Portrait of a commoner: Silke Helfrich

Via David Bollier:

“If there is one thing that Silke Helfrich has learned in her world travels, it is the cross-cultural appeal of the commons. As the director of the German-based Heinrich Boll Foundation’s office in Mexico City from 1999 to 2007, Helfrich and her team hosted one of the first major international conferences on the commons, in 2006, bringing together commoners from throughout Latin America, North America and Europe.

The event was a rare gathering in which rural farmers and free-culture advocates, water activists and opponents of genetically modified crops, could begin to forge a shared language of the commons. To be sure, there were semantic challenges in translating the concept of the commons, especially when the very idea allows for so many different varieties and versions.

But the commoners at that event also shared a great deal. Many of them had suffered personally from destructive neoliberal trade policies, the privatization of public services and deregulation of government protections. Their communities had suffered from enclosures of land and crops that decimated people’s livelihoods and local ecosystems. In such circumstances, a language of the commons — or bienes comunes in Spanish — makes a lot of sense.

“Forty-nine per cent of the seed market is concentrated in the hands of only four companies, five companies control 90 per cent of the copyrights in the music industry,” notes Helfrich. “Whatever area we look at, we are confronted with concentration — of control, money, and power. These processes of concentration have an immediate impact on the rights of use of everyone and on the vitality and diversity of the commons.”

Now living in her native Germany, Helfrich engages with activists, academics, business people and politicians, especially in the Green Party, to explain the strategic value of talking about the commons. She travels throughout Europe meeting with leading theorists of the commons and frontline activists. She works with academics and groups such as the International Association for the Study of Commons. Since 2007, she has published the latest news about commons developments on her German-language blog, www.commonsblog.de.

Helfrich is also a prolific essayist and book editor on commons subjects. Who Owns the World? The Rediscovery of the Commons was published in 2008, featuring essays by a wide range of international authors, including Elinor Ostrom, Richard Stallman, Sunita Narain, Ulrich Steinvorth, Peter Barnes, Oliver Moldenhauer and Pat Mooney. (It appears in English, German and Spanish. The Spanish version is more focused on Latin America and has different authors)

The commons makes sense to Helfrich because it gets beyond the classic division of haves and have-nots, of owners and non-owners, and of public and private. “The commons is about the missing third element — people as active participants, co-owners and citizens in their communities, people with relationships of responsibility toward each other and the resources that we all share together.”

1 Comment Portrait of a commoner: Silke Helfrich

  1. Pingback: The Commons – a paradigm gaining political relevance « CommonsBlog

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