue – leftover heavy metals and poisons such as lead and arsenic.
The Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF)
According to Article 10 of Armenia’s Constitution, all mineral resources are the sole property of the state. However, millions of dollars in profit flow to those extracting and exporting Armenia’s mineral resources. Are the Armenian people receiving their fair share of that pie?
As the government is responsible for managing these natural resources in trust for the people, including future generations, we can, as rightful owners, save the proceeds of mining activities (among other commons extraction) in a fund, a Permanent Fund.
The Permanent Fund can be set up as a democratic variant of a sovereign wealth fund (SWF), which are state-owned investment funds that invest in real and financial assets, such as stocks, bonds, real estate, precious metals, or alternative investments such as private equity funds or hedge funds.
Generally, there are two types of SWFs. Stabilization funds are created to reduce the volatility of government revenues, to counter the boom-bust cycles’ adverse effect on government spending and the national economy. Savings funds build up savings for future generations.
SWFs are typically established when governments have budgetary surpluses and little or no international debt. It is not always possible or desirable to hold this excess liquidity as money or to channel it into immediate consumption. This is especially the case when a nation depends on raw material exports like oil, copper or diamonds.
In such countries, the main reason for creating a SWF is because of the properties of resource revenue: high volatility of resource prices, unpredictability of extraction, and exhaustibility of resources. Other reasons for creating SWFs may be economic or strategic, such as war chests for uncertain times.
SWFs in resource-rich countries can help avoid the resource curse. Governments may be able to spend the money immediately but risk overheating the economy. In such circumstances, saving the money to spend during a period of low inflation is often desirable.
Norway and Alaska
In Norway, the surplus wealth produced by Norwegian petroleum income is deposited in the Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), also known as the Oil Fund. The aim is to ensure responsible and long-term management of revenue from Norway’s oil and gas resources so that this wealth benefits both current and future generations.
The Oil Fund was established to invest the surplus revenues of the Norwegian petroleum sector in 1990. It has over US$1 trillion in assets, including 1.4% of global stocks, making it the world’s largest SWF. It also holds portfolios of real estate and fixed-income investments.
Another SWF is the Alaska Permanent Fund, managed by the state-owned Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation (APFC), established in 1976. The fund is worth nearly $67 billion.
Alaska deposits at least 25% of its mineral and petroleum royalties into the fund annually. That money is invested by the APFC in domestic and global stocks, bonds, and private equity. Interest earnings are then distributed to Alaska residents every September as a citizen’s dividend that may be compared to a universal basic income (UBI).
Former Governor Jay Hammond, the mastermind behind the fund, created it as a way to ensure Alaska’s nonrenewable resources could provide an everlasting return to the state. In his words, he “wanted to transform oil wells pumping oil for a finite period into money wells pumping money for infinity.”
It was Hammond’s plan to protect the fund. If every Alaskan were a stakeholder in the Permanent Fund’s future, surely no politician could dismantle it without paying an electoral price. The dividend has reduced poverty and boosted average incomes, without harming the economy in the process. In 2019, every resident received a check for $1,606.
Management of the Permanent Fund
A permanent fund may be used to generate and disburse money to those entitled to receive payments by qualification or agreement, as in the case of Alaska citizens or residents that satisfy the rules for payment from their permanent fund from state oil revenues.
The profit from the surplus of the natural resources might be distributed as a citizen’s dividend, or basic income, to all citizens equally, just like in Alaska, or be appropriated into the budget, like in Norway, which is equivalent to a tax break for all Norwegians.
Sharing the commons is one ethical rationale for basic incomes, which are justifiable for other reasons as well, including ecological justice, freedom and basic security. A citizen’s dividend would anchor the distribution system.
The Permanent Fund must adhere to prudent investment rules geared to socially beneficial forms of capital, taking into account ecological principles and tax-paying propriety. It will be part of our commons.
The governance of the fund must be democratic and must be separated from the government to minimize the possibility of manipulation by politicians before elections. The management must be done in a transparent, participatory process with the people.
As we have inherited these resources, we must ensure that our descendants also inherit either the resources or their value. We should therefore only use the income the fund generates, leaving the principal intact. In this way, our descendants will also have access to the full value of our commons.
The commons has been nurtured by many generations and exists for future generations. It belongs to us all, to be shared and safeguarded. As Edmund Burke recognized, we are “temporary custodians of our commonwealth” and have the responsibility of passing on to the next generation our commons in at least as good a condition as we found it.
For the past year, activists and residents of Vayots Dzor have blocked roads leading to the Amulsar Gold Mine. Gohar Abrahamyan speaks with some of the protesters, all residents of nearby towns and villages, who are manning the posts.Read more