In the Vrancea Mountains of Romania, the Eastern Carpathians, people in dozens of villages have used community-based institutions known as obştea to manage forest commons since the sixteenth century.1 The original sense of the word, coming from Slavonic, is “togetherness,” and it underlines the participatory essence of the institution. The traditions of obştea are so deeply rooted among Vrâncean villagers that the forest is not regarded simply as a resource; it is a powerful source of collective identity, social practice and pride that has near-mythological resonances. The effectiveness of obştea as a customary institution, however, has been profoundly affected by the rise of extractive technologies, the fifty-year reign of communism (1948-1989), and by the surge of modern markets. Through it all, people have cherished their affective relationship with their forests and the obştea form of forest management.
The institution of obştea was not founded at a precise moment or as a contractual organization. Legend tells us that in the sixteenth century Stephen the Great endowed the founders of seven villages for their military merits with communal ownership of the Vrancea Mountains.
Villages of the region jointly possessed the mountains for generations (only interrupted by state ownership during the communist regime), a unique circumstance in Romania and a rarity in Europe. Initially, the whole region owned the entire mountain area (Stahl 1958) in devalmaşie. The first division of the land among villages occurred in 1755, followed by another five divisions until the last one in 1840. The divisions were made to meet the pasturing needs of each village and to resolve a political conflict.2 By the end of the nineteenth century, villagers’ access to their forests became more and more restricted as exploitation technologies improved and wood became a valuable commodity associated with money, and social status. During this period, several powerful foreign forestry companies, especially from Austria and Italy, struck deals with local elites for leasing and exploiting large areas of forest. In several villages, with the money yield, the old elites worked for the best of the community, building schools, village halls and communal baths. In others, the locals’ collective memory remembers elites who deceived people to sell their use rights, often for a pack of cigarettes. The foreign companies ended their activity in Vrancea by the beginning of the First World War, after committing massive deforestation.
The Romanian state introduced its first forestry statute, The Forestry Code, in 1910, giving obştea formal legal recognition. The law required villagers to obtain vouchers from a local committee (without payment) to harvest lumber, as well as certificates to transport it. These regulations were mostly seen as unnecessary formalities and were not strictly followed at the time. Instead, customary norms continued to serve as effective regulation.
The obştea might have slowly transformed from a socially embedded institution into a modern organizational form except that, in 1948, the Communist Party came to power and the state seized all communal forest property. In the 1950s there were a number of serious fights in Vrancea between villagers belonging to the Anticommunist Resistance Movement, and communist authorities. Several people were killed, and some were imprisoned. These events, along with an outmigration of educated people from rural areas, led to a loss of capable local elites. Many obştea traditions were lost or receded.
Locals’ experiences during the communist period varied a great deal from village to village, and even within the same village. Some people worked as wage earners within state structures. Others stole wood from their former common property with the tacit acceptance of local authorities. A black market for wood arose alongside the legitimate market, facilitated by bribes paid to party officials. I found in my study of forest usage during the communist period that “having” and “owning” were not very important. More important was access and use, which were facilitated in many ways, both legal and illegal, usually involving state officials and corrupt practices.
Immediately after the fall of communism, restitution politics gave way to new property relations (Hann 1998) and regulation and governance entailed a lot of legal fuzziness (Verdery 1999).
Collective property rights were re-established only in 2000. Meanwhile, local businesses involved with timber extraction flourished. These new businesses did not contribute to local economic development; they offered mostly black market, and low-wage jobs, but they played an influential role in the evolution of obştea institutions because many of them, in flagrant conflicts-of-interest, also served as decisionmakers.
Nowadays, twenty nine obştea institutions continue to function in Vrancea, managing around 65,000 hectares of forest. Each village owns between 1,500 and 14,000 hectares for a population that may range from 800 to 5,000. The restoration process stipulated that the obştea institutions should follow the model of the old organizational structures and that each obştea has the right to modify their statutory norms, according to local situations, with the agreement of the village assembly.
Men and women have equal property rights, although men participate more in assemblies and do more of the forestry work. The guiding principles of managing forestland in the Vrancea Mountains were (and still are) indivisibility, inalienability and equal sharing. A fundamental characteristic is the equal participation of every individual. But the individual does not hold any measurable right or own a precise plot; the only entitlement is the “right to be a member.” Membership includes the right to vote in the village assembly and to receive an annual quota of wood, which changes according to assembly-based decisions about individual shares. An executive committee, ruled by a president, together with the village assembly, manages each common forest. Villagers elect the committee and the president by a secret democratic vote. The committee handles all administrative operations, including organizing the village assemblies, auctions for selling timber, and distributing annual shares of wood to commoners. The participatory framework is excellent in principle, but in practice there are problems with poor attendance at assemblies, fears about the integrity of vote-counting, conflicts of interest, and a limited pool of capable councilors.
Today, an average of 20 percent of obştea-managed wood goes toward household consumption and the rest (usually in the form of monetary profit) towards improvement of local infrastructure. Locals receive as their share a quantity of one to three cubic meters of firewood per year, per family, and the same quantity of timber, with the right to sell it locally, and not beyond the borders of the obştea. The estimated value of the wood in 2006 for a household of two adults was about 80 euros per year, or about 5 percent of the average annual household income of 1,500 euros in the villages studied.
The legend of the commons’ origins stands as a source of legitimacy for present-day property arrangements. This “once upon a time story” is widely remembered and frequently repeated, with the forest perceived as a “legacy from Stephen the Great.” It amounts to a kind of emotional capital that villagers in the Vrancea Mountains draw upon to reassert their collective local identity and history. The symbolic and affective dimension of property, as managed by obştea, is thus reinforced. Most locals cannot conceive the idea of dividing up their forests because it would violate “the old way.” Some people see the rights to use the mountains as a compensation for the vrânceni (as people there are called) for not having access to the prosperous, arable land of the plains. Collective property is seen as a simple historical fact – a given. Even though the quality and quantity of the allotted forest land varies from one village to the next, the initial act appears as indubitable: “This is the way Stephen gave it to us!”
Not surprisingly, feelings, perceptions and meaning matter a great deal in the participation of members and in the management of obştea – and these emotions are dynamic and evolving over time and different circumstances. The relationship between these locals and their forest is more complicated than the familiar “peasant attachment” to the land because what they own essentially involves a diffuse material resource and a shared experience: a use-right in the commons. Yet, from the survey I conducted in 2005-2006,3 42.2 percent say that feel “a lot” like proprietors of the commons. Another 32.7 percent consider themselves proprietors “to some extent” and 24.1 percent “not at all.” Memories, lived and repeated to others, enhance people’s emotional attachment to the commons. Older locals seem to have a fonder regard for their communal forests than the younger generation, and are more supportive of the current organizational practices.
I found in my extensive fieldwork with ten communities in the region4 that people spoke of the forest as property in contradictory terms. The meaning of property is locally expressed in two different registers – property as an affective symbol of inheritance and identity, and property as a material, functional resource for use. They use a rhetoric of community pride in owning and managing historic lands using established practices and traditions, as well as a rhetoric of deprivation, as local or national elites illicitly seize most of the forests’ benefits. Feelings of deprivation and injustice arise when obştea is perceived through the lens of its ruling structure, as a group of “corrupt opportunists.” Eighty-nine percent of respondents in my survey perceive that obştea, understood as its managing committee, does nothing or too little for the communities.
In the post-communist era, there has been a resurgence of pride and memory of the pre-communist-era obştea. Yet, there are also struggles to deal with corrupt practices, conflicts over the fair distribution of wood and profits, and poor local leadership. Part of the problem is that the legal framework of commons is not clear or detailed on many matters. Another problem is that there are no local mechanisms to resolve conflicts in low-cost ways. Both customary and state laws appear to be ineffective when corruption is too pervasive or when conflicts escalate. Ambiguous circumstances can easily result in an “adhocracy” that allows self-interested opportunists to exploit the collective good.
Yet despite these challenges, I have found in my studies of Vrâncean villages that there is a remarkably strong support for obştea as an institution of collective identity and purpose. Managing the forest is not all about calculations, performance, material value and revenues. It is also about affective relationships and symbolic meaning as reflected in collective memory, tradition and identity. These affective dimensions keep people interested in and involved in the processes related to their forest property even if the external forces of the state, market and local officials may work in other directions.
Hann, Chris. 1998. “Introduction: The Embeddedness of Property.” In C.M. Hann, editor, Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stahl, H. Henri. 1958. Contributii la studiul satelor devalmase romanesti [Contributions in Studying Romanian Joint Property Villages]. Bucuresti. Editura Academiei
———. 1980. Traditional Romanian Village Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Prss.
Vasile, Monica. 2006. “Obştea today in the Vrancea Mountains, Romania. Self Governing Institutions of Forest Commons.” Sociologie Romaneasca[Romanian Sociology]. 4(3):111-130.
———. 2007. “Sense of Property, Deprivation and Memory in the Case of Obştea Vrânceana.” Sociologie Romaneasca [Romanian Sociology]. 5(2):114-129.
———. 2008. “Nature Conservation, Conflict and Discourses around Forest Management: Communities and Protected Areas from Meridional Carpathians.” Sociologie Romaneasca [Romanian Sociology]. 6(3-4):87-100.
Vasile, Monica and Liviu Mantescu. 2009. “Property reforms in rural Romania and community-based forests.” Sociologie Romaneasca [Romanian Sociology]. 7(2):95-113
Verdery, Katherine. 1999. “Fuzzy property: rights, power, and identity in Transylvania’s decollectivization.” pp. 53-81. In M. Burawoy and K. Verdery, editors. Uncertain Transitions: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocialist World. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Teaser photo credit: By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=845351