(Re)building historical commons: exploring forest commoning as a transformative practice in the Northwestern Iberian Peninsula. PhD-defence by Marta Nieto Romero

Friday December 16, 2022, during a ceremony from 13.30-15.00, Marta Nieto Romero will defend her PhD thesis ‘(Re)building historical commons. Exploring forest commoning as a transformative practice in the Northwestern Iberian Peninsula‘ in the auditorium of the Omnia building of Wageningen University and Research. See here for more information and a link to the live broadcast or recording of the ceremony. The PhD-thesis will be available at WUR Library after a successful defence. Below a Summary of the PhD-thesis.


commons is a social organizational system where all interested parties participate in the collective use and care for common resources with an emphasis on open access, fair usage and long-term sustainability. While commons have received substantial scientific attention, we know little on how commons’ systems emerge and are sustained over time; in other words, the common-ing practices. The thesis investigated how forest are commoned and become the basis for building thriving communities both in rural and urban areas. It followed a case-study approach with two cases in Galicia (Spain), and one in North region of Portugal (North-western Iberian Peninsula). Methods included interviews, participant observation and a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project where people’s meaningful experiences in forests were collected and shared with the broader community to understand the role of affects in driving participation. The thesis offer understanding on why/how humans engage in caring for their places, and why is this relevant for sustainability transformations.

Thesis Opportunities: Diverse economies of food, agriculture, and nature in Galicia, Spain

In the field of diverse economies, researchers have paid particular attention to diverse forms of economic organisation and exchange that make up our food system, disrupting dominant development narratives that privilege capital, markets, wages, private property and mainstream financing (Gibson-Graham, 2006). Examples in the literature are multifunctional agriculture (Renting et al., 2009), communal land use (Soto, 2014; Caballero, 2015), ecosystem service provisioning (Bolund and Hunhammar, 1999; Braat and De Groot, 2012), and sharing food or skills to reduce waste, or foster greater food security (Davies et al., 2017). These manifestations of diverse economies are often captured and explained through the theoretical lens of the social economy, an umbrella term used to describe a variety of third sector, cooperative, voluntary, non-profit, and social enterprise initiatives that put social and environmental well-being before profit.

Problem definition / hypothesis 

In Galicia, a ‘green’ region in the northwest corner of Spain, industrialisation and urbanisation mainly takes part in the coastal area. The mountainous interior consists of forests and pastures for beef and dairy cattle, creating a strong divide between the urban and the rural, and their development pathways. Primary production, with relatively low added value, remains important to Galicia’s economic production. The daily fabric of life, in rural but also in industrial-urban environments, is anchored in what can be termed the social economy. Whilst formal collaborative and/or cooperative approaches to market access or income generation are often lacking, the question pops up – whether and how these everyday practices (can) build upon existing social economy dynamics. This research seeks to understand, how communities in these places negotiate social, economic, and environmental concerns by practicing diverse economies in urban and rural areas, and how these practices can contribute to realizing social economies

Communal forestry and mountain farming

Empirical studies in Galicia on the diverse economies of food, agriculture, and nature (i.e. the local resource base, e.g. ecosystems services, green infrastructure, or more theoretically: ecological capital) will contribute to the (yet often) unrecognised role of the social economy in bringing about economic development in relation to provisioning of ecosystem services and/or green infrastructure.

Depending on the preferences of individual students for empirical research subjects, and a possibly simultaneous implementation of MSc thesis projects,  research subjects can consist of communal (agro) forestry (in urban and/or rural contexts), mountain farming (in more remote rural areas), or a combination of these.

Research topics include but are not limited to:

  • Mapping diverse economies of food, agriculture, and nature: initiatives and projects (focus: forestry and farm activities), community and/or household configurations, collaboration (different aggregation levels), payments and income strategies (private and public goods), availability of regional policy support schemes, support structures for similar initiatives elsewhere
  • Developing strategies to enhance local business opportunities (forestry and farming activities, food and other ecosystem service provisioning in relation to e.g. gastronomy and tourism), identify and describe heterogeneity in best practices, report bottlenecks in relation to place-based development (taking into account spatial relationships)

Planning of an MSc thesis research project

The overall goal of these MSc thesis projects are to a) advance our understanding of the diverse and social economies in rural, peri-urban and urban areas, and b) identify and promote policies, governance models and practices that foster this type of social innovation, with the aim to also enhance more mainstream economic production: contribute to creating value added, market access, and additional farm income for primary producers.

An assignment will be drawn up together with the student: an initial research plan in advance to leaving to Galicia for the field research, and a more definitive plan at arrival, in collaboration with local stakeholders.

Research requires a stay of 3 months or longer at the University of Vigo / in Galicia.

Start date: Spring or Summer 2019


  • You have training in qualitative methods and are able to conduct qualitative research in Spanish or Galician (Thesis is written in English)
  • You have an interest in engaging diverse stakeholders in participatory and collaborative research
  • You have one or more of the following skills and/or interests: able to use basic excel and mapping tools; interest in diverse economies and social innovation and/or spatial relationships; experience with assessment and evaluation
  • You are registered for one of the following MSc programmes: MID, MCS, MLP, MFT, or MOA
  • You have completed at least 2 RSO courses (or other relevant social science courses)
  • Questions? Please get in touch!

Supervisors: RSO Oona Morrow oona.morrow@wur.nl & GEN Paul Swagemakers paul.swagemakers@uvigo.es (University of Vigo, Galicia, Spain)

Works cited & further reading:

Bolund, P., Hunhammar, S., 1999. Ecosystem services in urban areas. Ecological Economics 29, 293–301

Braat, L.C., De Groot, R., 2012. The ecosystem services agenda: bridging the worlds of natural science and economics, conservation and development, and public and private policy. Ecosystem Services, 1, 4–15.

Caballero, G.,2015. Community-based forest management institutions in the Galician communal forests: a new institutional approach. Forest Policy and Economics 50, 347–356

Davies, A.R., Edwards, F., Marovelli, B., Morrow, O., Rut, M., Weymes, M., 2017. Making visible: Interrogating the performance of food sharing across 100 urban areas. Geoforum 86, 136-149

Gibson-Graham, J.K., 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

Gibson-Graham, J. K., 2008. Diverse economies: performative practices for other worlds’. Progress in Human Geography, 32(5), 613-632

Jongerden, J.P., 2018. Living Structures : Methodological Considerations on People and Place. In: Methodological Approaches in Kurdish Studies. Baser, B., Toivanen, M., Zorlu, B., Duman, Y. (Eds.), Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield Publisher), Lanham, 21 – 33

Morrow, O., Dombroski, K., 2015. Enacting a Postcapitalist Politics through the Sites and Practices of Life’s Work. In: Precarious Worlds: Contested Geographies of Social Reproduction. Meehan, K., Stauss, K. (Eds.), University of Georgia Press, Georgia

Öztürk, M., Topaloğlu, B., Hilton, A., Jongerden, J., 2017. Rural‒Urban Mobilities in

Turkey: Socio-spatial Perspectives on Migration and Return Movements, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 20(5), 513 – 530

Renting, H., Rossing, W.A.H., Groot, J.C.J., van der Ploeg, J.D., Laurent, C., Perraud, D., Stobbelaar, D.J., van Ittersum, M.K., 2009. Exploring multifunctional agriculture: a review of conceptual approaches and prospects for an integrative transitional framework. Journal of Environmental Management 90, 112–123

Soto, D., 2014. Community, institutions and environment in conflicts over commons in Galicia, northwest Spain (18th–20th centuries). International Journal on Strikes  and Social Conflicts 5, 58–76

Swagemakers, P., Domínguez García, M.D., Milone, P., Ventura, F., Wiskerke, J.S.C., in press. Exploring cooperative place-based approaches to restorative agriculture. Journal of Rural Studies. Online first, doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2018.12.003

Swagemakers, P., Dominguez Garcia, M.D., Wiskerke, J.S.C., 2018.  Socially-innovative development and value creation: how a composting project in Galicia (Spain) ‘hit the rocks’. Sustainability 10(6), 2040

Swagemakers, P., Dominguez Garcia, M.D., Onofa Torres, A., Oostindie, H., Groot, J.C.J., 2017. A values-based approach to exploring synergies between livestock farming and landscape conservation in Galicia (Spain). Sustainability 9(11), 1987

Wiskerke, J.S.C., Verhoeven, S., 2018. Flourishing foodscapes: designing city-region food systems. Valiz, Amsterdam

Wiskerke, J.S.C., 2009. On places lost and places regained: reflections on the alternative food geography and sustainable regional development. International Planning Studies 14(4), 369-387




Balancing between governing styles – participatory processes in Galicia

By Marlies Meijer, graduated MSc-student

In previous blogs (see e.g. my second post on Planning realities in Galicia) I have written about my journey to Galicia and the difficulties and interesting views I came across while investigating planning and rural development practices there. In June this journey came to an end, I finished my master thesis and graduated (full thesis report ‘Balancing between governing styles: participatory practices in rural Galicia‘   is available online).

When writing my thesis I spent a lot of time on untangling the complex background of problems experienced in rural Galicia. Now I have been asked to write shortly about the conclusions to introduce the thesis. It is not an easy task, but I will try. 

One of the main problems in Galicia is land abandonment. Many people own land, but most parcels are too small and dispersed to manage. Due to many reasons most owners are not willing or able to maintain or sell their land. A great deal of these parcels have been afforested, with EU-subsidies. Unfortunately also forested parcels turned out to be ill-managed and not economically viable. With the implementation of forest management units the government of Galicia (Xunta) tried to tackle these problems. Within these units parcels are managed jointly, as one area. This makes forestry more economic viable and diverse; and forest fire safety measures or road construction more feasible. The most important precodition and goal of this project is the active involvement of citizens. Though this is the first participatory project in Galicia, many have been implemented in the EU. Galicia followed this example.

The problem with citizen involvement (or participatory processes) is that it takes two to tango, and sometimes even the ability of citizens to dance on their own. In Galicia the Xunta was a step ahead. Citizens did not show an endogenous will to participate actively, they were involved on paper and felt that maintenance was the task of Xunta. The Xunta conversely was very willing to make this policy a succes. Setting good examples and attracting as many owners as possible dominated. By overtaking responsibilities of owners (like administratory tasks and costs) and with charisma this process was streamlined. Nonetheless, as many interviewees responded, a participatory approach was also “the only way” to deal with problems like land abandonment or ill-managed forests. And it is true, inactive ownership forms the root of these problems and needs to be dealt with.

By studying this project it became clear that Galicia’s government was balancing between different style of governance. On the one hand are the old, clientalistic, ways of policy making in which the governments are in charge and take care of everything. On the other hand there is the new participatory approach that the Xunta aimed for when implementing the uxfor-policy. While looking for a balance, several areas of tensions emerged:

  • The policy-makers wanted to establish success quickly. By taking care of almost all aspects of implementation, it was possible to found uxfors in an efficient and quick way. However, creating active citizenship takes usually much more time and patience.
  • It was difficult to involve the citizen actively. The Xunta wanted to create active citizenship, but citizens expected the government to take care of common affairs. Citizens felt this was out of their responsibilities.
  • Land abandonment and depopulation are deep-rooted problems at the Galician countryside. The uxfor-policy tried to deal with these developments. But how can active citizenship be stimulated if the largest part of the population is well over 65, and most landowners live in other regions?

These conclusions hold close relations with other parts of Europe. Also here the participatory approach is gaining ground and are governments and citizens struggeling (in different ways) with its implementation. Depopulation and land abandonment also prevail in other marginal rural areas.

Despite the above mentioned comments on participatory processes in Galicia I respect the Xunta highly for their ability to ‘just’ do something, to start a project and not getting diluted by all kinds of problems (like bureaucracy) that might rise in the beginning.

Land abandonment in Galicia

By Marlies Meijer (MSc-student)

Land Abandonment in Galicia

Land abandonment in Galicia

As I wrote earlier, I am balancing between the multiple realities of Galicia. Now, several weeks later I’m still balancing. Off course everything is different than the assumptions and hypotheses I had in the Netherlands. The rural situation here is complex and has many faces. For the moment I am trying to untangle the different storylines I encounter here. Hopefully one or two are nice enough to work out and to connect to a more theoretical storyline. It is a delicate job, which can only be completed in Spanish (I never realised that almost closed scientific communities existed because of language barriers) and with as less generalisation as possible, as ‘everything is different is Galicia’. It also implies that I have to let go of my Dutch reality and leave behind the loose ends I developed back home.

Land abandonment  – One of the storylines I encountered is land abandonment. Almost 25 % of the Galician countryside is abandoned, with far-reaching effects. In the Netherlands we would call an abandoned parcel new nature or verrommeld (messy). Here it implies higher chances for forest fires and agricultural devaluation. Rural Galicia exists of many small farms, with small parcels and above all many land owners. Most landowners simply own land, they do not live there, nor do they use the land for (agricultural) production. Because of low costs it is possible to own land, and leave it more or less abandoned. Most owners do not want to sell their land, they prefer to keep it as a capital resource for economically bad times, or in case its value increases because of urban expansion or afforestation. Some owners are simply not aware of the fact that they own land. Because of a malfunctioning administrative system and a lack of a clear spatial policy these situations can occur everywhere and to everyone, only no one knows exactly where.

On the other hand most farmers or peasants are not able to buy extra land. Their resources are limited. In the past decades the most substantial farmers already invested in milk quota, machinery and other devices in order to catch up with the rest of Europe.

The result is a situation where spatial and rural developments are fixated. Measures are developed to loosen the situation; for instance a land bank to facilitate renting land to other users, in order to mobilise the land market. But also these measures encounter problems.

On the one hand, Galicia struggles with policies from the past and large measures (top down) that are needed to change and improve the rural situation. Modernisation, like elsewhere in Europe, did not take place in Galicia. Notwithstanding the problems it brought to other countries, it is a phase needed in this country to improve the quality of life on the countryside. On the other hand, we do live in an era where bottom-up approaches and local participation are preferred, also in Galicia this is an hot item. How these two extremes are intertwined seems to me an interesting starting point for further research in Galicia.

Balancing between multiple realites

By Marlies Meijer, MSc-student combining Land Use Planning and Rural Sociology

“Only when we travel, and meet strangers, do we recognise other ways of being human” (Patsy Healey in Collaborative Planning, after Latour).

city - countryside transition in galicia

city - countryside transition in galicia

So here I am, travelling (or balancing) between land use planning and rural sociology, my Dutch planning knowledge and the Galician rural reality, between reading in Gallego, speaking in Castellano, writing in English and chatting in Dutch, between the Spanish working hours and my Dutch empty stomach.

As many students I wanted to stay abroad for a long period of time during my MSc. For students in rural sociology this is probably a logical highlight of their studies; students in land use planning leave their country less frequently. I wanted to go anyway. Since my interest in rural dynamics and policy making processes, contact with the RSO group was established quickly, together with the possibility to go to Galicia, Northern Spain.

Back in the Netherlands, I was aware of the Dutch context of my education so far. Most examples provided are Dutch, or could be placed in the planning Dutch context. I wanted to broaden my scope, go somewhere where policy making is less evident and face the effect of a different cultural context, but also to experience a real rural area. Now I find it hard to let the familiar Dutch context go and to explain what I exactly do study in the Netherlands (something like geography, people making plans and rural development) and what my research is about (even more vague). Multi-faceted policy, focussed on the spatial environment, does not exist here, as it exists in the Netherlands. So I keep on balancing, and exploring and let myself be surprised every day by the Galician way of doing.

Marlies also has a personal blog (in Dutch):  http://marliesengalicia.blogspot.com/