Interview of Paola: Common goods management and sustainability in agriculture: the example of the “agrarian universities” in Italy

Interview université agraire Expo2015To answer to the main question of the next Universal Exposition Will it be possible to ensure a sufficient, sustainable and healthy nutrition, to the whole humanity?” we need to question our way to manage the natural resources, in particular the agricultural resources. Not only concerning the culture methods (intensive agriculture, bio…), but also the type of management: public, private or else.

I met Paola V.e.r.d.o.l.o.t.t.i in September 2014 during a conference over the issue of “Collective management of the territory and food security”, organized in Rome within the event Giro del Gusto at the Swiss cultural Institute of Rome. Paola works in the field of collective management of the natural resources through historical-juridical analysis of the experience of “Agrarian University” in Italy. Agrarian universities are a collective way of manage natural resources of a territory.

We met again in November for this interview. Thanks again to Paola for her availability and kindness.

Enjoy the reading!


First of all, Paola, the most important question: who are you and what do you do?

I’m a researcher at the University of Cassino and Lazio Meridionale (UNICLAM) and I collaborate with Professor Pasquale Beneduce, professor of history of law and institutions, who also works on the work of Danilo Dolci and on the issue of public water in Sicily in the fifties.

In particular, the object of my studies is the experience of Agrarian Universities in Italy between the nineteenth and twentieth century, which is a residual but consistent expression of collective management models of the natural resources, analyzing in particular the case of the Agrarian University of Tolfa, province of Rome, not so far from Civitavecchia.

Italia TolfaWhat is an agrarian university and where do they stand in the reality of territory management in Italy?

Agrarian universities are a collective way of manage natural resources of the territory. Example: agricultural land /wood/meadows / rivers.  The resources belong to every member of the university, without public or private propriety, and are available to all users that are in the meantime managing and protecting the resources.  In Italian law, agrarian university are a legal entity with a own status and rules that are defined by the users themselves,  rules that therefore come from the bottom as a result of a dialogue between them. Rules are both flexible and rigorous. For instance, to use land, a system of division of the land by quotas and assignation by drawing lots exist.

These rules however are changing in time, are very detailed and adapted to the specificity of the territory and the users.  Those rules also define the operating of the structure. At first, the users of the Tolfa agrarian university were only farmers and breeder. Today, after many status changes, all the residents of the city of Tolfa are considered member of the university. Being a member means have a right to vote for choosing the governing bodies of the university: presidency, board, council…

This type of management of land is still much diffused in central Italy. In the Lazio region, collective management of resources represent more or less 500 000 hectare (on a total of 3 million hectares of collective land in Italy, namely 10% of the national territory!), in which 60 000 hectares are managed by agrarian universities. In Lazio, there are still 88 working agrarian universities, the one of Tolfa manage 6 590 hectares of land, meadows and wood.

Could you explain us the historical evolution of agrarian universities through the case of Tolfa?

The history of Tolfa agrarian university reflects the historical evolution of Italy from the XVIII liberal century to the fascism, republican period up to now where significant changes in the structure and management of the university are notable. The origin of the university can be found in the XVII and XVIII century. During this period, two different universities existed: the one of farmers and the one breeder. They got reunited is 1870 under the name of the university of farmers and breeders of Tolfa.

During the liberal age, agrarian university where recognized by the State through two laws; one of 1988 and one of 1894, up until a reform of 1927 which aimed at reorganizing the civics use of territory. Despite this national law (still existing) mostly opposite to this type of management of resources, most of the agrarian university of Lazio Region still are in activity, proving that their system was able to guarantee the sustainability of the resources for the future generation.

And now, what is the role of Tulsa agrarian university?

Screenshot - Sito web dell'università agraria di Tolfa

Screenshot – Tulsa agrarian university website

From the sixties, request for land use decrease in the context of rural exodus and development of the service sector. Collaborative spirit and user’s participation progressively reduced, forcing the university to modify and adapt its original functions to new historical, social and economic scenario. Today the main role of university is to protect landscape, and municipally support its function. The university manages for instance a cereal and breeding company that in its main function has to safeguard and select some endangered bovine and horses’ species, guaranteeing a high biodiversity level of the area.

After all, agrarian universities, as the one of Tolfa, restructure their connections to the territory many times in history. To simplify, I would say that from an “use” in terms of using and cultivate lands – that was respecting a collective and non-individualist rationality, always careful about the preservation of resources.

Could you explain better the debate on collective/private management of the resources?

tragedy of the commons Expo2015

I don’t feel comfortable in explaining you this debate which I find stimulating and very complex at the same time. Nevertheless, I can try to explain you what was the path leading me to the issue of Agrarian Universities, thanks to which I could go deeper into the question you have outlined. The issue of collective/private management of the resources is related to the development of the concept of “common good” in the second half of the nineteenth century, among the scientific community.

The issue of common goods, as far as I got to know, involves different know how, from economy to law, to social sciences. It is a plural debate, and this aspect implies a great richness and complexity, which enabled me to identify and to increase the value of Agrarian Universities.

Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom

Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom

As I was telling you, the debate you refer to dates back to the economic thinking, in particular to the studies of Elinor Ostrom (first women Nobel Prize winner for Economics in 2009) of the nineties of the last century. She answered to the theory of the “tragedy of the common goods”, advanced in the sixties by Garrett Hardin and linked to the over exploitation of the common goods by the individuals. According to Elinor Ostrom, it does exist a solution in the middle between private and public management of common goods, the collective management of resources. She encourages to the so-called “local empowerment”, claiming this way to manage the natural resources, resulted from the experiences examined, as a proper way to use and preserve them in a sustainable and fair way.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the scientific community has shown a renewed attention to this topic, thanks to a very innovative book by Paolo Grossi, published in 1977, entitled “A different way to own”. This work gave the opportunity for resurgence in the history of law of the nineteenth century of the predominance of collective rights over the rights linked to the individual property (granted by the modern codes, starting with the Code Civil of 1804).

The legal experts (Stefano Rodotá, just to mention one) have recently started a complex thinking over the issue of common goods, which recalls also the former economic discussion, posing open questions, which were useful and fascinating for my research: starting from the meaning of “common good”, to the definition of its content; from the difficulty to place precisely, within the Italian judicial system, some experiences of collective management of the natural resources existing on the national territory, to the identification of a sustainable model of access and exploitation of the common resources.

How the management of agrarian universities can bring knowledge as regard to sustainable development?

According to me (a researcher who is still working on its training and is leading a research project still at its beginning) the agrarian universities experiences cannot be reproduced in an identical manner as universal and perfect way of managing resourcing. However, the study of these local realities can be very useful to launch a reflection on a more sustainable use of resources and of the creation of the more sustainable way of doing agriculture.

These experiences and their history could be used a good basis for a change course, a resistance vis à vis of consumerist logics that are today dominating world markets, contributing to the creation of a more fair and rational system where national resources are used in function of effective need of people maximizing human wellbeing.

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