How Nordic Europe Is Guarding the Commons
ANALYSIS, 7 Oct 2013
“The commons have been steadily dismantled by the principle that everything has to be privately owned,” said Noam Chomsky, speaking at the Global Media Forum in Bonn earlier this year. Linking Occupy Gezi to other movements, the eminent thinker from MIT highlighted how “the mass Turkish protests began trying to save the last part of the commons in Istanbul from commercial destruction.”
During my visit to Finland and Sweden this summer, I saw how the Nordic Everyman Rights represent a potential step toward reclaiming those commons — particularly if they get expanded and adopted beyond the northern reaches of Europe.
After coming to understand the freedoms one is entitled to in Finland, I asked a handful of Finns if they thought their rights were radical. The repeated response was a contemplative pause, followed by agreement that in comparison to elsewhere their rights are unique. I was also told that a small number of Finnish politicians have recently suggested reducing those rights, and were met with broad public opposition.
Nordic Everyman Rights, as they are called, means that everyone in most Scandinavian and Baltic countries is guaranteed access to nature’s bounty. Even on privately owned land, a person may legally set up camp for one night, pick wild foods, gather dry twigs for fire, fish with bait, then walk, ski or cycle across the land – as long as s/he does not encroach on a person’s yard or privacy.
And in Finland, the rules don’t just apply to nationals; rather, Nordic Everyman Rights guarantee anyone, whether resident or visitor, access and use of over 90% of the country’s land. In stark contrast, most other countries enforce strict property laws that exclude others from the freedom to roam or gather on private land that they do not own.
The British countryside, for example, is littered with signs saying Keep Out! There, walks in the wild may require taking long detours in order to avoid people’s estates or corporate property. Often the land on the other side of the fence or wall is unused. Britain’s strong property laws encompass massive areas and date back to the Enclosures Acts of 1750 — and even before that, when land in the Middle Ages was awarded solely to the Aristocracy and Church.
Land ownership exists, of course, in the Nordic countries but it does not come with exclusive usage rights, and this is the crucial difference. The alternative “Nordic way” engenders a sense of collective responsibility toward the land based on communal attitudes about the Earth, relying on notions of stewardship as opposed to control of nature. In places where everyone has a right to travel freely, it also means that owners can’t hide their destructive practices behind locked barriers.
Nordic Everyman Rights bring with them everyman responsibilities, something I have witnessed in practice. Finns guided me away from picking berries and mushrooms too close to people’s backyards and privacy. Meanwhile, I have seen others respecting the space of nearby residents by taking care to put out fires and follow other basic codes that are taught to all Finns during their primary schooling.
“With the freedom to enjoy the countryside come the obligations to leave the environment undisturbed and preserve Finland’s rich natural heritage for future generations to enjoy,” states Finland’s Ministry of Environment, which also mentions Everyman Rights in its latest State of Finland’s Forests report.
The most comprehensive evidence showing the success of Everyman Rights is the Nordic nature itself. Predominantly, Finland’s rivers and lakes are clear, its forests unspoilt. It’s not a complete ecological utopia; earlier this year, a large mine in Talvivaara received national attention when it failed to complete standards of water protection. But by and large, the strategy of allowing people to use and respect their common land has succeeded.
This is something that others around the world could learn from, as efforts to reclaim and restore the commons works to increasingly connect social justice movements. People are challenging corporations’ aims to frack Britain, exploit tar sands in Canada, mine in the Congo, and build shopping malls in Istanbul.
Across much of the planet, property rights still determine that corporations and land owners have legal justification to exclusively use the land – and, implicitly, to destroy its integrity. The Nordic way offers a positive alternative which, while it may not resolve all of the complex issues relating to private property and use of the commons, takes a large step toward freeing the countryside not just for the 1% but for the other 99% as well.
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