Tilbuster Commons: Synergies of theory and action in new agricultural commons on private land


  • David J. Brunckhorst,

  • Phillip Coop

  • Professor David Brunckhorst is Director, Institute for Rural Futures and Co-Director, UNESCO Centre for Bioregional Resource Management (University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia. Tel. +61-2 6773 3001. Email:dbrunckh@metz.une.edu.au). Phil Coop, also with the UNESCO Centre for Bioregional Resource Management, is a second generation grazier and one of the Tilbuster Commoners. This paper describes some of the theory and background research on commons that led to the development of this project and describes its progress to date.


Natural resource degradation in agricultural regions of Australia is one of the most severe environmental problems facing governments today. Many natural resource systems in agricultural landscapes of Australia are in decline (Australian State of the Environment Committee 2001). Faltering ecological function across landscapes and whole regions should be a critical priority, not only because of the direct impacts on biodiversity and the processes it sustains but also the social consequences arising in communities whose very existence is dependent on this natural capital. The Australian Prime Minister's National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (Commonwealth of Australia 2000) estimates that land and water degradation costs Australia at least $3.5 billion annually.

Ecological and social resilience in Australian rural landscapes is yet to be secured within contemporary policy frameworks (Reeve 1997; Dovers 2000). Human communities associated with agricultural regions are also diminishing. Despite increasing efforts towards reducing these environmental costs by encouraging structural adjustment in agriculture, there remain substantial obstacles to adjustment, including existing institutions, social values and cultural norms relating to land use (Reeve 1998). Conventional attempts to address these issues are hampered through narrowly focused programmes, entrenched property rights, institutional impediments, economic incentives and inappropriate spatial and temporal scales (Reeve 1997; Brunckhorst 2000).

We suggest that solutions to such environmental and social barriers might be found in various applications of collective management of rural lands and resources. Part A of this paper, therefore, provides an in-depth discussion of the history of traditional commons to set the context for a discussion, in Part B, of a ‘contemporary commons’ model, illustrated by the innovative example of ‘Tilbuster Commons’.

Part A: Historical Commons – addressing some misconceptions

‘Open access’versus collective management

Over-exploitation of resources leading to breakdown or collapse of a natural resource base and ecosystem resilience are often termed ‘tragedies’ after Hardin's (1968) well known article on the ‘tragedy of the Commons’. Hardin describes a situation in which behaviour that makes rational sense from the individualist viewpoint, when repeated by enough individuals, ultimately proves disastrous to society. Specifically, the consumption of a natural resource by each of many individuals who have unrestricted access to the resource inevitably leads to the resource's destruction – a disaster for all. The article led to a popular belief that users of common resources were always trapped in an inexorable ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin 1968).

Many studies, especially since the mid-1980s, have shown Hardin's generalization does not hold (e.g. McKean 1982; Cox 1985; Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1992; McKean 1992; Hanna et al. 1996; McKean 2000). If the resource is freely open to access by any user, a tragedy of the commons does eventually follow. This results, not from any inherent failure of common property, but from an institutional failure to control access to the resource and to make and enforce internal decisions for collective use. However, the tragedy of the commons as described by Hardin is a misnaming of an open access system and a social (common property) commons (see Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1992; Hanna et al. 1995). An open access situation provides unrestricted access that will eventually lead to the tragedy. In fact, medieval commons endured sustainably for hundreds of years. They were not ‘open access’, but rather culturally institutionalized Common Property Resource (CPR) organizations with a system of participatory democracy to regulate access to finite resources. In other words, a system of resource governance by a community-based, collective (members being the identified Commoners who held various common rights) based on participatory democracy which ensured over-exploitation did not take place. CPR arrangements institutionalized (often informally) rules for operation, collective decision-making, limits, monitoring and sanctions (see Brunckhorst, 2003, this issue). It is also worth noting here, that these are not ‘communes’, which tend to be characterized by few if any rules and may suffer the ‘tragedy’ in that internal systems of governance breakdown.

Hanna et al. (1995) summarized the four main types of common-property institutions and their associated rights and duties (see Table 1).

Table 1.  . The four major common-property institutions and their ownership, rights and duties (after Hanna et al. 1995)
InstitutionOwnershipOwner rightsOwner duties
Private propertyIndividualSocially acceptable uses; exclusive control of accessAvoid socially unacceptable uses
Common propertyCollectiveExclusion of non-owners; local regulation of usersMaintenance; constrain rates of use
Government (‘State’) propertyCitizensLegislators, managers and stakeholders decide on rulesMaintain social objectives
Open accessNonePotential for resource ‘capture’ by anyoneNone (non-property)

The situation of non-property means no responsibility or capacity to exclude resource access (even on ‘public’ land which might be treated as open-access). Where ‘non-property’ today may rarely refer to parcels of land, it can refer to ecosystems, components of which can be located on private or public property and for which ‘no-one’ owns responsibility for sustaining the whole system. Current experience of both State ownership and privatization of property rights and resources have also failed to sustainably manage such ecological systems, partly due to failure to manage the social system of rights and duties that accompany ownership (Williamson et al. 2003).

Mechanisms underlying the ‘commons’ of old

Given Australia's shared, primarily European, heritage it is worth understanding how some of the enduring CPRs of the past and present operated. The term ‘commons’ originally referred to jointly owned pastures on which herdsman grazed their cattle (Hardin 1968; Levine 1986; Bromley 1992; Hine & Gifford 1996) and were an important structure for the early agrarian communities. They consisted of common property managed by a self-governing association of local users, many of which successfully endured for hundreds of years. A few survive, having endured in excess of 1000 years. The term is used more broadly today referring to any desirable, divisible entity to which multiple harvesters (i.e. individuals or groups who are able to use or remove some of it) have access (Gifford & Hine 1997).

The actual origins of the commons are buried in antiquity. However, Dahlman (1980), in speculating the origins of the European commons, suggests that the concept may have arisen with the development of the early Germanic tribes who originally laid out the open field system. According to Levine (1986), agricultural villages with shared pasturages first appeared in England in the Middle Ages (1100s) and became universal in the 1400s. These villages were often located on land owned by lords and were usually inhabited by 200–500 tenants. Each tenant was assigned a private, non-shared plot of land on which to raise crops, but areas for grazing livestock were held and used in common by all village residents. The residents of small agricultural villages knew each other well, understood that their survival hinged on cooperation, felt responsible for each other, even cared deeply about one another (Levine 1986). The residents fully understood the capacity limits of their communal pasturages and developed their own mutually agreed upon and mutually enforced systems to regulate use, without the need for a external authority (e.g. government) to determine and impose these regulations (Gardner & Stern 1996).

Thirsk (1964) identified four key attributes defining the core dimensions of age-old common field agriculture: (i) the holdings of individual cultivators comprising many separate parcels scattered among unenclosed common fields termed ‘strips in the arable’; (ii) after the harvest, and usually during fallow years, these common-fields revert from private farmland to communal pasture ground, as all villagers exercise their customary right to graze their animals on the herbage temporarily available on the arable land and was termed ‘common of shack’; (iii) the land that was unsuitable for cropping and was utilized for common grazing and was termed ‘common waste’, and (iv) regulation and supervision of the entire system was provided by an ‘assembly of cultivators’ or ‘communal regulation’ (Dahlman 1980).

The device of ‘scattering’

Importantly, there seems to be conscious effort to maintain the function of ‘scattering’. Scattering describes the geographical allocation of arable land to the members of the common. As the term implies these relatively small plots of land were scattered throughout the common. Scattering may have been imposed on the villagers so as to make the collective decision-making institutions viable and effective. Scattering, as it was maintained in the reorganization of a village, served to protect the social fabric cohesive (Dahlman 1980, p.144). More recently it has been recognized that scattering was integral in providing productivity and ecosystem resilience to these institutions (Berkes & Folke 1998).

Perhaps the element in the commons organization of production that is alien to modern eyes is the peculiar fact that the same piece of land would revert from private property to collective, and back again, in a well defined and controlled cycle (Dahlman 1980). More recently authors have shown that these institutions existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years during which time social stability, productive capacity and ecological integrity were maintained (McKean 1982). The land had been successfully managed by community collectives, ‘not a tragedy of the commons but rather a triumph’ (Cox 1985, p.60).

Why were the commons privatized?

Ironically, scattering as a resource management tool became the basis of the ‘inefficiency arguments’ to support the enclosure movements, which lead to privatization. It was the forced enclosure movements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that turned the commons into private property and with it the claim of ‘bringing efficiency and increased productivity to agriculture’ but which ultimately resulted in widespread degradation (Bromley 1992). Privatization was hailed as the answer for more efficient and increased rural production and Hardin (1968) interpreted it as a solution to the tragedy of open access.

The land reform (the so-called ‘enclosure movements’) were designed to increase the holdings of a few landowners and effectively drove tenants from the communal land. The development of agricultural techniques that favoured large-scale farming and the effects of the industrial revolution also forced the closure of these commons (Cox 1985).

Negative views of commons as the ‘dumb peasant model’ became reinforced and they continued to be fenced off for private use. Unfortunately, the significant contribution made by these commons in sustainable resource allocation and management (and through their direct involvement in developing and testing new techniques, technologies, and selective breeding methods) remains unrecognized even today (Dahlman 1980).

History has demonstrated that the enclosure of the commons and subsequent privatization of land or resources may have succeeded in terms of profits for individuals or other ‘entities’ but it has generally failed in terms of many aspects of maintaining social, human and natural capital (Brunckhorst 2002). Privatization internalizes many of the costs of over-exploitation to the individual, but you cannot privatize many ecological services (e.g. nutrient cycling, water filtration and pollination) and common resources (e.g. air).

Are commons a thing of the past?

Today, an example of consciously preserved English common field township survives at Laxton in Nottinghamshire. The ‘New Forest’ Commons near Southhampshire is a grazing commons that has operated for almost 1000 years and continues today, with some 300 ‘Commoners’ employ their own ‘monitors’ or rangers and includes its own dispute resolution and decision-making court. Several successful irrigation and grazing commons (at least 400 years old) continue to this day in Spain. Common field farming, grazing and forestry continues to be practiced over extensive geographical areas in Peru and Bolivia (Bromley 1992) and commons have survived for up to 600 years in Japan, India, Nepal, China, Switzerland, Southeast Asian and Pacific nations, and several African countries. Most ‘commons’ surviving in Australian rural towns (where the ‘commons’ was imported from England but not the common property tenure for sustainable management systems) had no joint ownership and became open access (e.g. Tingha Common, Wallabadha Common). A few appear to be the ones that were either little used or actively regenerated to serve a purpose (such as protection of the towns of Broken Hill and Cobar, NSW, from dust storms in the 1930s).

Netting (1976) dismisses the notion that communal ownership is simply an anachronistic holdover from the past. He demonstrates that for at least five centuries Swiss villagers have been intimately familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of both private and communal tenure systems and have carefully matched particular types of land tenure to particular types of land use. Although many villages have sold, leased, or divided their common lands in recent times, McKean (1982) attests that she has not found an example of a commons that suffered ecological destruction while it was still a commons.

The fact that these social-ecological systems are found so widely, and have a track record often over a long period, suggests that they are highly adaptive and resilient and therefore capable of responding to and managing processes, functions, dynamics and changes in a fashion that contribute to ecosystem resilience. It would appear from the above discussion that a combination of attributes has provided an enduring sustainable system, both socially and ecologically.

Part B: Tilbuster Commons: Developing a contemporary model

Assembling new commons from private parcels of land

Farmers, in Western nations, are constrained in their capacity for sustainable resource use both by an individualist property rights system and by a politico-economic system which demands more dollar profit (often to service ever increasing financial debt without accounting for externalized costs). There is therefore a need to determine, through experimental application, the value of common property institutions in maintaining healthy social and ecological functions towards more sustainable rural futures.

A contemporary CPR model is needed therefore to provide an approach to parcelling up private titles of adjacent farms to gain both ecological and socio-economic benefits that will be acceptable to farmers and their families. Under such a model, title can be retained while bundling up a much larger collective resource pool with scales of economy and production benefits while managing the land within its functional capacity. In practice, the essential questions become: How do we work out how to develop an agricultural commons in a contemporary federated nation state? How do we organize the production and resource use? What variety of options (corporate or other structures) are available to set it up? How can it remain flexible, but protect both individual landholders’ and the collective interests?

Answering these questions necessitates assessing natural capital across an ecological landscape that equates also with the collective of landholders – landholders who share, nurture, conserve, restore and harvest across the entire area. Areas better suited to certain activities allow farming such as cropping and haymaking to be performed on those areas most suited to cultivation and the remaining land may be used for grazing, conservation, restoration or a suitable diversification. Collectively expanding the area available removes the pressure for individual landholders to conduct these activities independently and on unsuitable locations and ensures cropping only the most suitable area in the subcatchment.

Tilbuster Commons –‘Beyond the boundary fence’

The Tilbuster Commons (Figs 1,2) is a CPR project established collaboratively by landholders in collaboration with researchers from the Centre for Bioregional Resource Management, University of New England, Armidale, in the New England ands (northern New South Wales). It was established as an ‘on-ground’ experiment, initially for a period of 3 years, with assistance for research and documentation provided by Land and Water Australia. It is located in the Tilbuster creek subcatchment, 20 km north of Armidale. The land covers approximately 1300 ha and is an amalgamation of the privately owned parcels of land of four grazing families, with individual properties varying in size between 60 and 600 ha.

Figure 1.

. The Tilbuster Commons project, established collaboratively by New England landholders and researchers to test the social and ecological value of collective management of a group of properties as one entity, draws considerably on characteristics of earlier commons once widespread throughout Europe and still functioning in other parts of the world.

Figure 2.

. Tilbuster Commons involves the collective management of four previously individual properties. The changed management is providing opportunities for increased efficiencies in agricultural production, more sustainable agricutural management practices, long-term conservation and maintenance of rare basalt-associated ecosystems and the restoration of woodland and stream environments.

The four grazing families have contributed land, livestock, infrastructure and labour to form the common property arrangement. These combined resources are managed collectively by the entire group as a single enterprise. Collectively known as the ‘Tilbuster Commons’ the members and their families are establishing a grazing arrangement with the aim of testing whether the CPR model is capable of delivering improved economic returns while ensuring the sustainability of the productive resource. The model is based on the allocation of resources for the maintenance of ecological integrity, achievable only through an integrated management regime at a more appropriate scale (Fig. 3).

Figure 3.

. Diagrammatic illustration of how the CPR refocuses strategic decision-making from spatial units based on individual private rights to the resource base as a ‘whole’. This enables more efficient and appropriate use of the ecological resources, time and labour, while providing additional scales of economy.

A number of sites were considered for establishing a trial of a contemporary CPR. The selection of the Tilbuster Valley was based on the fact that the social and ecological issues facing the community of the Tilbuster Valley (including an ageing rural population, succession issues, and rural unemployment) are similar to those that face rural communities generally. Consistent with many rural communities, the members of the valley also tend to provide both a supportive environment and assistance to each another. Another factor in the selection of the Tilbuster inhabitants was their initial enthusiasm for the project along with their concern for the long-term future of the valley and their willingness to recognize many of the issues associated with collaborative management.

Ecological condition

The Tilbuster Valley contains a variety of soils, from poorer granite through to richer basalt-derived soils, providing prime grazing land and some opportunity for farming activities along the higher quality soils along the creek. There are also remnants of native vegetation within the Tilbuster Commons area, much of which (such as rare basalt woodland) are considered poorly represented in the New England ands ecoregion (P. Pressey, pers. comm. 2001, see Benson & Ashby 2001)

The land types associated with each member's land parcel vary greatly. The smaller properties are not insignificant, however, because they consist almost entirely of very high quality alluvial or black soils. Two of the larger landholdings consist of more variable soil types, but also contribute some high value conservation areas. While there are larger single landholdings on the New England ands these four farms are typical of many of the landholdings managed in the area (i.e. average sizes from 60 to 200 ha) and issues associated with small farm size.

The Tilbuster Valley, while significantly modified from its previous condition, retains viable agricultural soils and pastures and has a persistent framework of native vegetation despite periodic insect-induced tree dieback and decline of native perennial grasses. Higher levels of ecological impacts (including erosion, altered nutrient status and weed invasion) occur on the creek land and surrounding vegetation due to access by livestock and early vegetation clearing regimes (Fig. 4). The area is located at the top of the watershed and still provides reasonable quality water.

Figure 4.

. Livestock and their impacts have been removed from the creek system at Tilbuster Commons due to collective management of riparian zones. Monitoring of faecal coliform counts and aquatic invertebrates indicates that water quality in the creek has substantially improved since new stock watering and rotational grazing regimes have been put in place.

The evolution of the Tilbuster CPR

After 2 years of discussion, facilitated by researchers from the Centre for Bioregional Resource Management (Institute for Rural Futures, UNE), the landholders formed an informal (unconstituted) arrangement in 1999, known as the Tilbuster Common Resource Cooperative (TCRC). While this had no legal standing, it provided an important social vehicle for the group to begin building necessary social capital required for the transformation towards whole system planning, resource allocation and collective decision-making (Brunckhorst 2001; 2002). The decision to participate was based initially, not on a set of hard and fast rules that were already in existence but on a guiding CPR philosophy, which, together with shared values and aspirations, became the guiding context for collectively managing issues that affected the group. This ‘philosophy’ and explicit, shared direction has become, and continues to be, an important set of criteria on which to test decisions. This probably marks the, albeit informal, beginning of the institutionalization of the Tilbuster Commons. Since its inception, trust, credibility and acceptance of each others strengths and weaknesses have grown. Over time, each participating member has been able to see the advantages of collaborating. Increasingly, there is confidence in the group's capability to negotiate equitable outcomes with multiple benefits (see Singleton 1998; Wondolleck & Yaffee 2000; on building trust, collaboration and cooperative informal institutions).

Over the next 18 months the group started to consider the kind of legal structures and corporate arrangements they needed. The group felt strongly, however, that the simplest structure providing flexibility would best serve them. The range of issues discussed included livestock management, planned grazing and pasture management, the strategic allocation of conservation and environmental rehabilitation areas, and the issues associated with the operation of the commons (such as management structure, bookkeeping, accounting). Other issues at the forefront of discussions included allocation of land to the common (small areas are retained for private use, primarily the areas around each member's home); selection of key infrastructure components; development of a ‘formula’ which represents the interests of each member in the common; and, allocation of land/resources to the maintenance of ecosystem function (which is recognized as underpinning principle for the productive sustainability of the common). Since that time the processes that guide the management of the Tilbuster Commons have been continually evolving through this collaborative process.

The Tilbuster Commoners, as they now enjoy being referred to, have taken for themselves the motto ‘beyond the boundary fence’ referring to the philosophical and conceptual position, upon which they have agreed, for managing collectively the resources of their individual properties. The group's holistic goal, which encapsulates their values and aspirations, is:

As individual owners, we’re working together as a collective for improved lifestyle, prosperity and land health.

Developing a legal structure for Tilbuster CPR

The group considered various legal structures to establish an entity to undertake the management and enterprise development of the common, including a Partnership, Trust, Co-operative and company and decided that a private company structure seemed to provide the best arrangement.

In January 2001, Tilbuster Commons Pty Ltd (Fig. 5) was registered and the group worked towards getting various elements in place for the company to start functioning in the next financial year. With an arrangement of a CPR and the collective decision-making and ‘holistic’ goals of the group, there is a useful tension between the individual landholder's interests and the collective interests of the group of landholders represented in the company. With both hats on, individuals are always considering the best options of benefit to themselves and the other members through the company.

Figure 5.

. The ‘Tilbuster Commoners’ considered various legal structures before deciding upon the structure of a private company. This allowed a share issue representing proportional contributions of land, stock, equipment, etc. and formed the basis for sharing profits. Fixed term leases, with options to renew, provide a mechanism with some stability and protection for both individuals (retaining land title) and the company (using and managing the whole resource base represented by all properties collectively).

The landholders, as directors of the company have a share issue based on the ‘formula’ agreed by all (representing proportional contributions of land, stock, equipment, etc. contributed by individual landowners), which also forms the basis for sharing profits. As Company directors they are making the collective decisions for running the enterprises of the collective and managing the whole resource base their land, and the creek that runs through it, represents across the landscape (Fig. 3).

Initially an informal ‘tenancy at will’ was created with the landholders and Lessors and the company as Lessee. This allowed the company to start a rotational grazing component across all properties. This has now become a fixed term lease, with options to renew (Williamson et al. 2003). A fixed term lease provides a mechanism with some stability and protection for both individuals (retaining land title) and the company (using and managing the whole resource base represented by all properties collectively; Fig. 3).

Individual and collective social benefits of this CPR include the freeing up of time and labour and the pooling of various expertise. This in turn helps build flexibility and enterprise resilience. For example, some simple but highly regarded benefits enjoyed by the Tilbuster Commoners include more efficient accounting and management practices, shared labour (but also less labour such as eliminating the need to crop for winter feed), the chance for families to ‘get away’ to have a real holiday and being able to leave the gate open when the livestock herd are on another property.

Opportunities for improved management ‘beyond the boundary fence

Under conventional property rights regimes, primary producers are required to fully utilize the resources available within their own property title boundaries in order to survive economically. A typical individual landholding may comprise some high quality soil that is suitable for cropping, grazing land that is generally not suitable for cropping, and some poorer areas barely suited to grazing. The type and mix of these areas will vary depending on the topography and soils of the region. Faced with various family and economic pressures and with only these resources at the landholder's disposal, there is often no option in an individual, conventional holding but to over-use, or inappropriately use, each type of resource. The productive riparian land is inevitably cropped, possibly for summer as well as winter feed for livestock; and grazing land might also need to be cropped; and stock will usually have access to the creek for water. The intermediate quality land will be grazed throughout the year and the poorer areas will slowly decline due to the impacts of livestock ‘wintering over’. In such conventional models, input costs tend to increase to help production and counter negative trends of water quality, parasite load and reducing production from both farmed and grazed areas.

A valuable aspect of the Tilbuster Commons CPR arrangement, in contrast to the conventional model, is the ability to allocate the available resources more efficiently, but within their functional capacity. The collective provides a unique opportunity for a group of graziers, who together own most of a subcatchment, to collectively work together to learn to operate a CPR system while still retaining their individual land title (Fig. 6). By recognizing the distinction between resource allocation and utilization (the geographical elements) and land tenure (a part of the institutional elements), these landholders may consolidate their herds and graze them across all the properties involved in the CPR (Fig. 3). This allows the utilization of grazing techniques such as planned grazing regimes over a much wider area (across all properties). The holistic management approach to planned grazing is slowly returning a mix of native grasses and certainly maintains improved ground cover (80–95%), with additional benefits for water infiltration (Earl & Jones 1996; Savory 1999). Input costs have been greatly reduced and production increased offering benefits including improved pasture and weed management, water and drought resilience. In addition, pest issues such as external and internal parasite control is now managed far more effectively, but with reduced costs in terms of fencing or chemical needs. No cropping for winter feed (nor purchase of feed) has been necessary so far and, while essential natural minerals are provided for stock, no super phosphate or similar fertilizer applications are now used. The net result has been a huge ‘freeing’ up of time and labour as well as costs. This has provided the opportunity for landholders to do other things – take a holiday, do some study, get a part-time job or follow another professional interest. So far, each landholder's dividend also represents a better (farm) income (increase by 15–20%) than they have been able to achieve previously as individuals.

Figure 6.

. Holistic resource management approaches have been adopted at a subcatchment scale, involving detailed planning of rotational grazing with long rest periods which promote deeper rooted grasses and improved water and nutrient capture to achieve a higher standing biomass.

The Tilbuster Commons has managed to completely remove the impacts of livestock on the creek system. Monitoring of faecal coliform counts and aquatic invertebrates indicates that water quality in the creek has substantially improved (Fig. 4). This is partly due to the landscape scale of pasture management and the grazing plan that allows long rest periods and generally a high standing biomass of pasture, together with fencing and rehabilitation of the creek across the properties. Alternative stock water has been obtained from a range of sources across the common and piped (cost effectively) across the previous barriers of ‘land title’ boundaries.

At broader and more meaningful ecological scales across the landscape, the project is providing opportunities for long-term conservation and maintenance of rare basalt-associated ecosystems and the restoration of woodland and stream environments (e.g. creek bed and riparian vegetation). This necessitates assessing the natural resources base across an ecological landscape that equates also with the collective of landholders that will learn to share, nurture, conserve, restore and harvest across the entire area. Through this process, all members learn and understand the ecological system better and together, and they can plan for the future more effectively. Areas better suited to certain activities allow farming such as cropping and haymaking (if needed) to be performed on those areas most suited to (and most resilient to) cultivation; with the remaining land perhaps being used for grazing, conservation, restoration or a suitable diversification. This removes the pressure for individual landholders to conduct these activities independently, on largely unsuitable locations. Collectively these farming enterprises are also more efficient and include the potential for scaling-up to more suitable resource use across all properties of the collective.

The future of Tilbuster Commons

Synergies arise when resources are managed by a collective. The Tilbuster Commons model enables the resources of the collective be managed as ‘wholes’. The size of the combined landholdings allows for improved scales of operation and the additional benefits of improved grazing methods. The model provides security of tenure to the members of the common while enabling the resources under the management of the common to be planned and understood in the larger scale landscape context, which more closely approaches ecosystem functional scales.

While it is still early days, the Tilbuster Commons model has generated sufficiently robust formal and informal institutions for its members to explore innovative options that should generate a premium return to the landowner directors of Tilbuster Commons Pty Ltd. The future plans of the Tilbuster Commoners include diversifications that seek niche opportunities supported by the sound risk management base provided by the common; organic certification and chemical free alternatives, and examining the native vegetation for medicinal purposes. These future options for the members of the common would not have been possible prior to the formation of the common.

Links to historic commons and lessons for broader application

Tilbuster Common's allocation of the productive resource within the ecological landscape resembles the methods adopted by early commons with their common fields, common-of-shack, and common-of-waste. This indicates an early recognition of the importance of the distinction between farming and grazing land at a various scales, the capacity of the resource, as well as allowing for broad scale (resource and ecological) recovery.

The establishment of a new ‘common’ requires the flexibility to accommodate novel corporate structures in order to do business and return profits in appropriate proportions to members. Another benefit of the CPR structure is the efficient utilization of the labour resource. Grazing and farming enterprises have an uneven seasonal labour requirement; and the ability to call on labour from within the common when it is required is valuable as it provides an opportunity to redeploy these resources to investigate alternative on-farm and more importantly off-farm diversifications. Labour is also available to undertake projects at a more suitable subcatchment or landscape scale such as ecological restoration of the riparian areas.

The CPR provides the structural vehicle for buffering the long-term risk associated with existing and new primary production ventures. An important aspect in relieving the productive pressure from these resources is the development and integration of off-farm income sources such as other business enterprises. The CPR provides an excellent vehicle for managing the risk associated with the start up and operational phases of these off-farm investments. In addition to economic savings and greater sustainability of grazing, a common covering a large area has the opportunity to greatly enhance ecological conservation. The freeing up of labour within the common increases the likelihood of conservation works being undertaken and reduces the overall pressure on the landscape. Collective decision-making enables more effective conservation due to allocation of a more appropriate scale in terms of landscape connectivity.

The Tilbuster Commons is an example of one of the CPR projects being developed on the New England Tablelands of eastern New South Wales. Its holistic integrated management of the social and natural resource components is creating a novel grazing and conservation CPR that adds weight to the claim that agricultural commons can indeed, be ‘triumphs’ rather than ‘tragedies’ for social and ecological sustainability (Coop & Brunckhorst 1999).


We have greatly benefited from discussions with many colleagues in the research development for this project, including Margaret McKean, Graham Marshall, Ian Reeve, Richard Price and Sima Williamson. We thank academics of the Law School, Department of History, Department of Politics, and School of Environmental Science and Natural Resource Management at the University of New England for sharing their wisdom. Thanks are especially due to the ‘Tilbuster Commoners’ who are making it happen, and Land and Water Australia and Natural Heritage Trust for funding elements of this research.