By Maria Hadjimichael
Seashores are one of the clearest manifestations of what is generally considered to constitute “the commons” – a place where access is free and the gratification of being there is the same for all, irrespective of the size of their pay cheque.
Unfortunately, in real life this is not always the case. A seashore undisturbed by humans represents for many (even unknowingly) a utopian vision of what society can be in that grey area which is neither private nor state-owned.
However, actions such as those by Greek Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras and our own Minister for the Interior Socrates Hasikos, who have proposed bills threatening people’s right of free access to Greece’s and Cyprus’ beaches and the sea, are a burning reminder that the seashore is no longer a common space. Rather, it is a space that the government donates to the people by concession, until the opportunity arises to enclose and subsequently monetise what was formerly common property. In Cyprus, the specific bill soon to be presented to parliament aims to convert the sea, the coastline and the beaches into “real estate”, through “development orders”, without “planning applications” and with “ministerial decisions”.The bill also touches upon the issue of democracy, as it has been ‘sold’ to us until now. On the one hand, the bill repeals the public’s right to direct consultation. On the other, with the granting and the institutionalisation of superpowers to a minister and circumventing the role of the parliament as the representatives of society, it is indirectly legalising acts of corruption, which are already so widespread in Cypriot society.
In order to understand the ideological importance of these bills, it is important that we understand the importance of common goods as leftovers of a time when local communities were in charge of the management of their space and resources, disconnected from today’s dominant ideology about the importance of private property. ‘Common goods’ are those goods which have been inherited from the previous generations, which were created collectively or which are part of our natural heritage.
When Garrett Hardin used the term the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ in his article in the scientific magazine Science in 1968, the term became a landmark in the history of the management of common goods. Since then, the supporters of neoliberalism have used both the term and Hardin’s theory to justify their attempts to privatise and commodify goods which have been for years under the control of local communities. An example of this is the appropriation of water by big multinationals like Coca Cola from communities in India, Guatemala and Colombia.
What Hardin was trying to do in his article, was to illustrate the problem of individualised behaviour against commons goods. He argued that when some goods do not belong to specific persons, but to everyone, their exploitation brings individualised gains and collective loses, resulting in their exploitation by isolated individuals. When in 2009, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for her theory on the management of common pool resources, alternative theories based on both successful and unsuccessful models of self-managed local communities arose, disarming dominant political and economic models, such as Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. At the same time, David Harvey in his 2012 book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, argues that the problem in Hardin’s discourse is not the commons per se, but the failure of individualised private property rights to fulfill common interests. Harvey therefore frames the problem in a context where the problem is actually private property itself, and consequently the attempts to maximise individual gains.
Nevertheless, during times where the dominant ideologies are based on a capitalist model, with a class and patriarchal backdrop, and in which governments prioritise economic growth over the socio-ecological balance, those with access to the ‘commons’ (commoners) become trapped in the ‘treadmill of production’ having to choose between work and the protection of the environment.
Cyprus, having gone through a long period of uncontrollable coastal development, without evaluation and planning, needs to protect its few remaining socio-ecological spheres now more than ever. People living in Cyprus need to start believing in the power of solidarity and oppose the continuous attempts to appropriate our commons in the name of exiting ‘a crisis’, by demanding the protection of our social and environmental rights.
The privatisation of public wealth has become a priority for many governments in their attempts to appropriate citizens’ rights, not solely of nature, but also other vital rights, such as water. Greece has become an example for what we will experience in Cyprus, from the foreclosures bill to the privatisation of our common resources. The difference in Greece is the public reaction, which is massive. It is time for us to wake up as well. What we are witnessing is an attempt to appropriate one of our last remaining “commons” through different levels of control: the state, sometimes involving local authorities, and private capital itself. It might be unknowingly that they, the servants of capital, are trying to dispossess us of our last utopias and fill them with concrete. But these utopias are what constitute life for people, just like the air they breathe and the water they drink.
As Eduardo Galleano taught us, and as we will need to remember while we keep fighting for the right to the seashore, the purpose of Utopia “es para caminar” – to keep walking. The battle of the commoners for the seashore will continue and they will look down with pity at the servants of capital who, in their battle to promote their neoliberal dogma, have managed to commodify even their own utopias
Maria Hadjimichael has a PhD in Marine and Fisheries Governance
To get more information and sign the petition, go to: http://reclaimthesea.org/hands-off-our-beaches-cyprus.