Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Common Wealth Trusts"

Neera Singh

Thanks to Peter Barnes for a very succinct presentation of his idea of “common wealth trusts.” While the idea of “common wealth” belonging to everyone equally that provides dividends or a basic income to all through common wealth trusts is really attractive, I worry about issues of equity. I am especially concerned if local natural resources (often contested) are treated as common wealth (for all) or if the atmosphere’s capacity to act as a sink is treated as common wealth, erasing past histories of unequal access to the skies.

Uneven distribution of natural resources is not merely due to differences in natural endowments, but also arises due to complex histories, society-nature relations, investment of care by local people, levels of so-called development, displacement of “degradation” to other parts of the world, etc. How do we account for such differences and build these into frameworks for common wealth trusts?

Also, what is treated as nature’s gifts is often a product of caring labor of people living in local landscapes. We know that indigenous peoples’ territories happen to have greater biodiversity. This is not a coincidence. Local care of “natural” resources and past patterns of appropriation are often central to the production of these gifts. Investment of caring labor by people living in these landscapes cannot be ignored. To treat these natural resources as “common wealth” belonging to “everyone” equally will be to introduce another layer of injustice over past injustices.

It is critical to address issues of redistribution. In the absence of radical redistribution of the “common wealth” generated by the past appropriation of the gifts of nature and of indigenous people, peasants, and pastoralists, starting with treating “natural resources” as common wealth, today, will not be enough. Moreover, leaving it to the market to determine resource use will be dangerous. I know Peter Barnes envisages strong safeguards—guided by ethics of protecting endangered ecosystems etc. However, I worry that this framing can lead to local people becoming a casualty of conservation once again. In the past, local people have been displaced to make way for conservation, and with this framing, their interests can be sacrificed to create “dividends” for all.

If we are not careful to bring all sorts of “wealth” into the ambit of redistribution, the framework of common wealth trusts can be used to appropriate local “commons” resources (that common pool resource theorists like Ostrom refer to as the commons) as wealth for all—while other forms of “common wealth” accruing from social institutions, technology, appropriate of private property, etc., can continue to be privately appropriated.

I read this essay through the lens of my practical experience with rural communities in Odisha who have been conserving state-owned forests as the commons. In many ways, their efforts to conserve forests embody the ethos of common wealth trusts—they are conserving local forests as trustees for future generations and assisting nature in enhancing gifts of ecosystem services from these lands.

I wonder whether treating these forests, and other such commons, as common wealth might impinge on their rights (not just legal but moral). How do we ensure that the local caregivers and stewards of natural resources do not lose out in the process?

Peter Barnes does not specify the scale at which these common wealth trusts would operate and who constitutes the owners or trustees of the resource—whether it will comprise of all citizens in a regional, sub-national, national, or global scale (and future generations). Maybe we should think about these trusts at multiple scales more fluidly? For local commons, the constituent group and beneficiaries of the trust might comprise of all residents of a village or a group of villages, a municipality or a city, or a region.

Also, how do we get past the anthropocentric focus here——how do we think beyond wealth and dividend for humans (and their future generations)—and include interests of other species and beings?

How do we ensure that this common wealth be shared and spread equitably (not equally)? And more importantly in ways in which it enable more life (and not just more wealth)? Maybe use a different term to signal attention to enabling richer lives rather that more wealth?

Maybe trusts can be one of the strategies used, but we do need to address historical injustices—taking into account that some people have had very little share of the sky and have treaded very lightly on the Earth and have contributed heavily to the creation of socio-natural gifts that we value.

Neera Singh
Neera Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography and Program in Planning at the University of Toronto, and founder of Vasundhara, a non-profit organization based in Bhubaneswar, India.

Cite as Neera Singh, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Common Wealth Trusts," Great Transition Initiative (August 2015),

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