Obștea today in the Vrancea Mountains, Romania. Self-governing Institutions of Forest Commons
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Monica Vasile, University of Bucharest
Abstract: Henri H. Stahl prezice disoluția obștilor vrâncene pe cale naturalã. Momentul 1950 marcheazã într-adevãr dispariția obștilor, însã pe cale violentã, prin confiscarea pãdurilor de cãtre comuniăți. Mult timp dupã cãderea comunismului, prin Legea nr. 1/2000, asistãm la retrocedarea obștilor vrâncene, la restaurarea lor în aceeași formã colectivã. Articolul reia subiectul pe care Henri H. Stahl îl deschide ca temã de cãpãtâi pentru tradiția sociologicã româneascã și urmãrește ceea ce se întâmplã cu obștile vrâncene actuale. Abordarea pune accent pe modul în care comunitatea și actorii sociali sunt prinși în relațiile de proprietate emergente în jurul instituției obștii. Dintre numeroasele dimensiuni pe care acest subiect ni le oferã am ales sã prezint în detaliu tema participãrii colective la luarea deciziilor și satisfacția/insatisfacția comunitãții fațã de obște, chestiune care implicã și discutarea corupției și încrederii.
Theoretical and methodological clarifications
We discuss here a legal institution that rules the common property of each mountain village (mainly forests) in Vrancea Region of Romania and the „bundle of social relations” inside the community. The institution that we discuss is Obştea[l], an old form of participatory local governance and property administration. Obştea is a self-governance institution for villages’ forest and pastures, spread all over mountain areas in Romania in various forms.
My interest is focused on the property regime that we particularly find in Vrancea Region, which offers an interesting site for anthropological inquiry. It is an old form of using resources and not a form of actually owning land; the rights to use are for all the villagers, equally shared and commonly managed through the village assembly. The focus is on the actors’ narratives about satisfaction, support, involvement and their effective actions related to the institution and to the forest itself. The subject is very generous; there are many issues to be addressed; I have a large amount of fieldwork material and thus, the temptation to treat many dimensions at once underlines the density of this paper.
The commons issued a large amount of literature mostly concentrated on the institutional side of the topic, so to say, on a „holistic” village-size view on self-driven management (for example see Ostrom, 1990). Rather than seeing commons management and local development only in terms of institutional arenas of action, the present study offers an insight in the way in which the community, as shaped by its actors (ordinary villagers, local informal and formal leaders, interest groups etc.) deal with the commons, in terms of practices, representations, involvement, support and satisfaction.
Following the steps of prof. Henri H. Stahl in the same research area and research topic, my study enables scholars to have a longue duree view.The study draws upon several methodological choices. I wish to pay special attention to a number of them.
Firstly, I take a comparative perspective, looking at 10 communities in the region rather than in one as it is commonly practiced in the anthropological field. I commenced with a study in two communities (very close spatially and forming a single administrative commune) that was meant to be „the study”; I draw several conclusions from this first analysis, among which the fact that this should be only a „pilot” study and that I should inquire also other villages, mainly because local narrations appeared to rest very much upon comparison with the other villages (the same reason in Heady, 1999, 18), the micro-region of Vrancea revealing itself as a social „unit.” In addition, the other situations seemed to be quite different, despite the homogeneity of exogenous and structural conditions; those differences were very appealing and required investigation. In its final stage, the study is drawn upon 10 cases out of 38 in the whole region.
Secondly, I chose to combine qualitative and quantitative methods for the fieldwork inquiry. The empirical information was many times puzzling, as I confronted with major conflicts and cleavages among shareholders, with corruption and political involvement, all of them concluding to divergent evaluations and narrations. I tried hard not to take sides and to provide a comprehensive interpretation of our data, the quantitative scores proving for an „objective,” thus accurate view. The statistical analysis provides valid explanations and enables typologies on various dimensions, enforced and detailed by qualitative information from the inter- views. The quantitative survey numbers 304 questionnaires, applied in four of the ten villages, for the other six communities information is drawn from the interviews; the qualitative research counts around 170 interviews, applied in all l0 villages. Another methodological option is that I conducted mostly tape-recorded interviews.
To have a clear view over the present-day situation, firstly we must understand what Obştea meant in the past and how it evolved.
The „old” Obştea
This institution was not founded at a precise moment, for managing the commons of a distinct community, in the form a contractual-like organisation. The legend tells us that in the sixteenth century Stephen the Great endows the founders of seven villages for their military merits with the Vrancea Mountains and since then each village in the historical Vrancea Region possesses parts of the mountains. All the villages from Vrancea practiced joint property over the mountains until recently. The first division of the mountains between villages, named at that time „the mountains’ casting over the villages,”took place in 1755. Subsequently, another five division actions took place, the latest being in 1840. This late survival of joint posses- sion for a whole region is unique in Romania and, with the exception of some Albanese regions, in Europe (Stahl, 1958).
We find Obştea in the documents of the eighteenth century as a community-based institution, in the form of village assembly, which has the attributes, among others, to preserve the communities’ property undivided and to ensure equal rights for every member of the community. Therefore, the major property principles in Vrancea Mountains were (and still are) indivisibility, inalienability and equal sharing.
Towards the twentieth century, the villagers’ access becomes more and more restricted, as the exploitation technology improved and the wood resource became a valuable commodity designated to gain money, welfare, social status (Stahl, 1958). Meanwhile, several powerful foreign forestry companies, especially from Austria and Italy, „accessed” the common properties of the villagers, beginning with the middle of nineteenth century, with help from local intermediaries who „fooled” the people to sell their use rights usually for a pack of cigarettes, persons that were called axe handles by the locals (Stahl, 1958).
The local elites increased their interest in the commons, dealing with foreign exploitation firms, in some cases for the best of the local interests, in some others for their own personal interest. In several villages, the old elites worked for the best of the community, they built churches, village halls, and communal baths. In some others, the locals’ collective memory remembers elites who sold wood to foreign companies and appropriated the gain. During my fieldwork, I collected some very colorful stories about the resistance among locals to those free riders, which in several cases took the form of serious fights.
In 1910, the Romanian State introduced The Forestry Code as the first forestry statutory law, which puts Obştea on legal basis. As the collective memory recalls today in our interviews, these statutory regulations were not entirely followed, they were seen mostly as unnecessary formalities, the customary norms continuing the effective regulation. The villagers had to prove certificates for transportation and vouchers for harvesting. Those were provided by the Obştea board of administration, president or secretary, people from among local people. The voucher and the certificate were the only elements in formalizing the access at that time; the peasants were allowed to extract and to sell as much as they wanted and as much as the rudimentary means permitted.
The board of administration did not have the image of a bureaucracy, they had no centre building in the village, no hierarchical structure was in place, no strong criteria for selection were used, and statutory norms were not entirely followed. Gradually, each Obşte from Vrancea had to make the legal formalities to be recognized by the state. Until l948, each village issued its own statute in which it was attested the surface of forest and pastures, legal administrative norms and a list with Obştea members, mainly all the villagers with very few exceptions, the newcomers.
This legal basis proved itself important in the post-socialist restoration context, as we will see below. Unfortunately, the Obştea did not „live” for us to see if it would transform from a totally „social embedded” institution into the more „organisational” type (terminology used in Cleaver, 200l). In 1948, it was seized by the communist state.
The seizure, the communist period and the „transition” period
Some points about general property issues in the Vrancea mountain villages during the communist period will unify the picture that I try to give on the „evolution” of Obştea. „My” villages were not collectivised in the full sense of the process, although several plots of land were seized from those called by the communists chiaburi and managed in a kind of smaller collective farms for animal husbandry.
In the 50s serious fights happened in Vrancea between villagers belonging to the Anticommunist Resistance Movement and communist authorities. Several people were killed. Moreover, some of them were imprisoned, while the others hid in the mountains.[l2]
This event, together with the imprisonment of chiaburi practically created a demographical vacuum of elites, since people who participated were mostly the communities’ leaders. We consider that another two important losses occurred during this period. Firstly, the educated persons, potential competent local elites, emigrated from rural areas, this being an important exogenous explanation for actual frequent mismanagement situations. Secondly, the self-governing tradition and experience was lost[l3], because the communal forest property was entirely seized by the state and the self-governing structures did not continue to function in illegal ways, as it happened in other parts of the world (for example, Spain, see Behar, 1986).
Nevertheless, the contact between villagers and their common property was not totally interrupted. Most of them worked in forestry as wage earners for the state structures; others stole wood from their former common property with the tacit acceptance of local authorities. Even though the villagers had no longer statutory rights over the mountains, favourable external factors coming from central level, like state policy of industrialization (which intensified forestry) or imposing state authorities everywhere led to a special type of access in which villagers could benefit from their former property mostly due to the created context, on the black market of favours exchange.
Obştea today – general description
After 50 years of communism and usurpation of property rights, according to Romanian State’s law no.l/2000, the State recognizes the villages’ rights over the commons in Vrancea and old institutional forms are re-established in more formalised ways.
In its actual meaning in Vrancea region, Obştea can be described as a community based institution that administrates the forests, commonly owned by the residents of a village. There are 38 Obşti in Vrancea.
Characteristics of resources
The owned forest surfaces are large, varying between 2,000 and 14,000 hectares for a village population varying between 800 and 5,000 inhabitants. These surfaces permit intensive harvesting without posing ecological dangers. In addition, these surfaces permit productive exploitation, as large units.
It is important to say that the resource has not the same characteristics for all villages in terms of spatial distribution and quality. For example, one village has mostly young forest, without the possibility for extracting too much, important particularities concerning financial returns and management strategy arising from that. Other „technical” differentiation criteria may be that some villages are located near the mountain, while some are 100 kms away.
Villagers’ actions and narratives
Who are the users?
In order to understand how the „community” appears and who produces the narrations about Obştea, I will take a look at the villagers’ socio-demographic profile. The socio-demographic picture for the area does not look very promising. People are mobile, but poorer than in other areas of Romania and with lower education.
In „my” villages people practice mostly subsistence agriculture, raise cows for household consumption. Although their occupation is primarily agriculture, the quality and quantity of household’s owned land and livestock is not very high.
Remunerated activities remain at a low level, the total income of a household does not exceed an average value of 130 euros per month. They do not have job opportunities except working in small commercial bussiness, in the forest and for the timber companies. Due to this situation, younger people migrate abroad in high percentage.
The education is also poor, the intellectual occupations being practiced only by 5.l% of the inhabitants. For the whole area there is only one highschool. Some villages are 60 km away from this location, so the pupils have either to move in this commune, or to go by bus every morning. The population is slightly aged (an average age of 54); 42% of the house- holds include retired people.
From this general picture, one my see that people are highly dependent on the economic environment, they do not possess resources (material and educational) to develop on their own basis.
I start the analysis of the villagers’ perception over the performance of Obştea by stating that the empirical research show that the locals are mostly unsatisfied. The score of overall satisfaction with Obştea performance is very low, indicating a mean value of 2.3 (1 the lowest value – 10 the highest).
Only 12.2% of the villagers appreciate the activity of their Obştea as being satisfactory. Satisfaction level does not vary significantly between villages, even though management capacity, achievements and land patrimony vary. An interesting finding is that it was almost impossible to draw a clearly defined typology for the „satisfied persons” and „un-satisfied persons”. Persons with similar socio-demographic characteristics express divergent understanding and interpretation of the same Obştea institution. There is no such thing as a standard reasoning for being satisfied or unsatisfied. The same element can be at the same time interpreted as positive or negative. One element has priority over another, depending on person.
Satisfaction and material benefits
Even though this heterogeneity puzzles us, there is one simple criterion to be considered highly discriminator for the overall satisfaction with the Obştea performance. This criterion is material interest. Obştea investments and activities can meet or not one person’s interests. Community members are most often heterogeneous concerning interests in using trees (Bruce, 1989, Schlager and Blomquist, 1998) or in investing profit of Obştea. Not only direct personal interests are involved, but also indirect ones, related to clientelism and social groups’ affiliation. One could argue that through participatory management, Obştea is designed to meet the majority’s interests. As it is shown elsewhere in the paper, in practice the village assembly’s decisions do not represent the majority, but the opinion of the powerful users, those with higher economic and political assets.
In most cases, villagers expect to perceive an immediate material gain from the communal property in the form of community achievements and household income. As these requirements are met, the overall satisfaction with Obştea activities increases, without the major interference of other variables, such as judgement of fairness, norms observance, strategic management.
An important aspect in the discussion is the effective measurement of appreciation of the achievements for the community with funds from exploiting the common property. People consider the forests as the most important income source for the community, by far overtaking funds allocated from the State’s budget through the municipality. Even those who seem unsatisfied consider that „with this Obştea we have something, which is better than nothing”. Most of them perceive correctly that the communal property exploitation empowers the community and provides development opportunities. In some villages, Obştea invested visibly in the development of the infrastructure, materializing this empowerment.
Nevertheless, in most villages the investments in the community remained at a low level, generating a negative perception of the Obştea management. From our quantitative evidence, only l8.9% perceive that the Obştea has done „a lot” for the community and 30.8% perceive that the Obştea has done „nothing”. In some cases, this attitude appears as unfair, since people expect the Obştea to be a „savior” for the community in all aspects, a panacea.
We find here a shortcoming for the functioning of Obştea, coming from the population’s side, high expectations and misperception of available financial out- comes and of procedural possibilities leading to lack of common understanding (Ostrom, l990).
„Obştea does not know, because ‘she’ is a newborn; but she will remember, the Obştea will know.” The institution of Obştea enjoys sup-port from the community members on several dimensions. There are some strong points that I want to underline: prior experience which enhance commitment; increased interest in Obştea activities and correct appreciation of the potential opportunities and power of the institution; support for most of the design principles as indivisibility, inalienability, equal sharing; desire to involve in the management practices and to access the resource. As we could see during the argumentation, the most loyal ally for the institution is the custom, the traditional foundation, although interrupted for 50 years from an unfortunate state policy. Local villagers do not argue the necessity of the institution as a contract, based on an instrumental reasoning about efficiency, but as a historical legacy, as a mark of the locals’ identity.
The main problems would be limitation of access, due to forestry regulations and rudimentary means; lack of knowledge regarding statute stipulations and formal procedure; and, most important, serious mistrust in the actual management, due to free-riding behaviors, manipulation and internal conflicts. The mistrust aspect tends to affect the support for important institutional principles like private nature of property, indivisibility and participatory management and the interest of the population regarding Obştea matters.
We observe that situational variables, at the lowest level of the village’s context, particularly the agency of key actors constitute the explanation for the success and satisfaction regarding the „government” of the commons in Vrancea Region.
In most cases, researchers argue that shortcomings in property management stem from the lack of embeddedness of statutory norms in the local context, as they may be abstract creations of central policy makers; for the situation to get better, they must adapt to local practices. In our case, we have the vice-versa situation – the concretised property relations, practices related to communal forests must change, and legal regulations must be enforced. While in other cases the prob- lem lies in lack of coherence between customary and statutory law, what we observe in the case of Obştea is the ambiguity of both. The lack of well-established body of customary norms and practices leads to what I called adhocracy, which enables opportunists to find ways for pursuing personal interest.
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