Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


Regenerating the Commons in Galiza, Spain

Joám Evans Pim

Frojám is one of many small communities in Galiza on the northwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula that falls under the rather unique category of Common Land Communities (Comunidades de Montes Vizinhais). In our community, and others like it, we maintain traditional practices of direct assembly democracy and collective decision-making. We are also responsible, in many cases, for basic services such as water supply as well as distributing the wealth of the land and income among our members. In this way, we retain our independence and a close, respectful relationship with the lands and waters that sustain us.

About a quarter of Galiza’s total land mass (29,574 km2) is officially classified as common land, belonging to 3,300 Common Land Communities. These communities vary in size from a few hectares to several thousand hectares and from just one or two ‘open houses’ (casa aberta) belonging to commoners, to hundreds or even thousands. All in all, approximately 15% of the Galizan population lives in commons open houses. There are considerable differences in terms of how active these commoning communities are today. Many have been dormant for decades, abandoned as the land they are entitled to has come under the direct control of the government or extractive companies.

Corporations and governments alike are aware that small, ageing, economically deprived communities present very little or no resistance to imposed extractive projects. They enlist local ‘caciques’ (political power-brokers) to sow social disinformation and disunity as a prime strategy to minimize social contestation. However, because of their relative freedom from the political control of the State, some common land communities have also become fertile ground for the development of emancipatory alternatives that challenge injustices like rural depopulation, suppression of public services and imposed extractive projects. In recent years, the threat of tin and tungsten mining has reemerged in Frojám. Our resistance to that threat is in the distinctly, emancipatory tradition of the commoning community in Galiza’s.

Mining in Galiza: A legacy of destruction

While there has been significant mining activity in Galiza since the Roman Empire, metal mining in Frojám and other common lands in Galiza peaked during the two World Wars in the 20th century. In 1914, the British Ministry for Munitions purchased the San Finx Mine in Frojám as a part of their efforts to deprive the German armed forces of tungsten supplies. Then, at the outbreak of World War II the mine fell into the hands of the Spanish fascists under dictator Francisco Franco and helped fuel the metal-hungry Nazi war effort. During these conflicts, mine profits skyrocketed due to the demand for munitions. Galizan common lands were ravaged by open pit mines that left behind lunar landscapes.

The San Finx mine site in the 1990s.

After the war, the exploitation of the common lands continued under the Franco regime, but the collapse of international metal prices in the 1980s led to the folding of the mining operations in San Finx and across Galiza. Mines were abandoned while the local administration turned a blind eye to the lack of restoration, pollution from acid mine drainage and safety threats from the scattered pits and shafts. It was left to communities like Frojám to take on restoration efforts at their own expense, sealing off hazardous pits and replanting degraded areas with trees.

Critical minerals, fire and water

The recovery of metal prices immediately after the burst of the Spanish property bubble in the second half of the 2000s, brought about a new, highly speculative and on-going rush to extract metal ores in Galicia, backed by EU policies incentivizing the domestic extraction of ‘critical’ raw materials, including tin and tungsten. Since the nominal reopening of the San Finx mine in 2008, first by Incremento Grupo Inversor, and then by the Spanish construction giant SACYR (Sociedad Anónima Caminos y Regadíos) the surrounding common land communities have been severely impacted. However, these communities as well as the mussel gatherers and fishermen’s guilds from the estuary just 7km downstream, have repeatedly confronted the mining companies and the Galician administration to stop the appropriation of common land and the pollution of the river with heavy metals.

Toxic waste in the San Finx river.

On the morning of May 1, 2016, villagers in Frojám sensed, from the strong north-easterly wind, that a forest fire had begun to rage across their common land. Quad bikes had been heard moments earlier in the northeastern zone of the Commons, and as soon as the first clouds of smoke were seen, villagers rushed toward them equipped with basic fire-fighting gear. The immediate intervention of the villagers and, soon after, the fire service, managed to halt a quickly advancing fire that the wind was pushing toward the small community. A dense oak wood that serves as a living firebreak reduced the damage to about 10 hectares of the commons’ 100 hectares of ancestral land.

Even before the last flames were put out, people in Frojám had begun to believe that the fire was set intentionally in the most favorable conditions and best locations for causing maximum harm and damage. For decades, fire has been used in rural Galiza as a means to keep people scared and silent. Just months before the forest fire was set, a delegation of villagers from Frojám and the neighboring commons had urged the new managers of the San Finx mine, SACYR, to meet with them, demanding that the integrity of their land be respected.

The Frojám fire, 2016.

Revival and Resistance

After the stunning incident of the fire, Frojám had to decide: retreat or contestation? The history of Galizan indigenous communities is one of resistance through rhizomatic – ‘root-like’ – networks that have enabled dispersed and geographically isolated communities to work collectively to fend off multiple threats. Frojám has focused resistance efforts on gaining greater recognition for its status as a commons, cared for and shared by the community, a reality, which is an anathema to the privatized, market-oriented world of mining corporations and states. The village, however has achieved and maintained this status through strategic engagement with new paradigms of protected areas; actively re-occupying and regenerating lands occupied by the state and mining companies; and creating horizontal connections with new allies locally, regionally and globally.

Re-connecting with the land

In Frojám, as the conflict with the mine peaked in 2016, the idea of opening the commons to schools and families from around the area was raised, seeking to engage children and their parents with how Galizan communities feel and relate to their land. The interruption of intergenerational continuity in the stewardship of common land communities and their commons is as threatening as dispossession, and eventually leads to the extinction of communities.

In March 2017, two schools (approximately 150 participants) initiated the Montescola Programme in Frojám, restoring an area previously degraded by acacia and eucalyptus trees and mining pits and shafts. Each child and their parents planted a tree and were provided with a map indicating its precise whereabouts, so that it can be easily located during future visits. The children and their families returned in January 2018 and again in March 2019 to tend to their trees and suppress acacia and eucalyptus sprouts, while proudly wearing a badge with the phrase ‘Levo no coração uma árvore’ (‘I have a tree in my heart’). Most visitors knew the location of their tree by heart and in relation to the trees of other children around it. Several children who had left the school after completing their last year still returned with their parents to renew their connection with the trees, the land and their friends.

The remarkable resurgence of forests in the Frojám Common lands.

These actions are part of a campaign to restore the area by planting 10,000 native trees. They are also ― and perhaps most importantly― an effort to create a place for people to assemble and work together in Frojám, expanding the circle of concern for what happens here. Education on the land is all the more important in the face of the mining industry’s attempts to mis-represent the history of Galicia as one of popular mass-extraction, in which mining is portrayed as a vital cultural and historical activity.

ICCAs: A new paradigm for protected areas

Frojám has also sought to protect its lands and waters through creative engagement with the emerging paradigm of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs), a well-received initiative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

An ICCA is conceived of a people or community that is closely connected to a well-defined territory in which the community is the major player in decision-making and where the community’s decisions lead to the conservation of that territory and associated cultural values. ICCAs are therefore more evocatively known as ‘Territories of Life’. 

ICCAs represent a paradigm shift from conventional state-centric approaches to the conservation of protected areas, by recognizing the crucial role of indigenous peoples and local communities and their customary practices in the conservation of biological and cultural diversity. This new approach, acknowledged by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2004 onwards, is also creating new paths for ICCAs to organize and collaborate at regional and global scales, including active involvement in shifting international regulations and creating new institutions and procedures based on community governance and decision making.

In October 2017, the Frojám Commons entered the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) managed by the United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Centre, making it the first Indigenous and Community Conserved Area (ICCA) to be added after going through a national peer-review process. Since then, a number of Galizan common land communities have been formally recognized as ICCAs, adding an extra layer of protection to efforts to resist extractive industries.

Building Solidarity

A major obstacle that small rural communities resisting large, sometimes multinational, corporations, face is the perception that ‘it’s only us against them’. The feeling of impotence and fear of reprisals that arises from this mindset is often paralyzing. Building solidarity against these threats becomes key to resistance. The circle of concern has already widened significantly, as Frojám has joined and found allies in regional anti-mining network ContraMINAccíon, and collectives of citizens and associations concerned about water, like Vida e Ría.

The anti-mining initiative is building solidarity all across Galiza.

In February 2019, ContraMINAcción together with the global Yes to Life, No to Mining Solidarity Network brought together 14 mining awareness platforms and networks from across the Iberian Peninsula, which also confront the same corporations, and pro-extractivist policies. The Compostela Declaration, issued unanimously by these groups at the meeting, demands that mining corporations and their greed are not to be placed over the will and life of people and local communities, on the basis of “financial speculation, lies, skulduggery, denial of impacts, false and biased propaganda and imposition”. Together we declared that “mining is not life, but the destruction of life and of natural and cultural heritage. Mining also represents pollution, danger, precariousness, dismissal, instability, closure and abandonment.”  The Declaration identifies excessive consumption as a driver for extractivism and explores how movements can spearhead a transition towards post-extractivist societies. This is where we must go, together. 

Joám Evans Pim is a farmer from Frojám, Galiza. He is also an activist in political, environmental, cultural and human rights issues, particularly focused on reinvigorating rural direct assembly democracy, defending and restoring Common Lands, and confronting destructive mining and other environmentally degrading projects. Joám is a member of the Advisory Council of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, and he also seasonally lectures on civil disobedience and nonviolent action in the Master’s Program on Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research at Åbo Akademi University, Finland.

Maynie Yang did the first edit on this article.

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