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Norway – Municipal ownership and commonage

This extract from the full case study gives a flavour of the community ownership system that is practiced in Norway. For the full case study, which delves deeper into the historical background of the country, and contains full academic references, please read the report in full.

The history of common landownership and governance in Norway is extensive and predates legal structures. The history of the Norwegian commons is intertwined with the history of rural Norway, therefore requiring an understanding of geography, climate, settlement patterns, farming and livelihood strategies throughout different periods, as well as economic and political history, technological change, and global market change. It is considered to have fostered a ‘co-owner’ agrarian system and society. 

The mechanism(s) of ownership/tenure 

User rights in Norwegian commons are connected to the agricultural (and cadastral) unit, whether owned (i.e. freehold) or tenanted, rather than the person in control of the agricultural unit; hence, the rights cannot be alienated. The state commons (as public property) are managed to accommodate the interests of the local community (i.e. those to whom the commons ‘belong’, rather than ‘own’, and those who hold the rights to grazing and to timber for their own use), certain farms or groups of farms within the rural community, the State (i.e. national level institutions), and the wider Norwegian public. There are well-established open access resource rights for public use of the outfields of state commons (allmenningsrett), and post-1950 saw an explosion of recreational activities that exploited the state commons, including cabin construction, fishing, and small game hunting. 

The regulations of protected areas restrict the exploitation of resources on the state commons; and reduces the use rights of commoners; however, in practice, any new activities need permission of the State, which in turn increases the transaction costs of exploiting use rights. Where predators have reappeared due to environmental protection measures, the use of common pasture has declined by those with use rights in the state commons, and the rights of common use have declined in value. Over the past two decades, most national parks in Norway have been established on state commons, causing local tension due to the potential for minimal new employment opportunities, whilst generating considerable restrictions on new income-generating possibilities.  

Extent and process of community control 

The municipality has been the basis for local management in Norway since 1837. There are two types of locally-elected management board that oversee local use rights in the state commons. Grazing rights and other upland resources are managed by a board appointed by the elected officials of the municipality, known as the ‘mountain board’ (Fjellstyre). The mountain board also manage hunting and fishing on behalf of the municipality. The ‘commons board’ (allmenningsstyre) is elected by and from the ‘commoners’ (i.e. those with user rights), to manage rights to non-commercial forest resources. Tensions can arise where larger farms utilise their rights to larger proportions of these shared resources. Whilst the community commons are not connected to the municipalities in any way, they maintain a close dialogue, and they can be big landowners. The board of a community commons can effectively manage a large area (in some cases 50-90%) of a municipality. 

The income from the renting of cabins on state commons is shared between the ‘mountain board’ and the state as landowner; the hunting of large game species is also managed by the mountain boards. It is reported that over the past decade, the use of houses located on ‘summer farms’ (seter, located in the outfields) for new activities has become more accepted by the state as landowner. There are many cultural connections for the Norwegian public and access to their ‘summer farm’ (i.e. whether or not they remain active farmers); this is also demonstrated in the practice of ‘friluftsliv’ – ‘outdoor life’. 

A small group of seven state commons are managed as community commons in Norway, because they do not produce timber beyond the needs of the commoners, and the State is therefore not able to sell timber commercially; as such they have delegated responsibility for the forestry component of these commons to the commons board. In other cases (e.g. Langmorkje), the state commons are managed as community commons, but do produce commercial timber for the international market. In this case, the right to manage and harvest timber commercially, not only for on-farm use, was devolved to the Langmorkje commoners in the 1940s.
A critical reflection on the development and ongoing management of the state commons illustrates a tension between local and national priorities, as implemented in the state commons, and therefore that “the history of the management of the commons is one of the limitations on rights of the local community, transfers of powers to the central State, and developing regulations benefitting the national community”.  

Key challenges and future directions 

The potential production of hydroelectric power in the early 20th Century initiated the process to identify the boundaries of the state commons, up to the northern regions of Nordland and Troms. In 1963 the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled in a case that the ‘old ways’ of using the commons did not mention energy production, therefore the commoners had no rights to the income generated, which instead was part of the ‘remainder’ (i.e. belonged to the state). Property rights theories illustrate the value of the ‘remainder’ – that which remains when all other use rights of a property are allocated – given the potential to profit from future resource exploitation opportunities. As described: “when the most valuable uses become hydropower, commercialised hunting, and the development of holiday cottages, those who only have timber and grazing rights are unable to capture the value of these new uses. The landowner, who holds the remainder, is able to capture the value of new uses. When this owner is the local commons, they can be forward looking and make plans for the future. When the local community doesn’t own the remainder, they get left behind and frustrated”.
Where rural properties are no longer actively farmed in the state commons, the state could inherit the use rights (i.e. the share of commons from the former agricultural property), and other unused resources, therefore benefiting from income generated from renting grazing land to farmers who require a larger production area. 

Declining numbers of active farmers, due to an increasingly urbanised population and agricultural modernisation, has led to fewer ‘commoners’ participating in the state commons. Tensions arise between active and passive farmers (i.e. relating to board participation and livelihood interests), and between large and small farms, due to their uptake of user rights in the state commons, and potential to influence board elections. Furthermore, the commodification of the outfields challenges established rights systems and the social relationships that underpin effective commons management, both within the state and community commons areas. With regard to the bygdeallmenning (i.e. community commons), there are questions arising regarding the maintenance of use rights by farmers who are halting agricultural production (i.e. who should keep these rights and for how long?), and the potential to use these rights for new activities. The possibility of allocating rights to those outwith the agricultural community, for example, the inhabitants of a village is proposed and considered a model for ‘community ownership’. 

Ongoing municipal amalgamation in Norway may have an impact on the management of state commons, and it is believed that the ongoing review of the ‘mountain law’ (fjellov) is partly a response to this process of change. It is anticipated that multiple mountain boards may be appointed within larger municipality areas to accommodate strong local identities and multiple resource claims; this corresponds with historic municipality amalgamation processes. Nonetheless, there is a shift from a local, rural, focus to a larger scale governance system, with a growing urban population in Norway. Climate change may bring new opportunities for cultivation and commodification of land resources in the state commons that will require careful consideration to ensure fair and equitable distribution of use rights. 

The tension in the state commons between central power and local community control persists. However, key informants assert that the commons in Norway are not archaic or stagnant, despite their ancient origins, but are adaptable to modern challenges. Indeed, they may be more important now than previously, due to the increasing need to manage public goods across the landscape scale (e.g. wildlife management, recreation, or hydro-power, which could be inhibited where the commons are subdivided into individual private parcels). 

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